Must we continue to use food for fuel?

The European Union is currently committed to ensuring that 10% of each Member State’s transport energy will come from biofuels by 2020. This originated as a well-intentioned attempt to combat climate change, but time has shown that using food for fuel can have devastating impacts on hunger and the environment. I’ve come to accept that it is time for a re-think.

In addition to concerns over their green credentials, biofuels are now recognised to be a key cause of hunger, affecting millions of people in developing countries. The World Bank, OECD, WTO, IFPRI, IMF, and five other UN agencies recommended that G20 governments abolish biofuel mandates, saying that “prices are substantially higher than they would be if no biofuels were produced”.

Concerns over the sustainability of biofuels are shared by major corporates too. Unilever, Nestle, and Carrefour all declared that “biofuels mandates should be evaluated regarding their impact on global food security priorities”.

Liberal Democrats, here and in the European Parliament, have sought to regulate for genuinely sustainable biofuels. The Department for Transport has frozen UK biofuel mandates under the leadership of Norman Baker, and Energy Secretary Ed Davey recently stated that “we’ve made a real mistake in the EU [on biofuels] and we’ve got to end that mistake, the sooner the better”.

The International Development Select Committee, chaired by Sir Malcolm Bruce MP, is leading an inquiry on food security and has also given priority to the issue of biofuels. Our DFID Minister Lynne Featherstone recently confirmed that the G8-linked event on hunger on 8 June will raise the issue. Nick Clegg himself has recognised the impact of land grabs, the majority of which result from the need to grow biofuels, and is championing this issue under the UK’s leadership of the G8 this year.

The last few years have seen many organisations, from ActionAid to Oxfam, calling for an end to European biofuels targets. At our spring conference in Brighton I spoke at an ActionAid event on this issue and subsequently raised it with the Department for International Development’s Secretary of State, Justine Greening on the floor of the House of Commons.

All this is taking place against a background of one in eight people going to bed hungry every night. That is why the IF campaign has been calling for an end to the use of Food for Fuel as part of its campaign against hunger.

The Prime Minister has this year pledged to “lead the way in the battle against hunger”, and it is Liberal Democrat ministers who are taking concrete action on the impact of biofuels.

It is striking that the amount of food burned as biofuels in the petrol tanks of our G8 combined nations could feed 441 million people according to ActionAid’s recent research. 6 million hectares in sub-Saharan Africa – that’s about half the area of England – are now under the control of European biofuel companies. And a disproportionate number of these projects are run by UK businesses. Many of these land ‘investments’ to grow biofuels are in countries with some of the highest levels of food insecurity, including Senegal, Zambia and Madagascar.

If you’d like to find out more, the IF campaign's Food Not Fuel week shows the extent of support there is to put these policies right.

What policy better illustrates the law of unintended consequences? The case against increasing the biofuel mandate is now clear. We should continue to pursue reductions in the carbon emissions arising from transport – just not at the expense of those who continue to go hungry.

This article first appeared on Lib Dem Voice.