SEF: "Food vs. Fuel – Biofuels for rural development: risks and opportunities"

The introduction of E10 – a fuel blend with an ethanol content of up to 10 per cent – in Europe has not only aroused widespread concerns among motorists about driveability and the possible risk of engine damage. It has also triggered a public debate about the competition between the production of food vs. the production of bio-/agrofuels. Is our “hunger” for supposedly eco-friendly forms of energy jeopardising the right to food? Or will the increased demand for biofuels create new prospects for rural regions? What is the role of the media in this context? These questions were the focus of attention at a workshop organised by the Development and Peace Foundation (SEF) and Germanwatch at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum 2011 on 20 May 2011.

The political urgency of the topic was highlighted at the start of the workshop by its chair, Klemens van de Sand (Germanwatch/SEF), who pointed out that the conflict between the production of food and fuel now features on the G20 agenda. Indeed, ten international organisations recently published a report urging the G20 countries to end their massive subsidies for biofuel feedstock production.

Political “steering” is key

Is the food vs. fuel conflict inevitable? Uwe R. Fritsche from the Öko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology) in Darmstadt called for a more nuanced approach. Key sustainability issues for biomass, he said, are direct and indirect land use change (LUC) and its climate impacts; biodiversity; air, water and soil quality and quantity impacts; food security; land rights; and rural income. In terms of the food price effects of increased bioenergy production, Fritsche anticipated negative impacts in the short term, but pointed to the prospect of longer-term positive impacts, for example through the generation of higher incomes for farmers. Distributive effects will dominate, with taxation and social transfers playing a key role in this context.

In order to avoid direct competition with food production, one option is to cultivate biomass feedstocks primarily on under-/unused and degraded land. However, Fritsche pointed out that this is twice as costly as biomass feedstock cultivation on fertile soils, making it commercially non-viable at present. Political “steering” of biomass feedstock cultivation and trade is therefore urgently needed in order to avoid negative impacts.

Land grabbing is a problem

Bärbel Dieckmann, President of Welthungerhilfe, focused the workshop’s attention on the negative effects. Two-thirds of the world’s poor live in rural regions, said Dieckmann, and most of them are smallholders. Price increases for farm products resulting from rising demand for biofuels could create new opportunities for small farmers, but the higher food prices are unaffordable for the poor. Furthermore, the promotion of biofuels is encouraging the growing phenomenon of land grabbing and water grabbing. Dieckmann therefore called for the adoption of policy regimes, especially at the governmental level. She voiced an urgent plea for the right to food to be respected, especially in view of the world’s growing population.

Alternative energy crops: a new opportunity

There is a widespread perception that biofuels are leading to higher food prices, but instead of the wrong policies, biofuels themselves have been blamed, said Vineet Raswant from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rome. He particularly criticised the governmental subsidies to produce cereal-based feedstock, calling instead for the cultivation of alternative biofuel crops that can be grown on degraded land, in saline soils or dry areas. Raswant highlighted the potential role of biofuel production in the urgently needed development of rural regions, especially in generating incomes and opening up new markets. Policies which aim to safeguard food security by keeping producer prices low reinforce rural poverty: the subsidies paid to compensate for these low prices mainly benefit the major producers rather than smallholders.

The wrong economic policies and the lack of critical media

The economic policies of African countries are geared towards export-led growth and are not based on domestic demand, criticised Thomas Deve, Southern Africa regional coordinator for the United Nations Millennium Campaign. For example, in his home country Zimbabwe, smallholders shift their agriculture focus from staple foods to cash crops for export and dedicate large tracts of land to biofuels feedstock production. However, they remain poor and end up with serious deficits when it comes to food security. The situation is exacerbated by the major investments by foreign governments to produce food or energy crops for their respective countries at the expense of Africa’s local populations.

Deve drew attention to the difficult situation of the media in Africa. Powerful politicians and big business work very hard to maintain access and control of media both in the public and private spheres, said the former journalist. Some sections of the media have placed emphasis on accepting the new innovations and the “modernisation” of the economy, notwithstanding the negative impacts on society and the environment. Deve urged the media to constantly explore and report on the impacts of globalisation on farmers and food security in Africa.

By Dr. Michèle Roth, SEF