By Stephen Foley in New York
Soaring food inflation is the result of "immoral" policies in the US which divert crops for use in the production of biofuels instead of food, according to the chairman of one of the world's largest food companies.
Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the chairman of Nestlé, lashed out at the Obama administration for promoting the use of ethanol made from corn, at the expense of hundreds of millions of people struggling to afford everyday basics made from the crop.
Mr Brabeck-Letmathe weighed in to the increasingly acrimonious debate over food price inflation to condemn politicians around the world who seem determined to blame financial speculators instead of tackling underlying imbalances in supply and demand. And he reserved especially pointed remarks for US agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, who he said was making "absolutely flabbergasting" claims for the country's ability to cope with rising domestic and global demand for corn.
"Today, 35 per cent of US corn goes into biofuel," the Nestlé chairman told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York yesterday. "From an environmental point of view this is a nonsense, but more so when we are running out of food in the rest of the world.
"It is absolutely immoral to push hundreds of millions of people into hunger and into extreme poverty because of such a policy, so I think – I insist – no food for fuel."
Corn prices almost doubled in the year to February, though they have fallen from their peak in the pastfew weeks. Anger at rising food prices contributed to protests across the Middle East, and rising commodities costs were among the factors pushing UK inflation to 4.4 per cent in February, according to figures out yesterday.
US exports account for about 60 per cent of the world's corn supply. Demand has surged as more people join the middle classes in emerging economies such as China and India, not just because these new consumers demand more food made from corn, but also because demand for meat has increased and livestock farmers need to buy more feed.
Nestlé, the company behind Shredded Wheat, Nescafé and Aero chocolate bars, has been lobbying European regulators and governments around the world against setting high targets for biofuel use, even though many countries see the production of ethanol as a means of meeting obligations to cut carbon fuel emissions.
The lobbying has fallen on deaf ears in the US, however. Ethanol production from corn is heavily subsidised, with output running at more than 13.5 billion gallons annually. Policies to promote its production are "absurd", Mr Brabeck-Letmathe claimed yesterday, and meeting a mooted global target of having 20 per cent of fuel demand with biofuels would involve increasing production by one third.
"What is the result? Prices are going up. It's not very complicated," he said. "This question is now the number one priority for the G20 meeting in Nice, and the main thing we are going to do is fight against speculation. We are concentrating on the irrelevant."
Speaking to farmers earlier this month, the Obama administration's agriculture secretary said he found arguments from the like of Nestlé "irritating". Mr Vilsack said: "The folks advancing this argument either do not understand or do not accept the notion that our farmers are as productive and smart and innovative and creative enough to meet the needs of food and fuel and feed and export."
Mr Brabeck-Letmathe was chief executive as well as chairman of Nestlé until splitting the roles in 2008. He is also on the board of luxury goods maker L'Oréal, the investment bank Credit Suisse and oil company ExxonMobil. Speaking at the CFR yesterday, he also advocated the idea of setting a price for water used in agriculture, as a means of more efficiently allocating scarce resources. And he suggested that alternative sources for biofuels could be algae and stems of harvested corn.