Monday, October 8, 2012

[biofuelwatch] Biofuels and the food that’s going up in smoke

Biofuels and the food that's going up in smoke

The new EU policy on biofuels is resisted by the industry, but its limits are actually not harsh enough

The land used to grow biofuels for Europe alone could instead be used to feed 127 million people - The food that's going up in smoke
The land used to grow biofuels for Europe alone could instead be used to feed 127 million people Photo: ALAMY

'It's possibly," someone remarked to me this week, "one of the worst things ever to come out of Brussels." Quite a condemnation, everything considered – and all the more so for coming from an Action Aid campaigner against poverty and climate change. For the EU biofuels policy is supposed to tackle both.

But that was putting it mildly. The growing use of energy from crops has driven up food prices and hunger, spurred enormous corporate land grabs in poor countries, and probably made global warming worse. Now, however, there is the first sign of a rethink. New proposed European Commission legislation, soon to be unveiled, could halt the rise in crops grown for fuel – and eventually put it into reverse.

Mind you, if Henry Ford and Rudolf Diesel had had their way, we would never have filled up with anything else. The Model T was designed to run on ethanol, and the first diesel engine was powered by peanuts. Cheap crude oil soon silenced the vegetarian vroom, until it became clear that fossil fuel was warming the planet.

Biofuels seemed a gift to governments. Adding them to petrol and diesel made it seem as if something was being done, without having to address the harder tasks of making cars more efficient or improving public transport. Even better, they provided a way of paying powerful agricultural lobbies from motorists' wallets, rather than the public purse. George W Bush rapidly expanded the use of ethanol from corn to enrich the mid-West, not reduce global warming.

For its part, the EU stipulated in 2009 that biofuels should effectively provide 10 per cent of all transport fuels by 2020 – despite years of protests from many environmentalists and others that the supposedly green gasoline would do more harm than good.

As Lester Brown – president of Washington's Earth Policy Institute – has long pointed out, biofuels pit the hungry against relatively affluent motorists in competition for crops. Unsurprisingly, the drivers are winning. Forty per cent of the US corn crop now goes for fuel, not food, while the land used to grow biofuels for Europe alone could instead be used to feed 127 million people.

The competition drives up food prices – it has been partly responsible for recent abrupt increases that have driven scores of millions into hunger – and has helped stimulate a spate of land-grabbing in the Third World. Oxfam reported this week that an area of land eight times the size of the UK had been sold off over the past decade – and that two thirds of the deals appear to have been struck for the growing of biofuels. Often small farmers are thrown off the land, to join the destitute and hungry.

And all this may actually accelerate climate change. Studies show that most – if not all – biofuels cause lower emissions of greenhouse gases than the petrol and diesel they replace. But these do not take into account the indirect effects of displacing food production: as farmland is given over to producing fuel, cultivators move elsewhere to fell forests or plough up peatlands, emitting carbon dioxide as they do so. By some estimates, these emissions could, by 2020, be equivalent to putting over 25 million more cars on the road.

In fairness, the European Union applies the world's strictest "sustainability" standards to its biofuels. But these cover only direct environmental effects, and excludes the all-important social damage such as increasing food prices and hunger.

And its mandatory 10 per cent target makes things worse, for example, by taking slack out of the market – and thus fuelling abrupt price rises – and by necessitating the rapid acquisition of land.

Last year, 10 international bodies – including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Food and Agriculture Organisation – demanded that such "mandates" should be scrapped, together with the $20  million in subsidies provided to the $83 million biofuel industry. Now, finally, the EC is making a move.

On October 17 – in what amounts to an important admission that it had got things wrong – the EC climate commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, will propose that biofuels from food crops should be limited to just 5 per cent of transport energy consumption, and that subsidies for them should be scrapped altogether when the present legislation runs out in 2020.

Yet, though her plan is being bitterly resisted by the industry as a "catastrophic U-turn", its immediate effects will be limited, even if the commission, governments, and MEPs approve it. At present, biofuels account for 4.7 per cent of European transport fuels, so the measure would freeze their use rather than reduce it. In 2014 a more radical review of the legislation is due: governments should be preparing now to redress one of Brussels's gravest mistakes.


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Biofuels are a wide range of fuels which are in some way derived from biomass.

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