MEPs to vote on biofuels as study points to hunger, deforestation

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As MEPs prepare to vote on a proposal to curb EU support for biofuels, new research has found that growing fuel crops in place of food automatically creates either hunger or deforestation.

According to new research by Tim Searchinger, a Princeton University research scholar and acknowledged biofuels expert, a tragic equation is buried in existing modelling data used by the EU to establish the effects of indirect land use change (ILUC) – the increased CO2 emissions that displaced agricultural activity may create.

When agricultural land that had been used to grow food is given over to growing biofuels, someone somewhere will go hungry - unless previously uncultivated land is taken to grow the displaced food, or yields from existing crops increase commensurately.

But “there is extremely little evidence that you will get additional yield gains,” Searchinger said over the phone from New Jersey yesterday (9 July), “and without that you get two bad responses: You have some land expansion, and people eat less.”

Searchinger’s reading of one key report produced for the EU by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found that of every 100 calories from wheat or maize diverted to food tanks by bioethanol production, 25 calories were not replaced.  

“If you step back, take the broader view and see that people are going to have to produce 60% more food by 2050 [to feed a growing world population] that we’re not going to be able to feed entirely from yield gain, biofuels will just compound that problem.”

European Parliament vote

The new analysis, which was number-crunched with the help of the EU’s Joint Research Centre, is being released by Friends of the Earth as the European Parliament’s environment committee prepares to vote on a proposal to curb EU support for biofuels.

Friends of the Earth’s biofuels campaigner Robbie Blake called it a “game-changer”

Corrine LePage MEP, who is presenting the report to the committee, wants to augment a proposed 5% cap on ‘first generation’ biofuels’ (link) share of the 2020 transport mix with ILUC factors written into statute that distinguish between the best and worst-performing biofuels, for greenhouse gas emissions.

Several amendments have been added to the text though, one of which would raise the cap to 6.5%, and the outcome of the vote is thought too close to call. After the vote, it will go to a plenary session on 10 September, before final negotiations with member states begin.

LePage sent EurActiv a written reponse to Searchinger’s research, saying: “If these results are validated, they would confirm that the EU demand for biofuels can have very detrimental impacts not only on the environment, but also on people.”

She added: “I hope this will convince MEPs who are still hesitant to support at least the 5% cap and the inclusion of ILUC factors and to support the proposed compromises on the table, rather than merely take into account the economic interests at stake.”

“If MEPs vote on Thursday to increase levels of biofuels, they will be casting a vote for hunger, and mandating that some of the world’s poorest people eat less food,” Blake added. “That is totally unacceptable.”

Industry aggrieved

However, reactions from the bioethanol industry in Brussels were fierce, personal and uncompromising. Although Searchinger is a respected economist, affectionately known as ‘the godfather of ILUC’ by environmentalists, his academic work has raised hackles.

“I wouldn’t expect anything good to come out of Searchinger,” said Rob Vierhout, the secretary-general of ePure, the European Renewable Ethanol Association told EurActiv. “Whatever he says, he is biased. He is not even a scientist. He is a lawyer and could defend any position you want him to.”

Before coming to Princeton, Searchinger was an attorney for the Environmental Defence Fund, where he wrote a prize-winning book on wetlands and led work to protect the Everglades and Mississippi river.

“My concern is that he is illiterate in social sciences and wouldn’t get through first year social sciences grade,” added Eric Sievers, the CEO of Ethanol Europe Renewables Limited. “His work is sensationalist and works against responsible policymaking by perpetuating misinformation.” 

But Princeton University says that Searchinger’s works on ILUC “generally have been credited with reshaping the world debate on bioenergy.”

Professor Detlef Sprinz, the former chairman of the European Environment Agency, told EurActiv that Searchinger’s work was “rather important” and “published in some of the best journals that we have.”

Damaging implications

But the implications of his work are highly damaging to the bioethanol industry’s case. For instance, the IFPRI study – which the industry criticises – also predicts a large reduction in food quality due to fuel crops, and that 60% of every hectare of maize planted for ethanol will come at the expense of using that land to grow food crops.

Vierhout stoutly rejected such claims. “We don’t use that much maize for making ethanol,” he told EurActiv. “Most of what we use is [animal] feed wheat – not food wheat – and, sugar beet that was also never intended for food purposes, so I don’t see how you could say it is jeapordising food availability.”

He added: “We don’t import wheat or maize for that purpose. We only use European crops and we always have too much land laying idle.”

Searchinger though said that land used to produce animal feed for biofuels would require more land to be used elsewhere to produce feed for animals. This displacement effect was already accounted for in the studies, he argued.

“The industry is trying to give the impression that there is this surplus land out there and there just isn’t,” he said.

World increases in grain yields, which have tripled since 1950, are thought to be approaching a plateau, with only 1.3% annual growth in global grain yields since 1950, according to US scientists.

Timeline: 
  • 1 July 2014: New biofuels installations must meet a 60% greenhouse gas saving threshold
  • 1 Dec. 2017: Biofuels installations in operation before 1 July 2014 must meet a greenhouse gas saving threshold of 35%
  • 31 Dec. 2017: The Commission will submit a review of policy and best scientific evidence on ILUC to the European Parliament and Council
  • 1 Jan. 2018: Biofuels installations in operation before 1 July 2014 must meet a greenhouse gas saviong threshold of 50%
  • 1 Jan. 2020: Deadline for 10% of EU's transport fuels to be sourced from renewable energies.
  • 2020: European Commission will not support further subsidies to biofuels unless they can demonstrate "substantial greenhouse gas savings"
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