Counting the Cost of the Global Biofuels Boom

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Smarter Fuel Future

Counting the Cost of the Global Biofuels Boom

A woman and her son harvesting sugar cane in Oddar Meanchey, Cambodia. (Photo: Solidaires/ActionAid France)

Currently, there are 64 countries in the world that have mandates for the consumption of biofuels. That’s a lot of countries, and a lot of biofuel.

Countries have many shared goals and similar policies – and they often work. But biofuels mandates are having alarming impacts on people around the world – even in countries that don’t have their own mandates in place.

Government mandates create an inflexible demand for biofuel crops, driving up the cost of food and making prices more volatile, thereby contributing to hunger around the world.

They also push up demand for land, and as the mandates increase, families in countries outside the US are being kicked off their land to make way for biofuels plantations.

New research released this week by international aid agency ActionAid shows that demand for biofuels will skyrocket in the next ten years, with government mandates leading to a 43% increase in biofuels demand globally. Fuelled by biofuels mandates in the Renewable Fuel Standard, US biofuels demand will account for almost half of the global increase.

So what? You may think. Energy diversification is a good thing. The problem is that the biofuels mandates in the RFS are causing problems elsewhere in the world. Problems that Congress has so far failed to address.

Hoy Maï is a mother and farmer from Cambodia. Her country does not have a biofuels mandate, but is able to grow large amounts of sugar cane – a biofuel crop. She had four children and was pregnant with a fifth when her 20 hectares of land were seized by a sugar company.

Hoy Maï protested the loss of her land, but instead of getting it back, she was put in prison for eight months, and only released briefly to give birth. Without her land, Hoy Maï is struggling to support her children.

Hers is one of many stories from communities around the world that are feeling the sharp end of the biofuels boom. To meet the 43% global increase in biofuels, up to 17 million additional hectares of land and 145 billion more liters of water will be needed – that’s an area of land equivalent to New York State. This is all new land, in addition to all the corn and sugar around the world currently being grown to feed our demand for fuel.

Whether or not the sugar produced on Hoy Maï’s land ever makes it into a gas tank, it’s clear that biofuel demand drives up the price of food crops and increases competition for agricultural land. How many families will be forced off their land to meet the mandates in the RFS?

Our biofuels policies were developed by Congress with good intentions, but in reality they’re a failed solution to our energy needs. Congress got this policy badly wrong and it’s time for reform.

Kelly Stone

Kelly Stone is a policy analyst for ActionAid USA.

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