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The head of the World Bank has said that soaring food prices are causing hardship and starvation for poor people worldwide, and implied that at least some of the blame lay with Western governments' efforts to encourage biofuel use.

"While many worry about filling their gas tanks, many others around the world are struggling to fill their stomachs," said Bank supremo Robert Zoellick, quoted in today's Guardian.

"This is not just about meals forgone today, or about increasing social unrest, it is about lost learning potential for children and adults in the future, stunted intellectual and physical growth," he added.

"We estimate that the effect of this food crisis on poverty reduction worldwide is in the order of seven lost years."

Zoellick appeared primarily to be calling for greater agricultural and food aid from the rich nations to the developing world. However, he made it clear that he considered the push toward biofuels part of the problem, saying that this tended to push up food prices.

A majority of transport biofuel schemes involve the use of varying proportions of ethyl alcohol - ethanol - in adapted internal-combustion petrol engines. Ethanol must be made from food crops at present, though its advocates hope to see it produced from non-food biomass or other sources in future. Zoellick would have been referring to ethanol biofuels.

Less mainstream types of biofuel include methanol - wood alcohol - which can be made from inedible plant matter, and biodiesel. These technologies are less controversial than food ethanol, but are usually seen as being harder to implement and have gained comparatively little traction.

Government measures thus far have tended to focus on ethanol techniques, in large part due to pressure from Western farmers seeking lucrative markets for their crops. The UK, for instance, intends to require first 5 and then 10 per cent ethanol content in motor fuel in coming years - a plan which has already drawn widespread criticism.

The Guardian also quoted Oxfam's Liz Stuart, who said:

"Europe and the US must stop adding fuel to fire by increasing crop production for biofuels. These have dubious environment benefits, and by driving up prices, are crippling the lives of the poor." ®

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