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Food should be used to fill people, not cars

Combine Harvester

Charles Knowles under a Creative Commons Licence

Earlier this month, MEPs across Europe turned their backs on the world’s poor and their own constituents as they voted through a six-per-cent cap on food-based biofuels in Europe.

European renewable energy policy currently demands that by 2020, 10 per cent of our transport energy should come from ‘renewable sources’, which is largely envisaged to be met through the use of biofuels. But since the policy was passed back in 2009, there has been growing awareness are not the silver bullet they were first thought to be.

Not only are biofuels not really renewable (most biofuels release just as many greenhouse gas emissions as the fossil fuels they were designed to replace) but they are made from crops which could be better used to feed people. Growing crops to make fuel instead of food drives up food prices. It forces people in poor countries off their land to make way for biofuel plantations. In recognition of this fact, last year the European Commission released a proposal to cap the use of food-based biofuels in Europe and to begin to address the climate impacts of biofuels.

On 11 September MEPs across Europe voted on this proposal. ActionAid, along with a coalition of NGOs across Europe, was calling on MEPs to cap the European use of biofuels that compete with food at five per cent (we’d love them to be phased out completely, but we knew that getting that passed was going to be impossible at this stage) and to rule out the worst biofuels in terms of climate change. Supporters had joined us in Brussels the week before the vote to lobby their MEPs direct, as well as taking part in a stunt in front of the Parliament to bring to life the point that ‘Food should be used to fill people, not cars’.

Sadly, MEPs chose to vote for a six-per-cent cap, ignoring the EU’s own research lab which has highlighted the impact of biofuels on food costs, and the 200,000 messages sent by supporters of organizations across Europe, including ActionAid and Friends of the Earth, calling for Food not Fuel. Instead, they sided with industry – which has, not surprisingly, been fighting against the cap.

One per cent may not sound like a big difference, but it represents an increase on the current use of biofuels. Put simply, a six-per-cent cap on the proportion of food and land-based biofuels used in Europe would allow crops with the potential to feed over 200 million people to instead be burnt each year as fuel in cars.

But some progress was made – the vote was extremely tight, with many MEPs listening to the call to vote for Food not Fuel. The vote also marked a real turning point in European policy on biofuels, as MEPs acknowledged the role that biofuels have in causing hunger and contributing to climate change. After years of campaigning on biofuels, it’s easy to feel disheartened by the vote. But it’s amazing how far we’ve come – when ActionAid launched our campaign in 2009, we were a lone voice in raising the impact of biofuels on hunger. Thanks to the support of the public on this issue, and the work of other organizations, such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Oxfam, we’ve really been able to turn the debate around.

What happens next?

While the outcome is highly disappointing, this is not the end of the road. All eyes now pass to the European Council, where member states still have an opportunity to strengthen the proposal.

The lead Minister on the issue, Norman Baker, told ActionAid last week that Britain will support a five-per-cent cap, which is great news. But they must do more than just support a cap. We are calling on the government to lead the progressive nations of Europe in setting the bar high in these negotiations and ensuring that the final deal includes a low cap.

Ahead of the G8, Prime Minister David Cameron said: ‘I agree that we should not allow the production of biofuels to undermine food security.’ Now Britain must deliver on this commitment.

Lucy Hurn is Biofuels campaign manager at ActionAid UK

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