Fueling the Food Crisis

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Fueling the Food Crisis

The EU's biofuels policy will push up global food prices. Some at the commission have expressed concern, but will their voices be heard?

by
David Cronin

Unlike some lefties, I've never regarded Fidel Castro as infallible, mainly because of his uneven record on human rights (exemplary in meeting basic economic needs but execrable in terms of respecting civil liberties).

Nonetheless, a warning he made in early 2007 on biofuels has turned out to be eerily prophetic. In a conversation with Hugo Chavez, Castro warned that using agricultural crops to power cars would push up the price of food and that the consequences would be "tragic".

More than a year later, the words of an ailing pariah are being echoed on a regular basis by pillars of the western establishment. Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank and a former member of the Bush administration, said recently that everyone should "look closely at the effects of the dash for biofuels".

And yet there is a reluctance at the highest level of EU policymaking to admit that biofuels could be even partly responsible for the misery brought by the increased cost of living from Mexico to Mauritania. José Manuel Barroso, the European commission chief, has tried to pin the blame on every other factor he can think of; Andris Piebalgs, the man responsible for energy policy in Barroso's team, has claimed that biofuels have become a "scapegoat".

True, there have been rumblings of discontent within the EU executive. Louis Michel (pdf) and Stavros Dimas, the commissioners for development aid and the environment, both publicly voiced concerns about Europe's biofuels policy in January. Since then, however, they have remained mum as gormless officials state they are obliged to promote biofuels because of a target set by the union's presidents and prime ministers last year as part of a package of measures designed to tackle climate change. Under it, biofuels would meet 10% of the EU's transport requirements by 2020.

There is no legal requirement that I'm aware of for the commission to behave in an unquestioningly obsequious manner towards EU governments. On the contrary, commissioners theoretically relish a good spat with national capitals, especially over environmental matters.

What makes Barroso's stance all the more baffling, then, is that it disregards the opinions of his own scientific advisers. The commission's in-house research centre believes that the ecological costs of using biofuels will almost certainly outweigh any benefits they will bring. And the European environment agency has urged that the 10% objective should be suspended until a comprehensive study on the likely impact of biofuels is undertaken.

The only plausible explanation I can offer for why the commission is arrogantly spurning such counsel is that it is more receptive to the views of corporate vested interests than independent-minded boffins. The commission's stated policy on biofuels mirrors the papers prepared for it by two "expert groups" it has assembled in recent years: the biofuels research advisory council (pdf) and the European biofuels technology platform.

Neither of these bodies could be considered sensitive to concerns over the environment or food security. Instead, they are dominated by representatives of car-makers, giant oil, chemical and biotechnology firms, industrial farmers and Nestlé, whose head has described the idea that everyone should have the right to clean food and water as "extreme".

When the commission has friends like that, it becomes easier to understand why Barroso can be so callously indifferent towards the plight of the hungry.

David Cronin is the Brussels correspondent of Inter Press Service news agency.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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