In an anarchic international system in which international law is at best weak and at worst toothless and ignored, questions of duties beyond borders are difficult ones. Do states have obligations, be they legal or moral, to actors outside of their own political control? Many issues of international politics touch on this question, such as promulgation of human rights, but in no case is the problem raised more clearly than in the issue of biofuels. As I blogged about last week, there is strong evidence that the push by developed states to develop biofuels is directly contributing to recent food shortages by artificially encouraging under-production of food crops (not to mention that fact that biofuels may be worse for the environment than the fuels they replace). This has led to a call from many leading food scientists to cease producing food-based biofuels, an action which they claim could reduce the price of corn by 20% and wheat prices by 10%. So, if the actions of the developed states are causing food shortages in the developing world, does the developed world have any obligation to change its policies?
Not according to President Bush. In a recent press conference, the president called for the US to increase the use of ethanol (the leading biofuel) to reduce rising fuel prices and to reduce American energy dependence. According to Bush, "it's in our national interest that our farmers grow energy, as opposed to us purchasing energy from parts of the world that are unstable or may not like us."
While other states are moving away from the production of biofuels, the US is by far the largest global producer, so unless the US does so as well, there is likely to be little impact on prices (not to mention that collective action problems will dissuade others from stopping production if the US won't). The impact of biofuel production on food prices is disputed: President Bush asserted that 15% of the recent rise is due to biofuels, while the US Department of Agriculture put the number at 20%. Furthermore, "a soon to be released International Food Policy Research Institute analysis blames 30 percent of the overall food price rise from 2000-2007 on biofuels, while a [biofuel] industry-funded study put the food cost rise at 4 percent."
This is an excellent illustration of many of the problems that make international relations so fascinating and so frustrating. Today's globalized and interdependent world has certainly changed the contours of the notion of obligation -- even if one doesn't believe in moral or legal obligations, the notion of economic and political interdependence connects obligation to national interest in a powerful way. States that ignore the needs of others in one issue area can be made to pay a high price in a different issue area. For example, the west's inability to lift domestic agricultural subsidies gave the developing world the leverage to refuse to agree to new market openings at the recent Doha round of WTO negotiations. Simply being wealthier and more powerful isn't enough to get one's way in a globalized world.
Additionally, policy imperatives compete, and often conflict, with one another. Leaving aside the likely irony that biofuels are worse for the environment than fossil fuels, how do states decide between competing obligations? Do we save the environment if doing so means condemning people to starvation or depriving the developing world with the means to develop? Needless to say, answering these questions is a unenviable task.
In this case, the US needs to end incentives for biofuel production immediately. It's one thing to make a hard choice to pursue one agenda at the expense of another; it's another thing entirely when pursuing one agenda is entirely counterproductive. Given the evidence that biofuels are worse for the environment, it seems like that the US program to encourage their production is more a sneaky way to protect the US agricultural market than a genuine effort to save the planet. And given the impact that this protection is having on the global food market, that choice isn't just bad politics, it's just plain bad.