European biofuels policy is feeding cars but starving people in developing world

Opinion: Incentivising fuel crops motivates shift from much needed food crops


If a policy was enacted that not only failed to achieve its intended results but actually managed to significantly worsen the situation, plunging millions of people into further poverty along the way, it would be considered reckless mismanagement to continue with it.

Yet this is the situation Ireland and the EU finds itself in. Fully aware that European biofuel targets are leading to increased hunger and land grabs in the developing world, European energy ministers, including Pat Rabbitte, on December 12th failed to address this disastrous policy.

The promotion of biofuels was heralded as an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Substituting crop-based fuels for petrol and diesel would make a significant impact in the fight against climate change, we were told.

The EU embraced biofuels to such a degree that in 2009 it was agreed that 10 per cent of transport fuel would be derived from renewable sources, mostly biofuels, by 2020. To encourage this transformation, generous tax breaks were offered.

However, the EU has no way to meet its targets without outsourcing biofuel production to the developing world.

In other words, transport fuel targets can be met only by using land in poorer countries to grow crops for export.

Anything between 4.7 and 7.9 million hectares of new land – an area roughly the size of Ireland – needs to be handed over to biofuel growth to meet EU demand.

True impact
Four years on, the true impact of biofuels is clear to all. By incentivising land owners to replace food crops with fuel crops, the EU’s quota has reduced food production in areas of the world where poor communities were already at risk of hunger.

Food prices have rocketed, land grabs are on the rise, and hunger has worsened in areas of the developing world as agricultural land is used to fuel European cars.

As well as increasing hunger the current policy on biofuels will lead to higher rather than lower greenhouse emissions.

Biofuel growth leads to deforestation and when these “indirect” land-use changes are taken into account, they lead to no real carbon emission savings.

Biofuels also require an extraordinary amount of water: roughly 2,500 litres of water is used to produce just one litre of biofuels.

While the biofuels industry continues to lobby for further incentives, the developing world is screaming for it to stop.

The EU Commission last summer proposed reducing the renewable energy target from 10 to 5 per cent, a proposal supported by many countries, including Ireland. However, European energy ministers on December 12th discussed a compromise position to set the target at 7 per cent.

Speaking ahead of the vote, Rabbitte described the argument that biofuels have a negative impact on the developing world as “compelling”. While he again stated that Ireland favoured as low a quota as possible, he voted in favour of the compromise.

While the Irish Government will doubtlessly describe the compromise as pragmatic, it stands in contrast to the positions of Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Luxembourg, all of whom refused to back the deal because it did not do enough to prevent social and environmental harm.

Ireland’s rightful place in this debate is with the block of nations calling for more radical action than merely reducing the quota from 10 to 7 per cent.

Europe now burns enough food calories in fuel tanks every year to feed 100 million people. Each percentage point reduction would amount to millions of acres being handed back to food production.

The impact of biofuel production can be seen in marginalised communities across the developing world. In Guatemala, for example, Trócaire has supported a community which was evicted from land in order to expand a sugarcane plantation. Sugarcane is the main ingredient in ethanol-based biofuels.

This community has been left with no means to feed itself. Land once farmed for food is now used to grow crops for cars.

Europe’s biofuel policy has created an absolute mess. There is a growing acceptance that our promotion of biofuels is leading to significant problems in poorer parts of the world. We are left with a policy which fewer and fewer nations support but which remains in place due to an inability to agree on how to tackle it.

We urgently need European energy ministers to accept, firstly, that biofuels are both socially and environmentally damaging, and, secondly, take the necessary action to put in place limits to halt the growth of land-based biofuels.

Energy ministers might consider the words of Juana Ical, a farmer from Guatemala whose land was taken by a large sugarcane plantation.

“If you look at the land now there are acres of sugarcane. Who is going to eat that?”

Éamonn Meehan is the executive director of Trócaire

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