3rd Feb 2023

Western biofuel policies 'incomprehensible,' says UN

A UN summit in Rome gathering together world leaders and food and agriculture experts has seen a showdown on EU and US biofuels policies and agricultural subsidies.

One UN official called the policies "incomprehensible," while development organisations and the biofuels industry campaigned fiercely to try to influence the meeting's outcome.

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  • The head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has come out against biofuels (Photo: Notat)

In an impassioned speech, Jacques Diouf, the director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation told some 60 heads of state that it is "incomprehensible...that subsidies worth €7-8 billion ($11-12 billion) in 2006 were used to divert 100 million tonnes of cereals from human consumption mostly to satisfy a thirst for fuels for vehicles."

He also called on world leaders – gathered to tackle the ongoing food crisis – to commit an additional €19 billion ($30 billion) a year to re-launch agricultural support schemes and avert the threats of future conflicts over food.

Mr Diouf said that from 1980 to 2005 aid to agriculture fell by 58 percent, while agriculture's share of foreign aid dropped from 17 percent to three percent over the same period.

"Regrettably the international community only reacts when the media beam the distressing spectacle of world suffering into the homes of the wealthy countries," Mr Diouf commented.

The barnstorming speech did not limit itself to western biofuels policies, but also attacked EU and US agricultural subsidies and, as he put it, a world economy that is more committed to buying arms than feeding people.

OECD countries are "distorting" world markets, he said, "spending €240 billion in 2006 alone to support their agriculture."

"In 2006, the world spent €775 billion on arms, while food wasted in a single country could cost €65 billion and excess consumption by the world's obese amounted to €13 billion."

Searching for consensus

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, though more diplomatic, also suggested biofuels policies needed adjustment, saying that the international community needed to reach a "greater degree of consensus on biofuel policies."

Recognising that the message coming out of the UN food summit will in effect be framing that consensus, two broad coalitions on either side of the debate attempted to convince world leaders of their perspective.

A joint letter addressed to Mr Diouf and the other attendees from the European Bioethanol Fuel Association, the US Renewable Fuels Association and the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association anticipated the secretary-general's speech.

"It would be highly precipitous...for the United Nations or other international bodies to single out biofuels as the major cause for escalating food prices and take actions that might lead to even higher food prices," read the letter.

Meanwhile, in their own open letter, a coalition of major development and environmental organisations, including Oxfam and Action Aid urged the summit to encourage the EU and US to abandon biofuels targets.

The NGOs said the widely touted 'sustainability criteria' being developed by the EU do not take into account knock-on effects such as rising food prices and increased hunger.

"The European Commission's conservative estimate is that the EU 10 per cent target will lead to a three to six per cent price increase in cereals could result in up to 100 million extra people in hunger by 2020," the charities said.

Meanwhile, the European farmers' lobby, COPA-COGECA, asked world leaders to promote food security through market stability and securing prices that allow their members to make a living.

"In the past the EU has been blamed for lowering world prices and causing poverty in developing countries, particularly through its export refunds," ," COPA-COGECA secretary general Pekka Pesonen said.

"Now that almost all export refunds are gone the same critics say that higher prices cause poverty and hunger. They should consider that over half of the 860 million hungry in the world are farmers."

UK supports review of EU target

In the wake of the ever-widening international reaction against biofuels, UK prime minister Gordon Brown indicated Monday that he would support a review of a compulsory EU targets for all members of a ten per cent minimum of biofuels by 2020.

"We need to look at whether we have made the right decisions over time about the production of biofuels at the expense of food," he said.

The biofuels debate is set to continue at a meeting of European environment ministers later this week, with the controversial fuel set to spark division.

A Slovenian EU presidency paper suggests that ministers are not expected to come to agreement, with countries scrapping over the nature of "sustainability criteria" - conditions intended to prevent the use of biofuels that harm the environment.

No member state wants the 10 percent target dropped entirely, with some countries wanting to see the target contingent on the commercial availability of second-generation biofuels, which do not compete with food.

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