Paris backs halt in biofuel use to avert food shortages

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A French plan to fight food price volatility took further shape yesterday (12 September) with a call to pause global development of biofuels, just a day after President François Hollande pushed for creation of strategic food stocks.

A government spokeswoman, speaking after a cabinet meeting, said France would “push for a pause in the development of biofuels competing with food."

The plan is forming in response to the third global food price spike in four years, this time sparked by the worst US drought in over half a century and persistent dry conditions in other key cereal producing areas that revived memories of unrest from 2007/08's food emergency.

Hollande earlier said he was in talks with other heads of state to launch strategic stockpiles of agricultural commodities, one of the boldest measures yet to tame volatile food prices.

Although it was unclear whether Hollande would succeed in convincing major players such as the United States or China to agree on strategic food stocks, potentially a difficult and costly challenge, Italy has already backed the French initiative.

The biofuels move is in line with a bid by the European Union executive to impose a limit on the use of crop-based biofuels over fears they are less climate-friendly than initially thought and compete with food production, as shown in draft EU legislation seen by Reuters.

The European Commission's plan still needs to be approved by EU government and lawmakers.

Biofuels are made mostly of grains and oilseeds. Prices soared to record highs this year due to drought in the U.S. Midwest and the Black Sea region.

Internally, France already plans to cap at 7% – the current level – the use of crop-based biofuels in fuels, a read-out of a cabinet meeting showed.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization called last month for a relaunch of the debate on biofuel policies and for a look at ways to make them more flexible to reduce the risk of food crises and stepped up the pressure on the United States to change its biofuel policies.

France's calls to ease so-called first generation biofuels, also widely used in sugar cane-based ethanol in Brazil, is a new sign of the country's efforts to prevent price spikes.

'Indirect land-use change' (ILUC) means that if you take a field of grain and switch the crop to biofuel, somebody somewhere will go hungry unless those missing tonnes of grain are grown elsewhere.

Economics often dictates that the crops to make up the shortfall come from tropical zones, and so encourage farmers to carve out new land from forests. Burning forests to clear that land can pump vast quantities of climate-warming emission into the  atmosphere, enough in theory to cancel out any of the benefits that biofuels were meant to bring.

The European Commission has run 15 studies on different biofuel crops, which on average conclude that over the next decade Europe's biofuels policies might have an indirect impact equal to 4.5 million hectares of land – an area the size of Denmark.

Some in the biofuels industry argue that the Commission's science is flawed and that the issue could be tackled by a major overhaul of agricultural strategy to improve productivity or by pressing abandoned farmland back into action. Waste products from biofuels production can also be fed to animals, they say, so reducing the pressure on land resources.

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