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EU Defends Food as Fuel

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Apr 22 2010 (IPS) - The European Union’s anti-poverty chief has refused to concede that his promotion of biofuels has helped exacerbate global hunger.

Andris Piebalgs, the EU’s commissioner for development aid, published a paper Apr. 21 committing him to ensuring that work aimed at reducing poverty is not undermined by the Union’s activities in other policy areas such as trade, agriculture and fisheries. While the paper states that the Union’s officials have an “obligation” to monitor the effects of biofuel production on the world’s poor, Piebalgs would not accept he was wrong to support the use of food crops for power generation during his previous role as the EU’s energy commissioner.

“I can clearly state today that biofuel policy has done no damage in the developing world,” Piebalgs told IPS. “The focus is right.”

Holding the energy portfolio in the European Commission from 2004 until last year, Piebalgs was one of the most zealous defenders of an EU strategy that at least 10 percent of all journeys undertaken on the bloc’s roads by 2020 should be powered by biofuels.

Since that goal was set in 2007, it has encountered stiff opposition from environmental campaigners and food policy analysts. The World Food Programme has held the greater use of biofuels at least partly responsible for a spike in the prices of basic groceries that has pushed the number of people who suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition beyond a billion. Food crops used for cars and trucks include wheat, maize, soy, sugar and palm oil.

Piebalgs’ stance contrasts with the findings of several studies undertaken at the Commission’s request. An environmental impact assessment on the EU’s biofuels policy issued last month cast doubts on whether it will help slow down the pace of climate change. The assessment calculated that raising the proportion of biofuels used for road transport above 5 percent in the next decade would do more harm than good to the global environment as many forests would be sacrificed to create room for biofuel plantations.

The Commission has so far refused to make public a series of other documents relating to the biofuels target.

“Evidence is building that the EU’s biofuels policy is leading to the destruction of forests and rural areas, as well as pushing up food prices,” said Adrian Bebb from Friends of the Earth. “It is crystal clear that the EU’s policy on biofuels is not sustainable and it is only a matter of time before the EU needs to change that policy. Quite clearly, though, some commissioners are still in denial.”

Earlier this year ActionAid predicted that an additional 600 million people would join the ranks of the world’s hungry by 2020 unless the EU scraps its biofuels target. Anne Catherine Claude, a campaigner with the organisation, said that Piebalgs is “probably afraid” of admitting the impact of biofuels because he does not wish to upset the large energy and agribusiness companies who have a vested interest in keeping the target. The Union’s objective was originally set after EU officials consulted an advisory panel comprising representatives of such firms as Shell, Abengoa, Total, British Sugar, Nestlé and Volvo.

“The Commission cannot go on promoting the biofuels industry,” said Claude. “But this is difficult for it to acknowledge because it would mean that companies involved in the biofuels industry would lose a lot of money.”

Piebalgs also presented a plan this week to increase the EU’s aid to poor countries.

The 15 nations that made up the Union before it expanded into eastern Europe in 2004 have all pledged to reserve 0.7 percent of their income for official development assistance by 2015. Yet Piebalgs bemoaned how the average proportion of income devoted to aid by the Union this year is only around 0.4 percent.

During 2009 the EU as a whole provided 49 billion euros (66 billion dollars) in development aid. According to Piebalgs, this figure must rise by 9 billion euros per year to ensure that the promises for 2015 are honoured.

He urged the Union’s governments to come forward with action plans giving details of how they propose to increase their aid spending. Such increases should be possible even at a time when Europe is in financial difficulty, he argued. “If you compare this with national budgets, it is not really big money,” he said.

Piebalgs recommended, too, that greater attention should be paid to helping poor countries collect higher tax revenues. Extreme poverty cannot be overcome unless capital flight and illicit capital flows are addressed, the Commission said, citing estimates that poor countries lose between 641 and 979 billion dollars per year as a result of these problems.

Anti-poverty campaigners generally welcomed the measures sought by Piebalgs. Elise Ford, a spokeswoman for Oxfam, said that the onus is now on EU governments to cease cutting back on their aid allocations. “Whilst some countries like the UK, Spain and Belgium are taking serious steps towards meeting their aid promises, others are really letting the side down,” she said. “Italy’s aid spending plunged last year by a massive 31 percent, Ireland’s by 19 percent and Germany’s by 12 percent.”

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