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EUROPE: Warnings Against Biofuels Get Louder

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, May 6 2008 (IPS) - European efforts to promote biofuels should be rethought because of the contribution they have made to rising food prices, according to Jeffrey Sachs, a top economic advisor to the United Nations.

During a visit to Brussels May 5, Sachs insisted that the European Union's support for biofuels is at least partly responsible for the extra hardship the world's poor have faced lately, as a growing proportion of their meagre incomes has gone on basic groceries.

Sachs, who counsels UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the Millennium Development Goals for reducing extreme poverty, said that Europe's biofuels policy is having a "real impact" on food prices because wheat is being used on this continent to meet its energy demand, rather than to feed people.

While Sachs, an economics professor in Columbia University, New York, admitted that the U.S. decision to give its farmers a subsidy of 51 cents per gallon of ethanol made from corn is more culpable than the European Union's more modest support for biofuels, he voiced concern about how the latter's diversion of food crops to fuel is set to "multiply considerably in the years ahead under current plans.

"The U.S. programme has a larger impact (on food prices), but neither of them makes much sense in terms of environmental effects, energy balance or food policy," he added. "I would advocate reconsideration of both."

Sachs' position is at variance with claims made over the past week by the European Commission.

Last year, the EU's leaders stipulated that 20 percent of the EU's transport requirements should be met by biofuels by 2020. Since then, a chorus of critics, including the Union's own scientific advisors, have called for this target to be dropped.

Peter Mandelson, the European commissioner for trade, has said that the EU biofuels policy has only had a "minimal impact" on world food prices. The real culprit, according to Mandelson, was the U.S.

Olivier de Schutter, the UN's newly appointed special rapporteur on the right to food, has argued that the EU's policy is misguided.

"The ambitious objectives for the production of biofuels that have been set by the United States and the European Union are irresponsible," he told French newspaper Le Monde. "The production of rapeseed, palm oil destroys the forests in Indonesia. The use of one-quarter of corn in the United States is a scandal, in which taxpayers' money is used solely to serve the interests of a small lobby. I call for a freeze on all investment in this sector."

Sachs also criticised the decline in the amount of development aid that Europe has been giving to poor countries in the past year.

Between 2006 and last year, European aid dropped from almost 48 billion euros (76 billion dollars) to 46 billion euros. This was the first such fall since 2000.

All of the 15 countries that comprised the EU before it expanded into central and eastern Europe in 2004 have undertaken to allocate at least 0.7 percent of their national income to development aid by 2015. Yet Sweden, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Denmark are the only EU member states to have so far met or exceeded that target.

The lack of progress in increasing aid is imperilling the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals, according to Sachs. The MDGs include sharp reductions in hunger, maternal and infant mortality and of the incidences of deadly diseases like AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis by 2015.

"We're now in 2008 for a project that started in 2000 and ends in 2015," said Sachs. "Africa is way off course because aid promised as early as 2002 has not been forthcoming. In 2005, the commitments were more explicit: to double aid to Africa by 2010.

"This is a very serious matter. The commitment in Europe was to double aid by 2010, yet there seems to have been no consequent programme to achieve that. Indeed, the biggest donors are the farthest behind."

Particular emphasis, he added, should be placed on helping African agriculture so that the long-term structural problems underlying the current food crisis can be addressed.

While he recognised that emergency food aid is required at the moment, he said it does not offer any long-term solution.

He cited Malawi as an example of a country which has dramatically improved the productivity of its farming. After the country encountered its worst harvest in a decade in 2005, Malawi's government introduced a major support programme for agriculture.

"The doubling of food production in Malawi over the last three years is the kind of experience that can be replicated in many places," said Sachs.

He recommended massive support for fertilisers and high-yield seeds but said that he is not seeking to introduce genetically modified (GM) crops into Africa. Non-GM hybrids of seeds traditionally used in Africa which can dramatically boost harvests are currently available in Africa, he said, yet poor farmers generally cannot afford them.

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