Oxfam's EU Advocacy office in Brussels

by Natalia Alonso

Energy ministers must set out a renewables path for Europe that does not come at the expense of millions of families in developing countries, who are struggling to feed their children, says Oxfam

Biofuels are pushing up food prices and driving up to 60 per cent of the large-scale land deals taking place across the world. Yet, despite striking evidence, Europe continues to overlook the devastating impact of its biofuels policy on disadvantaged people and communities. Earlier this week, the European Commission had the chance to show that it is finally facing up to the reality of biofuels, but it missed the target once again. In its new blueprint on the post-2020 strategy for renewable energy, the commission remained silent on the effect Europe’s biofuels policy is having on food security in developing countries.

The European Union is failing to learn from the negative effects of the current 2020 strategy – with its 10 per cent binding target of renewable energy in transport – which will be largely met through biofuels produced from food crops. It is worrying that the commission now seems to leave the option of a similar target for 2030 open. Biofuels mandates drive food prices up and make them more volatile.

The demand for biofuels to drive our cars diverts food from stomachs to fuel pumps. The knock-on effect is higher food prices, due to the reduced supply of food combined with increasing demand. And food price rises hit the poorest the hardest. Last year, some 10 international bodies – including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation – found the evidence of the link between biofuels policies and increasingly volatile food prices to be so compelling that they recommended that G20 governments abolish all biofuels mandates and subsidies. The EU’s biofuels policies alone could push up oilseed prices by up to 33 per cent, maize by up to 22 per cent, sugar by up to 21 per cent and cereals by up to 10 per cent – between now and 2020 – according to a recent study by the commission’s Joint Research Centre.

Higher and more volatile global prices for agricultural commodities translate into higher and less predictable food prices for billions of people – especially in countries like Yemen, Guatemala and Cambodia; where much of the food sold on local markets is bought or sold on global markets. Even though prices on international markets shoot up, this does not necessarily benefit millions of poor people who make their living from agriculture. The poorest often spend up to 80 per cent of household incomes on food, which means that even slight increases in the cost of food can force families to make agonising choices. Nutrition, health, education, livelihoods and social cohesion can all suffer when prices are high. Missing meals, even for a relatively short period, can affect children for their entire lifetimes.

Biofuels mandates drive land deals which deprive communities of vital land and water. The rush to meet targets for minimum biofuels content in petrol and diesel, within a relatively short timeframe, is a significant driver of the global land rush. And EU biofuels mandates are among the most ambitious. Doing land deals properly takes time: the sheer volume of land required to fulfil European biofuels mandates by 2020 means that the deals are often ‘land grabs’. Communities are usually forced from their land with little or no compensation. Evidence from the International Land Commission suggests that land acquisitions to grow biofuels feedstocks – including soy, sugarcane, palm oil and jatropha – may account for almost 60 per cent of all large-scale land deals across the world in the last decade. The deals cover more than 372,000 square kilometres, or an area bigger than Germany.

The Institute for European Environmental Policy estimates that meeting the EU target for 10 per cent of transport fuels being from renewable sources by 2020 could, if sourced from large-scale biofuel production alone, require up to 69,000 square kilometres of land in developing countries. An area larger than Belgium and the Netherlands combined. Energy ministers, meeting next week in Brussels, have the opportunity to set a renewable energy future for Europe that does not come at the expense of millions of families in developing countries struggling to feed their children. Ministers should provide the commission with the right steer. Existing 2020 EU biofuels mandates should be scrapped and no new target for 2030 should be set.

Natalia Alonso is head of Oxfam International’s EU Office, in Brussels

This comment piece has been published today in the Public Service Europe.

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