A new report produced by ActionAid calls attention to the impacts that growing food for biofuels can have on poverty and hunger. The amount of food crops produced and used for fuel by G8 countries per year could have fed over 441 million people. This is around half the number of people, estimated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, to be chronically hungry in the world.
There are other implications of growing food for fuel beyond directly removing food sources. Land availability and food prices, are affected which can further impact on poverty, particularly for those who are net buyers of food and who rely on local natural resources for their livelihoods.
In sub-Saharan Africa some 98 European biofuel projects covering 6 million hectares of land have begun since 2009, when the European Union introduced the Renewable Energy Directive, subsequently driving up biofuel demand in Europe. 30 of these are from the UK. Many of these investments are occurring in food insecure countries and pose the threat of displacing local communities.
A report by the World Bank in 2011 concluded that ‘Food prices are substantially higher than they would be if no biofuels were produced’. And future prices are expected to rise further under the EU’s biofuel targets: by 2020 vegetable oils could increase by 36%, cereals by 22% and oilseeds by 20%.
But biofuels are important for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector and for lowering fuel costs in the face of oil scarcity. Not true, says ActionAid. Biofuels currently being used in cars are worse for the climate than fossil fuels and, under projected levels of use to 2020, will add an additional 56 million tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2020 – the equivalent of over 26 million new cars on the roads.
Neither are biofuels cost effective, totalling an extra billion pounds per year in fuel costs than if biofuels weren’t added to the fuel mix. The biofuels industry is also heavily subsidised, to the amount of 9.3-10.7 billion euros per year, and paid for by European taxpayers.
In response to this startling data, the report makes two clear recommendations for the UK government:
• Recognise biofuels as a key structural cause of hunger, using its presidency of the G8 to champion a major shift in biofuels policy and encourage other countries to follow suit.
• Use the EU’s energy ministers’ meeting on 6th June, which will help decide the future of EU biofuels policies, to call for an end to the use of food as fuel in the EU.
And it seems like the EU may listen, they have placed a cap of 5% on the amount of food-based biofuels allowed in the renewable energy used in transport. They are also trying to shift biofuel production from food crops to farm waste, algae and straw. But many say these actions do not go far enough. The 5% cap is higher than current levels of biofuels use and a focus on advanced generation biofuels does not mean fuels from food will be closed down in the near future.