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PARIS, Apr 19 2009 (IPS) - Earlier in the decade, biofuels were hailed as the energy panacea, the silver bullet to solve oil shortages and abide by environmental concerns. The European Union recently took the lead in imposing the use of these liquid or gaseous fuels made from plants.
But the green credentials of biofuels have since been disputed. The total amount of energy needed to transform biomass into ‘‘green’’ fuels offsets most of the energy biofuels save when the entire process or life-cycle is considered.
Soils must be fertilised. American corn and soybeans, French sugar beet, Brazilian sugar cane or peanuts from Benin must undergo heavy, water-intensive industrial processes to become fuel, and the final product has to be transported, mostly by truck.
These steps dramatically increase biofuels’ overall carbon footprint, and has spurted a worrying new surge of deforestation in many developing countries.
But this is not the reason why a coalition of French development activists is furiously campaigning against biofuels.
The French chapters of Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development (CCFD) and others have joined forces under a single watchword: ‘‘Biofuels won’t feed the planet.’’
According to the coalition, the figures speak for themselves: 232 kilos of maize are needed to produce 50 litres of ethanol – roughly enough to fill an average car tank, or enough to provide the amount of calories a child needs in a year.
But last December, the 27 EU countries agreed on Brussels’ ‘‘Biofuels Directive’’ and made filling car tanks with biofuels much more profitable than feeding the hungry.
Part of the EU’s comprehensive ‘‘Climate and Energy Package’’ aimed at cutting greenhouse gases and cutting energy consumption, the directive requires all EU members to rely on biofuels for 10 percent of their transport fuel needs by 2020.
‘‘We have won the battle of ideas, but lost the legal battle,’’ Ambroise Mazal, who heads CCFD’s side of the campaign against biofuels, told IPS. ‘‘Many European officials have realised the adverse effects of biofuels but nobody dared amend the ‘Package’ the 27 EU member states had agreed to.
‘‘It would have amounted to opening Pandora’s Box in the course of what they dubbed ‘the negotiation of the century’, given its complexity,’’ he explains.
‘‘The problem remains that, as of today, the EU can produce a mere two percent of the required total. European agriculture could potentially account for half of the required ten percent, but the rest will have to be imported from outside the EU,’’ Mazal says.
This artificial bloating of demand is now widely acknowledged as responsible for the 2008 upsurge in food prices, much more so than ‘‘the speculators’’ that many politicians lambasted last year for diverting food from the dinner table to the fuel tank. Subsidies and tax incentives have already made it irresistibly profitable for European agriculture to turn to ethanol or bio-diesel crops.
Responding to European hunger for biofuel, many African countries have expanded single-crop farming surfaces. But only large businesses have the resources and capital to reach the critical size that allows for economies of scale which make the venture profitable.
Smallholders, which in countries like Benin account for the majority of land use, and up to 80 percent of employment opportunities, do not benefit from the biofuel windfall. In addition, land, water and other limited resources are being diverted from scarce food-producing crops.
Several international institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, have acknowledged in recent years that the increasing demand for biofuel crops has catastrophic social, economic and nutritional impacts on developing countries and their already tense food resources.
Despite this, several African states have drafted policies in favour of biofuel crops.
In Senegal, which was affected by food riots a year ago, up to 200,000 hectares (10 percent of the country’s arable lands) might be set aside for jatropha crops for biofuels.
Second and third generation biofuels are supposed to limit environmental and social impacts because of either the use of non food-producing crops or biomass such as algae and fungus.
‘‘That’s a sham,’’ insists Mazal, ‘‘because second generation fuels made from non-edible crops still take up arable lands and the research is far from developing sustainable biomass in laboratories.’’
According to him, ‘‘the only remaining lever is on how the EU’s directive will be transposed into national law. France had initially set targets even more ambitious than those of the EU, aiming for ten percent of biofuels to be used by 2015 but these have now been revised to seven percent by 2010 in order to save existing investments.
‘‘Still, that has consequences: in 2007, 65 percent of French rapeseed oil was used for biofuels, and we’ve had to import rapeseed oil for food consumption, generally from countries which can’t afford to spare it,’’ Mazal argues.
A growing trend towards the environmental and social certification of biofuels aims at insuring that they have limited adverse effects on soils and farmers. But these criteria do not take into account the rising food prices or the structural bias of biofuels towards large landholders.
‘‘The next step announced by the EU is the commissioning of a study on the comprehensive impacts of biofuels in developing countries, to be handed in by 2014,’’ states Ambroise Mazal. ‘‘But it doesn’t seem like the European Commission has any corrective actions in mind, even by then.’’
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