Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Are Biofuels a Crime against Humanity?

I had just returned from holiday, when the BBC World Service rang up, asking me if I'd defend biofuels against charges that they constitute a Crime Against Humanity. According to the BBC's own website1:
A United Nations expert has condemned the growing use of crops to produce biofuels as a replacement for petrol as a crime against humanity.

The UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, said he feared biofuels would bring more hunger. The growth in the production of biofuels has helped to push the price of some crops to record levels.

Mr Ziegler's remarks, made at the UN headquarters in New York, are clearly designed to grab attention. He complained of an ill-conceived dash to convert foodstuffs such as maize and sugar into fuel, which created a recipe for disaster.

Now I'm not the right person to defend biofuels, as I have serious doubts myself about the effects on global food production and prices - witness the "tortilla riots" in Mexico, or rising beer prices worldwide - but as with the previous two blogs about risks, it is all relative. At current levels, even I doubt that many (if any) people are going hungry owing to biofuel production - the poorest and hungriest are more likely to eking a living from subsistence farming and suffering from the direct effects of climate change. And much of the BBC report seemed to be focusing on a little bit of EU-bashing, as they seemed to feel that the real cause of the problem was the EU Directive on Biofuels, which sets targets for each member state. Under this Directive, Britain will have to provide 5.75% of its road fuels from biofuels by 2010 - a high figure based on current levels, but probably achievable substantially from land that won't be competing with food crops2.

So I declined the BBC's opportunity, as
although I felt that the emotive language used by Mr Ziegler was not really advancing the debate at all, his real target was probably the US support for bioethanol from corn, and I really did not want to start defending that. Certainly in the past, exports of surplus US grain have helped "feed the starving" (although they may also have undermined indigenous agriculture by making it easier for farmers to receive food aid than to attempt to grow their own crops on difficult land), and the diversion of grains (wheat as well as maize) into bioethanol reduces the surplus available for the needy. But in truth, the support for the US bioethanol industry looks as if it is as much targeted at providing a valid excuse for farm subsidies in swing political states, as towards attempting to combat climate change through biofuels.

And as the BBC didn't want to hear my views on how public transport and cycling might help solve the fossil fuel problem with minimal need for biofuels, I thought it better not to be drawn into this debate!

1 See BBC Americas website, 27 October 2007

2 It may however be competing (indirectly) with rain forest, especially if it's biodiesel from palm oil, produced in South East Asia, or bioethanol imported from Brazil. This bioethanol comes from highly efficient sugar plantations that do not directly lead to the cutting down of the Brazilian rain forest, but there is evidence that the use of land for fuel crops has led to ranching shifting away from the coast inland to the Amazon basin.

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