EU and US targets and subsidies are fuelling a growing demand for ‘agrofuels’. Far from being a sustainable energy source, the increased cultivation of crops for fuel threatens the world’s poor with starvation, damages biodiversity and even contributes to global warming, argues Oscar Reyes.
What has climate change got to do with the rising price of bread? The answer lies in the rush to turn farmland over to fuel production. In early September, global wheat prices hit a new record high of $8 per bushel on the
Other staple crops are affected by similar trends, dubbed ‘agflation’ by economists. And while agrofuel production is not the only factor in these price increases, it is a major one. According to the recent OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2007-2016, ‘Increased demand for biofuels is causing fundamental changes to agricultural markets that could drive up world prices for many farm products.’
With the EU and its member states incentivising the growth of ‘agrofuels’, big money is pouring into this sector – with venture capitalists and major agribusiness standing to gain from recent price hikes. This rise in the price of staple crops can also benefit small farmers, but the increasing pressure on land is threatening to displace them from their farms as large-scale plantations take over.
When the price of staple crops rises, it affects more than the price of a sandwich. The world’s poorest people already spend 50 to 80 per cent of household income on food – and it is poverty, not scarcity, that is the major cause of hunger. When, in January, the
Their voices have been joined by others from across the political spectrum. In April, Fidel Castro warned against the ‘sinister idea of converting food into fuel’, prompting the Economist to run a leader article with the unlikely headline ‘Castro was right’. In May, the leading
From an environmentalist viewpoint, there is a lot wrong with this proposal. For one thing, the EU simply doesn’t have the domestic capacity to meet its agrofuel target. Even the existing EU target of 5.75 per cent agrofuel use by 2010 would require that an estimated 20 per cent of arable land be turned over to fuel production. With consumption still on the increase, it remains unclear as to how much more land would be required to account for 10 per cent of transport fuel use in 2020.
One immediate by-product is the scrapping of set-aside lands from 2008 – a plan that could decimate bird-life and insect populations. The EU’s own calculations also bank upon untried ‘second generation’ agrofuels to make crop yields more efficient. Many of these technologies would prove highly controversial, since they include techniques to genetically modify trees, endangering the precautionary principle as a basis for such research.
Even this would not come close to meeting the new target, however, meaning that a large share of agrofuels would have to be imported from the global South. Palm oil grown in south east Asia is one of the most likely sources, but the environmental impacts would be profound. The conservation group Wetlands International estimated that the import to
Direct emissions from transport fuel are only part of the picture, moreover. A recent study in the journal Science found that existing forests could absorb nine times more CO2 than the production of agrofuels could achieve on the same area of land. According to Renton Righelato, co-author of the report, the ‘mistaken policy’ of targets and incentives is fuelling deforestation.
Sugar-cane and soybean farming in
This has both economic and environmental impacts. Monoculture plantations not only threaten what remains of global forest cover, reducing biodiversity, but they also subject local populations to a new wave of plantations. JoÃ£o Pedro Stedile, of the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) in
The sustainability myth
In the face of these criticisms, the EU is now pushing for ‘sustainability’ criteria for agrofuel production. In July, EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson warned that ‘Europeans won’t pay a premium for biofuels if the ethanol in their car is produced unsustainably by systematically burning fields after harvests. Or if it comes at the expense of rainforests.’
Behind the rhetoric, though, there is little in the EU’s approach to address these concerns. Even tough sustainability criteria would leave unaddressed the major problems of the rush to agrofuels, since they would most likely displace other forms of agriculture from cleared land. The net deforestation would be the same, a ‘secondary impact’ on land use that no sustainability criteria can adequately account for.
In fact, no criteria or certification schemes can deal with the broader structural effects that agrofuels are having on agricultural intensification and food prices. The definition of ‘sustainability’ does not extend to issues of social justice – and as long as money is to be made, the push for agrofuels looks set to continue unabated. This is not simply the law of the market but is also an effect of subsidies. The