Biofuels and hunger, two sides of the same coin

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Europe’s pro-biofuel policies are taking food from the mouths of millions of people in central America, causing severe malnutrition and increasing child mortality

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By Daan Bauwens
Inter Press Service, June 25 2012

Despite growing evidence that biofuel production is causing food insecurity around the world, the new European Union policy blueprint on renewable energy ignores the social effects of biofuels. Last week, Guatemalan victims of the food crisis came to Brussels to make European policy makers aware of the problem.

In a bid to reduce the of amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the European Union decided three years ago to increase biofuel use in transport. With the 2009 directive on renewable energy, the Union set a mandatory target of a ten percent share of agrofuels in transport petrol and diesel consumption by 2020.

But even before the directive had been approved, NGOs around the world had already pointed out a series of problems with agrofuels.

The British NGO ActionAid calculated that reaching Europe’s target would require converting up to 69,000 square kilometres of natural ecosystems into cropland, an area larger than Belgium and the Netherlands combined. Furthermore, because of the conversion of forests, grasslands and peat lands into crop fields for biofuel, total net greenhouse gas emissions would amount to 56 million tonnes of extra CO2 per year, the equivalent of an extra 12 to 26 million cars on Europe’s roads by 2020.

ActionAid estimated that the extra biofuels entering the EU market would be, on average, 81 to 167 percent worse for the climate than fossil fuels.

NGOs also found that the EU’s planned increase in biofuel use would push oilseed, maize and sugar prices up. According to a study by the Austrian International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the 10 percent target would put an extra 140 million people at risk of hunger, with the poor urban populations, subsistence farmers and the landless in developing countries particularly vulnerable.

Finally, the Rome-based International Land Coalition recently stated that the demand for biofuels is driving more than 50 percent of large-scale land acquisitions globally.

Earlier this month the European Commission published its post-2020 communication on renewable energy. Despite the relentless campaigning of several international NGOs to cancel out the 2020 target, the new communication remains completely silent on the effects of biofuels on food security in developing nations, leaving a similar target for 2030 open.

“The European Commission wants to decide on the 2030 policy without having considered the impacts of the 2020 policy first,” Marc-Olivier Herman, Oxfam’s EU biofuels expert, told IPS. “The new communication specifies hard criteria to measure environmental impact, but stays mute on the social impact of biofuels. The word ‘food’ is not even mentioned in the document, let alone food security.”

According to Herman, the Commission is moving too fast because of industry demands. “Investors in biofuel want security,” he added.

“Ever since the first target was set in 2009, the biofuel industry has been growing rapidly. This industry now wants to know what will happen after 2020. And it is an industry with lots of lobby power here in Brussels.”

In the meantime, the social effects of the growing demand for biofuels are aggravating. For instance, a large percentage of Guatemala’s indigenous population is facing a new hunger crisis because of land grabbing, forced evictions and water diversion to create large-scale monoculture plantations of palm oil trees and sugar cane for biofuel.

In one such case in March last year, Guatemalan police and soldiers evicted more than 3000 indigenous people from their homes in Guatemala’s Polochic valley to make room for a large-scale plantation. Banned from their land, these 700 families are now facing severe malnutrition and high child mortality as a consequence of diarrhoea or fever.

Three months after meeting president Otto Perez Molina to discuss the problem, Guatemalan small farmer Daniel Pascual from the Comité de Unidad Campesina (Committee for Campesino Unity) came to Brussels on Jun. 18 to make European policy makers aware of the social impacts of biofuels.

“With a growing demand for biofuel, this hunger crisis will only get worse,” Pascual told IPS. “We need external players like the EU to make sure that they don’t cause more damage with their policies. And we need them to put pressure on our government to respect the rights of the population.”

But it is unlikely that the EU will lower its demand for biofuel. “Who is gaining from this policy? Not the environment but European farmers, because of the positive effect of the demand on the price of products and the biofuel industry that was directly or indirecty built with EU funding and grants,” Herman said.

Herman believes the problem will get even worse as in the years to come, as traditional players have become increasingly interested in biofuels as well. “Shell and BP invested heavily in Brazilian sugar cane last year,” he stressed. “They want to remain leaders in the fuel sector and they are lobbying in Brussels as well.”

“Everyone looks at it from their own rational point of view but the final result is pure madness,” Herman concluded.