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June 08, 2008

Biofuels debate takes center stage at FAO food summit

Biofuels came under impassioned attack at the United Nations Food Summit in Rome as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak called for an end to the use of food for fuel.

His plea to use “agricultural crops as food for human beings, not as fuel for engines,” positioned him from the onset of the three-day event as a leader among the growing anti-biofuel movement, one that threatens to drive a wedge through the United Nations food agencies.

Some of the biggest members of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is sponsoring the food summit, are building massive biofuel industries. The United States, Canada and Brazil are in this group. But many poor African and Asian countries who are also FAO members, blame biofuel production for inflating prices to the point food is becoming unaffordable.

Mr. Murabak, whose country has restricted rice exports to stem domestic food inflation, called for an international “code of conduct” to govern biofuel production. He wants a code “that reassesses the actual social and environmental costs of biofuel, and restricts its production to agriculture waste and designated crops such as Jatropha while steering clear of humankind's foods.”

He also called for an end to the subsidies to biofuel, including the corn-based ethanol that forms the core of the North American biofuel industry. He called it a “subsidization that is creating hazardous distortion to the present international system of agriculture trade.”

Moments after the Mr. Murbarak's speech, Brazilian president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva launched an equally strong defence of his country's biofuel industry, which uses alcohol from sugarcane to make ethanol. Blaming biofuel for soaring food prices, he said, is an “oversimplification” that does not bear up to scrutiny.

Brazil's sugarcane, he noted, is not a food staple and the sugarcane crop devoted to ethanol uses only about 1 per cent of the country's arable land, almost all of it in the south, 2,000 kilometres or so from the Amazon rainforests. Unlike North American corn ethanol, Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is not subsidized and requires relatively small amounts of irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides. “I am not in favour of producing ethanol from corn,” he said.

While the FAO has no single position on biofuels, director-general Jacques Diouf acknowledges rising biofuel production is pushing up food prices. “Nobody understands how $11-billion to $12-billion a year on subsidies and protective tariff policies had the effect of diverting 100-million tonnes of cereals from human consumption, mostly to satisfy a thirst [for] fuel for vehicles,” he told the 60 heads of state and government at the conference.

Various estimates have blamed biofuel production for pushing up food prices from 30 per cent to 60 per cent. The United States dismisses the figure as fiction. Ed Schafer, the U.S. agriculture secretary, has said the biofuels have lifted food prices only 3 per cent recently.

Oxfam, the relief agency, said in a statement released before the food conference that biofuel production is boosting food prices. “The amount of grain required to produce enough enthanol to fill the tank of an SUV is enough to feed a human being for an entire year,” it said.

Oxfam said governments should dismantle subsidies and tax exemptions for biofuels. It also cited “mounting evidence that biofuel mandates are actually accelerating climate change by driving the expansion of agriculture into critical habitats such as forests and wetlands.”

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