Fidel Castro has blasted the Bush administration’s plans to meet the energy and global warming crises by its promotion of a massive international program to convert food into ethanol fuel. His March 29 op-ed in the Communist Party daily Granma was titled “More than 3 billion people in the world are being condemned to a premature death from hunger and thirst.”

The Cuban leader wrote: “The sinister idea of turning foodstuffs into fuel was definitely established as the economic strategy of U.S. foreign policy on March 26.” On that date President Bush met with the heads of GM, Ford and Daimler-Chrysler, who agreed to double their production of “flex-fuel” vehicles and to boost their manufacture of E-85 ethanol-capable vehicles to at least half of their total output by 2010.

Ethanol production consumed 20 percent of the 2006 U.S. corn crop and will consume an even higher percentage this year. There are 114 U.S. ethanol refineries, with 80 more under construction.

This program affects the food supply and prices in a number of ways. First, on the day of Castro’s editorial, the price of corn itself was $3.94 a bushel, which is almost twice the $2 a bushel price that it had been for years before the ethanol boom. Corn is a major ingredient in many foods from corn syrup to tortillas.

Second, corn is the main feed for livestock, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported that corn for ethanol is driving up prices for animal feed, e.g. chicken feed is 40 percent higher. The prices of meats will rise dramatically.

Third, and not usually noted, increased acreage for corn plantings will decrease available land for other agricultural crops and destroy natural ecosystems such as forests and wetlands.

In late March the Agriculture Department projected that 90.5 million acres of corn will be planted in 2007, a 15 percent increase over 2006 and the most acreage since World War II. But this surge could come at the expense of soybean acres, which are expected to drop by 11 percent, and by cotton production, expected to be down by 20 percent. For example, Arkansas farmers intend to plant 66 percent more acres in corn but decrease cotton acreage from 1.2 million acres to only 740,000 acres.

This new industry is causing ecological devastation in many parts of the world. Brazil has destroyed vast areas of the Amazon rainforest to plant “hundreds of miles” of sugarcane for ethanol, and Malaysian and Indonesian rainforests are being destroyed for palm oil plantations. Palm oil gives the highest yield of any crop that can be used to produce biodiesel. Yet loss of forests can lead to soil erosion and flooding, and contributes to global warming by removing carbon “sinks” (which absorb carbon dioxide and store carbon).

Here in the U.S., the Bush administration recently announced it will shrink the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) so as to permit the conversion of protected lands to corn planting. The $2 billion per year CRP has paid farmers to forego cultivation on 37 million acres. Since its inception in 1985, the CRP has protected 2 million acres of wetlands, planted trees and grass to reduce 450 million tons of soil erosion per year, while increasing duck populations. Conservation groups are up in arms over destruction of these ecologically sensitive areas.

Thus, the diversion of food crops to provide increasing demands for fuel will have dire consequences, especially for the poorest billions of people who live in chronic hunger and for the ecology of the planet. Furthermore, the projected impact on energy conservation is minimal and could be met many times over by a comparable investment in renewable sources of energy.

The only winners will be the multinational agrochemical corporations.