The government's policy on biofuels is not up to date with the science
By Josie Cohen
Yesterday, ActionAid launched a report called "Meals per gallon: The impact of industrial biofuels on people and global hunger" that explores the negative impacts the current boom in industrial biofuel production is having on world hunger.
Industrial biofuels – fuels made on an industrial scale from agricultural crops – have been hailed as the answer to our climate change, energy security and rural development woes. But we believe they are, in fact, not a solution to any of these problems and are instead edging the world ever closer to an environmental and developmental disaster.
The report also highlights that industrial biofuels are a fake solution to climate change. Many biofuels release more greenhouse emissions than the fossil fuels they were designed to replace.
Current calculations by policy-makers tend to leave out carbon emissions from both land use change and fertilisers, resulting in over-optimistic predictions for the potential of biofuels to reduce our emissions. Taking into account this ever-growing evidence base, policy is not keeping up with the science.
This is an important point to make as both the DfT and DECC are currently drafting the UK's National Action Plan on transport fuel emissions. Due to be submitted to the EU on June 30th this year, the National Action Plan outlines how the UK plans to reduce its transport emissions by 10% by 2020.
If the DfT and DECC go ahead with their planned policy to increase the use of industrial biofuels, and other global targets for production are met, then the results would be quite stark: food prices could rise by an additional 76% by 2020.
This will have a major impact on the ability of people in the developing world to feed themselves. There are currently one billion people already going hungry and rapidly rising demand for industrial biofuels will drive food prices even higher.
Industrial biofuels are conservatively estimated to have been responsible for at least 30% of the global food price spike in 2008 which pushed another 30 million people into hunger and resulted in rioting across the developing world.
The poorest households in the developing world already spend up to 80% of their income on food. Food price rises of this sort will therefore be catastrophic, and could push another 600 million people into hunger in the next ten years.
As well as pushing up food prices, industrial biofuels are also having a serious impact on land rights in many of the communities in which they are grown. Biofuel companies are buying up land often with little or no consultation or compensation for local people.
When researching our report we spoke with Matilde Ngoene, a small holder farmer from Mozambique, and she told us:
"They [an industrial biofuel company] actually took the land when it was already tilled. They haven't paid us anything, they haven't told us anything. They haven't offered any job, they haven't employed us – they haven't offered us anything. They haven't given us any alternative farms. What we want is to get our farms back, because that is what our livelihood is dependent on. We are dying of hunger and there is nothing that we have that is actually our own."
To put the scale of the current land grab into perspective, in just five African countries, 1.1 million hectares has been given over to industrial biofuels – that's an area the size of Belgium. In addition, EU companies currently have acquired or requested at least 5 million hectares of land for industrial biofuels in developing countries. All of the biofuel produced on these lands is for export.
In the UK we look set to meet reductions in transport emissions exclusively with industrial biofuels, which we believe is moving us away from real solutions to climate change, such as improving fuel efficiency and investing in public transport.
The evidence and stories found in the ActionAid report marks the beginning of our campaign calling on the UK Government not to set targets which increase the amount of industrial biofuels in our petrol and diesel.