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April 15, 2008

Biofuel benefits not as clear cut as first thought

By Peter Sain ley Berry*

When earlier this year the European Union confirmed its biofuel target, few foresaw by how much or how quickly the global outlook would change.

Although many of the factors that are contributing to today's wave of turbulence were already in place at the end of last year, their combined effects were not predicted: the global credit crunch, the rise in oil prices, and now the shortage - and rapidly soaring cost - of food.

When first formulated, the biofuel target (10 per cent of all road fuel by 2020) appeared eminently sensible. Europe, after all, had a thriving biofuel industry that offered significant potential for reducing greenhouse gases from oil powered transport. Beyond this, biofuels could be imported. The demand would stimulate similar industries around the world. New criteria would ensure that biofuel production was sustainable.

However, the law of unintended consequences has kicked into effect. In the rush to make our exhaust emissions greener, worldwide biofuel production has been over stimulated and with dire consequences.

Industrial conglomerates all over the world have not been slow to recognise there was money to be made from turning foodstuffs into alcohol, in growing oil crops rather than cereals and in ploughing up the world's forests and peat-bogs for biofuel plantations.

While the sustainability plan envisaged biofuel produced from the surpluses and waste that inevitably accompanies food production, the reality has been that conglomerates have found it more profitable to grow fuel than food. As a result, cheap biofuel is flooding into Europe, depressing indigenous European production and reducing agricultural output for human consumption.

The financial attraction of biofuel production has accelerated pressures on virgin forest. Legally or illegally, forest is being burnt to produce oil for Europe's cars. The carbon lost from the forest, from the burning of the trees and from the destruction of the carbon-rich organic matter in the soil, will not be recouped from a few years' production of biofuel; meanwhile biodiversity is lost and ecosystems destroyed.

For an emissions saving of 10 per cent, come 2020, the developed world will have been indirectly responsible for the destruction of another tenth of the world's forests. It would be more effective to reduce our road kilometres by 10 per cent instead.

Of course, our motives are faultless - to reduce, and finally to reverse, climate change. But climate change is already showing its effects. The UN's World Food Programme tells us that the single most important factor contributing to food insecurity is drought.

Failing harvests have halted the recent promising decline in the numbers of the world's hungry. Despite the rising affluence of some parts of China and India, the number of the malnourished has grown by almost 10 per cent in the last ten years, and now stand at more than 850 million, including over 200 million children.

Biofuel production is depriving the world of vital land to grow crops just at the time when climate change is inducing drought in large areas of Africa and Asia. As a result, world food prices have soared by 45 per cent in the last nine months, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.

We witness the effect every time we buy a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread. For most of us, such inflation is no more than a minor irritation, but for the world's poor, the current record food price hike is disastrous. Riots have broken out in several continents. Europe's development minister, Louis Michel, has warned of a humanitarian tsunami in Africa.

He has virtually doubled the cash from the European Development Fund available for food aid to Africa. It now stands at €1.2 billion. This, however, may be a fraction of what is needed. Without enough food, hungry Africans will be more and more inclined to attempt the crossing to a well-fed Europe.

Such food insecurity is exacerbated by the tendency of people to eat meat, rather than vegetables, as soon as they can afford to do so. As the poor get poorer, the rich become trenchermen. The steadily enlarging Asian middle class is increasingly eschewing its former vegetable diet and turning instead to one based on meat and dairy produce.

Now, as we know, it only takes a hectare of land to feed a family if their diet consists mainly of rice, beans or potatoes and the occasional chicken. But it may take ten times this amount if they choose to eat meat and cheese everyday. Moreover the bodily wastes from a cow, some allege, produce more greenhouse gas than a car.

So land that might support crops for humans is now employed to produce grain to feed animals. Which is why, say the Food and Agriculture Organisation, there are now serious world shortages of wheat and maize.

As if this weren't enough, we in the developed world, waste great heaps of food. Time was when out-of date food would have been fed - if not to the poor, then at least to pigs. Now hygiene regulations consign large quantities to landfill.

We even throw away much food purchased in perfectly good condition. Britons, we learn from a recent survey reported in The Times, discard 5 million edible potatoes every day, along with 3 million tomatoes, 4.5 million apples, 1.5 million bananas and a million oranges. This is almost a third of the quantities purchased in the first place.

Much of this food will have been transported long distances, by air, sea or land. Many road miles, much road fuel, will have been expended on its long journey to the dustbin. Is it this fuel that we now want to dilute with biofuels produced in such damaging circumstances?

The scientists tell us that even allowing for climate change, there is enough land to feed adequately all of the world's 6.4 billion population. But only if we use the land and its bounty sensibly; only if we all learn to moderate our consumption, whether this be of meat or transport. We have to learn to control our waste (as well as our waists).

Much of this involves long term lifestyle change. In the short term, there is one easy thing that we can do in the interests of the 20 million babies born each year with low birth weight to malnourished mothers, whose weak start in life blights their whole future existence.

That is simply to drop the biofuel target.

Peter Sain ley Berry is editor of EuropaWorld

EU Observer

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