x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Biofuels policy causes hunger

European Union ministers have approved a weak proposal to place a percentage cap on biofuels, amounting to a vote for more fuel, less food and more hunger, Paul Muir writes

Pumping crop-based biofuel into petrol tanks is diverting more and more food from the stomachs of hungry people around the world, say activists.

Widespread pressure to address this growing crisis, including a 240,000-signature petition, was the impetus behind the European Parliament’s decision last week to narrowly pass, after much wrangling, a watered-down proposal to impose a six per cent cap on the amount of crop-based biofuel that can be used for transport purposes within the European Union. It was originally proposed that the cap be five per cent, but it was revised, say critics, to appease industry and agricultural lobbyists.

ActionAid’s Laura Sullivan said that “in spite of the valiant efforts of many MEPs”, the proposals were reduced to what she called “a vote for more fuel, less food and more hunger”.

Oxfam EU biofuels expert Marc Olivier Herman concurred, insisting: “MEPs have failed in their duty to represent the best interests of their electorate and the one in eight people going to bed hungry each night.”

However, not all opposition to the cap came from those concerned about the impact on the world’s poor. The bioethanol sector lobby group e-Pure insisted that even a six per cent cap would undermine domestic growth. Rob Vierhout, the group’s secretary general, said: “At a time when we need to boost our economy it is difficult to see why MEPs agree to curtail jobs and investment in a sector that helps Europe to grow the production of clean and sustainable fuels.”

Biofuels fall into two main categories: bioethanol, which is made from sugar and cereal crops, and biodiesel, which is made from vegetable oils.

EU member states are committed to sourcing 10 per cent of transport energy from renewable resources by 2020, but according to Oxfam, the land required to supply European vehicles for one year under this arrangement could be used to produce enough food for 127 million people.

Six million hectares of land – 38 times the size of London – are controlled by European firms seeking to profit from the biofuel industry, according to ActionAid, which describes the sector as “fundamentally unsustainable” and has has called on the G20 to end all subsidies and targets for biofuels due to their impact on food prices.

The EU’s Joint Research Centre has concluded that scrapping biofuel incentives would lead to a 48 per cent drop in the price of vegetable oil within the bloc by 2020, which highlights the disturbing scale of the potential impact on global food prices.

So what is the solution?

Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, believes national energy and food security policies must become closely integrated, in order to ensure that “all new agricultural developments – for food or for fuel – aid the progressive realisation of the right to food by increasing, and not hindering, the ability of vulnerable populations to produce or to procure food”. No doubt easier said than done in many countries.

Shifting to farm waste and seaweed to produce “advanced biofuels” that do not require food wastage to produce could also be a step in the right direction.

But ultimately the solution may lie in the places that are most adversely affected by this energy trend, where people live more simply and therefore consume substantially less fuel than those in more affluent regions.

It would probably be too much to expect Europeans to do their cooking on little stoves using dried cow-dung patties as fuel, as they do with great success in villages in India, but changes to the way people live and state policies to support that shift, such as providing viable alternatives to using cars, is arguably the best way to reduce the public’s dependence on this controversial energy source.

* Paul Muir