Europe's biofuel plans 'will make 100 million hungry'

Posted: 16 February 2010

Up to 100 million more people could go hungry if the UK and Europe commit to increases in biofuels consumption in order to meet new European Union legislation, says a major new report.

The EU wants at least 10 per cent of transport fuels to come from renewable sources within the next 10 years. This target will be met in the main by industrial biofuels - fuels made on an industrial scale from agricultural crops, including important staple foods. The majority are likely to come from developing countries.

But, says Action Aid in Meals per gallon: the impact of industrial biofuels on people and global hunger the proposed legislation would lead to a nearly fourfold increase in the amount of biofuels used in Europe's petrol and diesel. It says this will have a disastrous impact on the world's poor as food prices rise.

Report author Tim Rice said: "Biofuels are driving a global human tragedy. Local food prices have already risen massively. As biofuel production gains pace, this can only accelerate.

 

Matilde Ngovene,Mozambique
 
Matilde Ngovene,Mozambique. The majority of her land was taken by a biofuels company. Matilde used to have enough land to feed 15 people all year round, now the small amount of land she has left is not enough to feed her household. Photo © JamesOatway/Panos/ActionAid

 "Poor people can spend as much as 80 per cent of their income on food. Even small increases in the price of staples such as maize and wheat mean that many more will become increasingly desperate."

Worldwide impact

ActionAid also calculates that while increased use of biofuels in Europe could drive the numbers of chronically hungry people up by 100 million, the worldwide rush could increase that number to 600 million.

Over a billion people currently go hungry each day and it is estimated that for every one per cent rise in the price of food, 16 million more people fall into hunger.

ActionAid also says that biofuels are not even an answer to climate change. "Most biofuels are worse than the fossil fuels they are supposed to replace," said Tim Rice. He points out that the majority of biofuels need nitrogen fertiliser, releasing nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. "Scientists believe that the extent of nitrous oxide emissions has been seriously underestimated."

Large scale biofuel plantations also increase carbon dioxide emissions, either directly by cutting down forests or ploughing up other carbon rich habitats, or indirectly by forcing farmers to move into these areas, the charity says.

This displacement of farming families is gathering speed as multinationals acquire land for biofuels with little or no consultation or compensation. Poor people suffer broken promises about wages and job opportunities, and face food scarcity, the report adds.

It says that across developing countries as a whole, EU companies have already acquired or are in negotiations for at least five million hectares - well over twice the size of Wales. And to meet the 2020 EU target solely from biofuels, the total land area required to grow industrial biofuels in poor countries could reach 17.5 million hectares.

Alarm call

"ActionAid is relaying an alarm call from people on the ground," said Tim Rice.

"In Mozambique ActionAid met Matilde Ngoene who had her farm grabbed by a biofuel company - she now has no job nor has she received any compensation.

Raju Sona
 
Raju Sona is a small-scale farmer in Assam, India, seen with his only Jatropha tree at his home farm. "No one will buy jatropha. People said if you have plantation then surely you have a good market, but we didn't see such good market." Photo © Atul Loke/Panos Pictures/ActionAid

 "Raju Sona in India was persuaded to grow biofuels to earn money but his plot was too small. There was no market and he lost his ability to feed his family.

"Western consumption of biofuels is driving people like these into hunger."

To meet EU deadlines, member states are writing national action plans setting out their renewables strategies for the next 10 years. ActionAid is calling on the UK and others to ensure they do not commit to any further increase in industrial biofuels.

It also says that transport and energy consumption should be reduced, targets and financial incentives for industrial biofuels ended and more support given to small-scale sustainable biofuels in the EU and elsewhere.