G8 under pressure to rethink biofuel mandates


EXCLUSIVE / Leaders of the EU and their partners in the G8 nations are under mounting pressure to reconsider their support for biofuel targets amid concern that plant oil production competes with food output in poor countries.

Britain, which chairs the G8 this year, is holding a global meeting on nutrition and food on 8 June, a week before the regular G8 summit in Northern Ireland.

Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to make trade, tax enforcement and transparency priorities for the summit. These points are expected to be noted on Wednesday (8 May) in the Queen’s Speech, which outlines the government’s parliamentary agenda for the year.

But concerns are already emerging about whether the G8 – which includes two major biofuel champions, the United States and the EU – should agree to reconsider fuel policies as part of their commitments to fight world hunger.

Among those questioning the policies are a British parliamentary select committee and the Enough Food for Everyone, or IF campaign, which includes some 200 British and international groups lobbying to reduce world hunger.

Barry Johnston, the UK political advisor for Christian Aid, which is part of the IF campaign, said he was hopeful the G8 would acknowledge biofuel production “as a significant issue” and agree to shed more light on large land transactions in developing countries that are increasingly the leading source of plant oils.

“One of the structural issues that underlies the fact that one in eight people go to be bed hungry every night is that land is being bought up, whole strips of it, in ways that aren’t very transparent, deals that don’t show a benefit for local populations and in some cases, they are directly taking food out of the mouths of people and putting into cars in the EU,” he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday (7 May).

“So there’s a moral imperative to act there. Consumption that happens in the West in richer countries has a direct impact on the ability of individuals to feed themselves in poorer countries, and that can’t continue at current rates.”

IF campaigners are also urging G8 leaders to build on recent momentum in Europe and the United States to combat tax evasion, which the campaigners estimate costs developing nations some €122 billion per year – more than total development aid.

Besides Britain, the G8 members are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States. The EU is represented at the summits by the presidents of the EU Council and Commission, Herman Van Rompuy and José Manuel Barroso. Only Japan and Russia have not set biofuel targets for transport.

Concerns about food security

A British Parliament select committee is preparing to wrap up its enquiry into world hunger and food security ahead the summit. At recent hearings, Westminster lawmakers questioned the impact of EU-driven policies on biofuel, especially on developing nations.

Malcolm Bruce, chairman of the House of Commons’ International Development Committee, grilled the undersecretary of state of transport, Norman Baker, about the EU policies.

“What we have heard in the evidence so far is a pretty overwhelming view that the existing [biofuel] mandate should be scrapped,” Bruce said at hearing on 18 April.

“The people who have given evidence to us say it is distorting, dysfunctional and it should be scrapped,” Bruce said, according to a Commons transcript. “That seems to be all the evidence. Everybody we have had has said it should be scrapped, so why is it not being scrapped, or at least radically changed?”

Baker and other government representatives were asked whether Cameron would be addressing the potential impact of biofuel demand on food output, and foreign purchases of land in sub-Saharan Africa for agri-oil production.

The undersecretary for international development, Lynne Featherstone, said the British government supported development of biofuel that did not compete with food crops or production. In testimony before the committee, she also said the government would seek greater transparency in land deals in developing nations.

“Our aim is to secure agreement from major G8 investors to commit to publish data on land acquisitions, and make that accessible to local communities, whether it is biofuels, commercial investments or China buying some land with an eye to in future feeding the Chinese rather than the Africans, which is always the fear that has arisen,” Featherstone said.

Defending biofuel mandates

Farm groups and the biofuel industry have hit back at their critics, saying plant-based fuels give farmers new markets while helping to reduce carbon emissions. They also deny any direct links to food price volatility, noting that the two main transport fuels produced from plant oil – ethanol and biodiesel – did not exist during the wild food price fluctuations of the 1970s.

The industry is pressured the EU not to back away from its longtime support for alternative fuels after the European Commission last year called for halving its target of 10% biofuel use in transport by 2020 in response to a spike in food costs and concern about the environmental impact of plant-oil cultivation in developing nations.

One of Europe’s leading biofuel industry groups, ePure, points out that ethanol uses post-food residues for fuel production. The industry also says it is moving ahead with development of advanced biofuels that do not compete with food crops.

European farm groups, including the influential Copa-Cogeca, have denounced moves to reverse the EU’s biofuel commitments, saying they hurt farmers and jeopardise investments in oil production.

But acknowledging potential impacts on developing nations, Copa-Cogeca has urged the EU to “encourage the introduction of effective environmental legislation in third countries in order to prevent the phenomenon of land use change.”

The United Nations’ special rapporteur on food rights, Olivier De Schutter, wants the EU to scrap its binding targets for fuel, saying the policies drive up food prices and push production to developing nations because of insufficient land within the EU.

“The impacts on these countries are overwhelmingly negative and are alleged to infringe on the realisation of the human right to adequate food,” the Belgian lawyer said in a statement on 23 April.

He has also linked biofuel demand to food price spikes and urged the EU to rethink its Common Agricultural Policy, saying its subsidies and support for European  growers undermine farmers in less-developed regions.

Citing the estimated €122 billion believed to be lost every year through tax avoidance and tax evasion in developing nations, Barry Johnston, the UK political advisor for Christian Aid, a charity group, said: “That is more than the global flow of aid into the developing world. Just through tax dodging alone, we see poor countries are net contributors to the rich world. The G8 has taken action on this before, it’s looked at the issue and made recommendations but this year we want to see concrete outcomes. So we’re pushing for measures there that will benefit developing countries and what that does it releases significant amounts of resources for investment in agriculture and nutrition.”

Biofuel industry groups in Europe and the United States contend that commodities speculation and high fossil fuel prices have had more impact on supermarket prices than biofuel production.

Their assessment was backed up in November 2012 when the US Environmental Protection Agency turned down a request by eight state governments to suspend the federal ethanol mandate due to high prices of food and animal feed, saying there was no evidence that fuel crops were driving food prices.

But such interpretations aren’t universal. In the summer of 2012, The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) urged the United States to suspend its mandate for producing biofuel to relieve pressure on maize crops amid the nation’s worst drought in 50 years.

The World Bank also has grown more cautious in its support for biofuel development, with one World Bank agro-economist arguing in a report on food prices that EU and US biofuel policies “were the most important factor” in the 2008 price spike.

  • 28 May: World Hunger Day
  • 8 June: British government hosting meeting on growth and nutrition ahead of the G8 summit
  • 17-18 June: G8 Summit at Fermanagh, Northern Ireland

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