May 2, 2008 2:07 pm


The speed with which the specter of famine appeared before us is nothing less than breathtaking. It reminds us yet again that flawed statist policies cause famines. A letter to the editor published in the FT compares the dire consequences of the Bill passed in Congress to Maoist China's disastrous"Great Leap Forward." Then, ideologues urged quick industrialization. Now, they demand green fuel.

Sir, As the biofuel debate continues, Leszek Balcerowicz's article on the dangers of statism (Free marketeers must fend off the statists, April 29) could not be more apropos.

Today's mandated diversion of foodstuffs into fuel bears an eerie similarity to Mao Zedong's directive to farmers during the late 1950s to build backyard pig-iron furnaces across China's agricultural regions. Hailed as a drive toward self-sufficiency and modernisation, The Great Leap Forward created the largest man-made famine the world has known, claiming more than 20m lives.

This year, the federally subsidised ethanol industry in the US will consume 80m metric tons of corn - the calorie equivalent of feeding nearly 400m people for a year. Nonetheless, proponents of ethanol production have managed to attain what Prof Balcerowicz aptly describes as"the moral high ground" under a collectivist banner of energy security.

The mandates in the recently passed US energy bill call for a fourfold increase in ethanol production, even though ethanol barely dents US reliance on oil imports and ethanol plants would fold overnight without the subsidies, grants, tax credits, federal loans and protective tariffs. If this does not represent the triumph of statism over free marketeers, I would like to know what does.

Ann Berg, Chicago, IL 60610, US

Perhaps this letter struck me most potently because as late as 1992/93 (when I taught a year at the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing) I noticed that there were no birds in the city. I was told it was because Mao ordered them shot so that they would not eat seeds people can use. Similarly, there was very little grass. It, too, was considered a wasteful. It was pulled out to make room to agricultural product.

I am very much for energy independence but I do hope that Congress listens to Senator Hutchison and not to Senator Grassley and stop this mad attempt to turn food to fuel ends before it goes as far as it did then:

Although in theory the country was awash in grain, in reality it was not. Rural communal mess halls were encouraged to supply food for free, but by the spring of 1959, the grain reserves were exhausted and the famine had begun.

No one is sure exactly how many people perished as a result of the spreading hunger. By comparing the number of deaths that could be expected under normal conditions with the number that occurred during the period of the Great Leap famine, scholars have estimated that somewhere between 16.5 million and 40 million people died before the experiment came to an end in 1961, making the Great Leap famine the largest in world history.

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