Appetite for biofuels taking food directly from the poor


OPINION:The problem is that land and crops are diverted to keep our engines running

THEY LOOK green. And with an eco-friendly name, they sound it too.

But biofuels are driving up food prices and contributing to climate change on an unprecedented scale.

So why is the European Union continuing to subsidise an industry that is hurting the world’s poorest, and costing taxpayers too? Blended with fossil fuels to run in conventional cars, corn, wheat, sugar cane and beet can be turned into ethanol and used as a substitute for petrol.

Oilseeds such as rapeseed, soy or palm oil can also be used, and converted to biodiesel.

At present, they account for about 4.5 per cent of the fuel that goes into Irish cars and are part of the Government’s plan to obtain 20 per cent of all energy from renewable sources by 2020.

The EU is subsidising the industry to the tune of about €3.7 billion annually. It wants to increase the share of biofuels used in transport to 10 per cent by 2020. The problem is that when land and crops are diverted to keeping our engines running, it is taking food directly from people’s mouths.

This has a particularly severe impact on poor people who are already struggling to afford the food they need to survive.

Research from the Philippines shows that land acquired for biofuels production in 2010 could instead be used to produce up to 2.4 million metric tonnes of rice, enough to make the Philippines self-sufficient in rice production.

And if the land used to produce biofuels for the EU in 2008 (when biofuels accounted for 3.5 per cent of transport fuel in the EU) had been used to produce wheat and maize instead, it could have fed 127 million people for the entire year.

At a time when food prices are rising sharply, increasing malnutrition rates among children in countries such as Yemen that depend heavily on imports, it is unacceptable that we are indirectly contributing to hunger in some of the world’s poorest countries.

The past five years have been marked by two record spikes in the price of food. And prices are rising again, with corn and soy hitting record highs in summer 2012. The evidence on the contribution of biofuel policies to recent global food price spikes is so compelling that, in 2011, 10 international organisations – including the IMF and the World Bank – made an unprecedented call for G20 governments to scrap biofuel mandates and subsidies. By 2020, EU those mandates alone could push up some food prices by as much as 36 per cent.

Our Government wants to cut carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, but a rise in biofuels usage to meet our climate change targets is not the solution.

Some biofuels actually accelerate climate change through indirect land-use change.

When carbon stores such as forests and peat lands are turned into crop fields, millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases are released – in greater numbers than those produced by fossil diesel.

Ploughing up carbon sinks to meet EU biofuel mandates could be as bad for the environment as putting up to an extra 26 million cars on Europe’s roads.

So, what can we do? The EU can start by scrapping subsidies for the biofuel industry.

Last week, a leaked proposal from Brussels revealed that the European Commission was planning to limit the use of crop-based fuels in cars on European roads.

According to the proposal, the commission wants to limit their use to 5 per cent of total energy consumption in the EU transport sector in 2020 over fears they are driving up food prices and are less climate friendly than initially thought. The current level of 10 per cent would be halved.

While the development is a positive first step, it is still short of what is needed. That is a total end to EU subsidies to the biofuel industry and a removal of the 10 per cent target for transport, not just a 5 per cent cap on use of biofuels for transport.

EU governments should push other G20 states to scrap biofuel mandates and subsidies and the EU’s post-2020 Renewable Energy Strategy should be informed by the negative impacts of the biofuels policy on food security and access to land in developing countries. That is not just a good deal for the world’s poorest, but taxpayers too.

Modelling based on current plans for sourcing biofuels suggests that EU biofuel mandates could cost every adult about €30 each year by 2020.

As Ireland gears up for the Irish presidency of the European Union, it can use its influence to put the issue on the agenda of the union’s 27 governments.

Jim Clarken is chief executive of Oxfam Ireland. Oxfam launches a report today calling for an end to subsidies for the biofuels industry.

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