Biofuels are fuels that are produced from living or geologically recent organisms such as plants. These have long been regarded by some as a possible alternative to fossil fuels and contributor in solving the environmental crisis facing the planet as a renewable form of energy. In September of this year the European Parliament is due to discuss changes in EU biofuel policies.
Since 2003 the EU has been promoting the use of biofuels, and since 2009 EU governments have been committed to sourcing 10% of transport energy from renewable sources, and they are set to meet this target almost exclusively by using biofuels based on food crops. This has come at a high price to ordinary people in Europe, first in the form of tax exemptions and subsidies to biofuel producers, and now – as these are being phased out – by artificially inflating fuel prices. Recent reports, however, have raised even more serious concerns about the possible effects of the use and production of biofuels.
Hunger or ecological destruction?
There appears to be two possibilities open where the continued production and expansion of food-crop based biofuels is concerned. On the one hand, more crops can be planted by expanding farmland which would require the ploughing up of existing forest and grassland. Doing this would result in further ecological problems as forests and grasslands are vital to the environment, as they keep greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere until they are ploughed up.
The other option is to use existing farmland for the growth of biofuel crop, without replacing the crops previously used for food consumption. This option leads to an overall net reduction in food being produced, which increases world hunger levels. Or, put simply, biofuel production presents us with the choice of either increasing world hunger or increasing greenhouse gas emission. Supporters of biofuel production can choose to focus on methods that aren’t detrimental to world hunger levels or on methods that aren’t detrimental to the environment, but they only do so by ignoring the inherent negatives in either situation.
But in the short term, it may be hunger for the world’s poorest people either way. Biofuel crops are not being grown on new farmland. They are grown on existing farmland, and the question here is whether or the not the food lost will be replaced by new farms at the expense of the environment. When crops are diverted away from food production and towards biofuels, there is an automatic net fall in the amount of food being produced. This is because the demand for biofuel material, driven by government mandates on biofuel usage, drives the fuel industry to maximise output as quickly as possible, so food production will not be able to catch up as quickly as it’s being replaced by fuel crops. This in turn drives up the price of food which will not normalise quickly enough to cancel out the increase in hunger, even if new farmland is created by destroying forest and grassland.
Agricultural commodity prices rose sharply in 2007 after 30 years of stable prices. This happened again in 2010/11. A key aspect of these price jumps has been the global demand for biofuels. The price of agricultural produce on the world’s markets is already subject to price hikes in times of flood or drought in agricultural centres, and this is made all the worse by the fact ever more farm produce that could be used as food is instead being used for fuel.
So, with less to go around and higher prices, who eats less food? Long term evidence shows that the world’s rich barely change their eating habits when prices rise, if they change at all. But poor people in poor countries, who spend the majority of their earnings on food, have to cut back on food intake out of necessity.
What is more, not only will people in poorer countries suffer from a lack of food, but also from a lower quality of food, as studies have shown it is predominantly vegetable farms that are being changed to accommodate biofuels, meaning that more nutritional foods will be less available.
In the age of austerity, rising food prices do not only effect those in the poorest parts of the world, but will further deteriorate the quality of life for working class people in the developed world as well. In countries like Greece for example, which have already been devastated by the effects of austerity, higher food prices will push more and more people into poverty, and further undermine the nutritional needs of the population.
Food price inflation is greater than general consumer inflation in most countries. People all over the world are faced with rising food prices while austerity drives down wages. Also, Oxfam International states that women bear the brunt of this burden, particularly in poorer countries, as they often eat last and least, are the first in a household to see their assets sold for food, and are forced to take on extra work.
There is also a double impact in areas which are relatively isolated from international food markets, but where biofuel crops are now being grown. According to Oxfam International, for example, the expansion of sugarcane and jatropha production in Mozambique displaced the cultivation of food for household use. So, not only do people have to buy food that they would otherwise have grown, but there is less for sale at higher prices locally.
In their greed for more crops for biofuels, companies are buying up more and more land in the developing world. According to the International Land Coalition, up to two thirds of all large-scale land deals in the past decade have been to produce biofuels for the international markets. Not only does this result in less food as detailed above, but also serves to deny millions of families access to the land they depend upon to survive.
In the developing world corruption and poor regulation means that land rights recognition is often found wanting, and many investors in these land grabs fail to deliver on promises of compensation and jobs, meaning local communities lose out entirely to the greed of those seeking to expand biofuel production.
A major strain is also placed on local water resources as intensive farming methods used by big business after taking control of the land leads to water being siphoned away from local small farms, communities and households. Further increasing biofuel production will further worsen the water crisis faced by much of the world’s population, as irrigation for bio fuel crops will be in direct competition with local food production. Roughly 45 billion m3 of irrigation water was used for biofuel production in 2007, six times more than was drank by every person n the world put together that year.
A parasitic system
The pursuit of more and more biofuels and all the negative effects that come with it is down to one thing – profit. Big business, with the backing of national governments and the EU, is trying to shift resources away from food production and towards the more profitable biofuel industry. They try to claim that this is being done in order to decrease dependence on fossil fuels and to the benefit of the environment, but research has shown this to be false.
The attempt by national governments to show that they have increased the percentage of renewable fuel sources being used to run society is farcical, as they have driven forward at high speed with biofuel technology, but have failed to offer even close to the necessary investment to develop truly renewable and environmentally friendly energy such wind, wave and solar.
Despite the potential that these technologies hold, governments would sooner weigh up the pros and cons of hunger and starvation for millions on one hand, or environmental destruction on the other. And on the back of this failure by the politicians the world over, big business is making billions from the biofuel industry. Continued reliance on biofuels to meet the targets for renewable energy not only results in the destruction of lives, living standards and the environment mentioned above, but also takes away from the need to develop real alternatives.
The production of and investment in biofuels needs to be stopped and resources devoted to the development of eco-friendly public transport systems and renewable electricity for trains and light rail systems, and speeding up the replacement of the internal combustion engine with a green alternative such as electric cars.
However, as we have seen with the rise of the austerity age in Europe, national governments and the capitalist class are not prepared to and incapable of offering the necessary alternatives that the world now needs. Only a global democratic socialist system, based on the common ownership, control and management of the wealth and resources of society can allow for these alternatives to be brought forward. Without this, the capitalist classes the world over have made it very clear that they will continue to hoard their wealth and contribute to the destruction of our environment. Only by taking that power and wealth out of their hands can we build the type of society that is necessary to overcome the environmental, social, and economic crises facing the planet.
Understanding the Biofuel Trade-offs Between Indirect Land Use Change, Hunger and Poverty – Timothy Searchinger, Princeton University – July 2013
The Hunger Grains – Oxfam Briefing Paper no. 161 – September 2012