Food vs Fuel -the truth about biofuels

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Whoever said the truth shall set you free forgot to mention that you first have to find out what the truth is and that’s dirty work. On the biofuel vs food security debate, it’s difficult to grasp hold of the truth amid the hyperbole, the passion, the barrage of facts and the evidence of environmental gain or of human loss.

In early May 2011, the NGO Action Aid published a report entitled ‘Fuelling Evictions: community cost of EU biofuels boom.’ The tone the report sets is one of a David versus Goliath face-off. The underdogs being some 20,000 people living in the Dakatcha woodlands of Kenya, an area held in trust for the communities by Malindi County Council and earmarked by the Italian-owned biofuels company Nuoze Iniziative Industriali, (through its subsidiary Kenya Jatropha Energy) for the cultivation of 50,000 hectares of jatropha.

Jatropha, touted in 2007 by Scientific American as “green gold in a shrub” because it “seems to offer all the benefits of biofuels without the pitfalls,” by 2009 had lost some of its shine. Thought to be able to thrive on marginal lands, and therefore pose no competition to cultivation for human consumption, an early study by Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies found that while jatropha can indeed grow on lands with minimal water and poor nutrition, “if you plant trees in a marginal area, and all they do is just not die, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get a lot of oil from them.”

So back to present day and jatropha has been steadily replacing food crops in communities from Senegal to Kenya, with devastating effect. Speakers brought together Friends of the Earth, the RSPB and Action Aid to examine the evidence of biofuel impacts in 2011, paint a fairly grim picture: In Senegal, a net importer of food, where 51% of the population already suffer from food insecurity, jatropha is increasingly being planted on arable land – and in the areas of highest rain fall. The former owners of the land are now its seasonal labourers and at the end of the rainy season, with no land and no employment prospects, food insecurity rises sharply.

But that in and of itself is not an indictment on biofuels. There are other options available under the biofuels label that can help plug the hole in the dwindling supply of fossil fuels. None receive unanimous support but many, such as algae and biomethane – fuel produced from food waste – would reduce CO2 emissions and pose no threat to food production.

Rather, the scramble for arable land in Africa, Asia and Latin America is a result of the seemingly arbitrary energy targets set by policy makers. Far removed from the simple reciprocal relationship man has with his environment in Dakatcha, policy makers in Brussels, are looking for ways to redress the effects of our own less harmonious relationship with the earth and her resources. Part of that solution is the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and within it, its targets to source 20% of the EU’s total energy needs and 10% of its fuel for the transport sector from renewable sources by 2020.

With statements such as: “there is an urgent need to ensure we meet the [biofuels] goal [in the transport sector]” coming from policy makers, the biofuels industry has responded with increasingly ambitious agricultural projects. But here’s the catch: it has been estimated that a land mass the size of Belgium would be needed to meet these targets and the EU does not have sort of land going spare. Neither do developing countries, unless of course, you are prepared to divert land away from food production or use land of ecological significance. Industry has shown itself ready to do so, unless, they are impeded by robust legislation, which – and here lies the crux of the matter – they are not.

Governments in both Africa and Europe have failed to factor in the social costs of a biofuel-heavy agricultural development agenda in the former or sustainability strategy in the latter. No one is holding big business to account as it fills up marshes, cuts down trees and displaces people. According to a joint briefing paper released by the aforementioned charities, “The EU criteria potentially allow up to 50% of global forested areas to be eligible for conversion for biofuels.” As one British member of parliament, vehemently opposed to RED’s targets puts it: “there is a sustainability question about the sustainability policy.”

So here’s the truth, well at least through the prism of my understanding and experience: biofuels are not the enemy. Energy consumption in the developed world and among BRIC countries is undoubtedly leading to climate change, the impacts of which are felt hardest by the poorest, so something has got to give and in the aviation industry, for example, biofuels are the only viable alternative.  In the same breathe, the seemingly arbitrary way in which the EU has set its targets for reducing emissions and increasing energy sources from biofuels is creating yet another market in which the few profit at the expense of the many. Industry is never altruistic. If profit is not to come at the expense of people then the rights of local communities must be spelt out in the law and protected to the letter.


There biofuels debate is complex. There are many stakeholders, all with vested interests, all trying to beat their drum the loudest. But to plough ahead with the policy regardless, would not only lead to the destruction of indigenous communities and fragile ecosystems but could also spell financial ruin for the European companies involved. Let the Bioshape project in Tanzania serve as a cautionary tale to all: five years after leasing 80,000 hectares of land from the central government and an investment of 25 million Euros, the Dutch-backed Bioshape jatropha project was found to be in breech of the rules of land lease,  lost the backing of a major investor and provided an environmental impact assessment that was unreliable at best and fraudulent at worst. This is how the IPS article on the matter concludes:

“Five years after its ambitious launch, Bioshape’s plantation has produced only a scar on the landscape. Jobs promised to villagers have not materialised, and they have seen only a fraction of the promised compensation for the land they were persuaded to give up.

For the moment, they are able to resume farming within the concession, but they have signed away their title to it and remain vulnerable to the project’s resumption.”

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