Food should be for people, not cars

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Food should be for people, not cars

by Lucy Hurn


Charles Knowles (under a Creative Commons Licence)

In September, MEPs in Europe agreed to a six-per-cent limit on food-based biofuels in Europe. This was bad for the world’s poor and the people who voted for them as MEPs.

The European laws on renewable energy say that, by 2020, 10 per cent of our transport energy should be from ‘renewable sources’. They think most of this will be from biofuels. But since the law was agreed in 2009, more and more people think that biofuels are not as good as we thought at first.

Biofuels are not really renewable (most biofuels produce the same amount of greenhouse gas as fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas). Also, it would be better to use the crops we use for biofuels to feed people. If we grow crops to make fuel, not food, this makes food prices rise. It makes people in poor countries leave their land to make space for the biofuel plantations. So, last year, the European Commission said we should restrict the use of food-based biofuels in Europe and to look at the effect of biofuels on the climate.

On 11 September MEPs in Europe voted on this. ActionAid, with other NGOs across Europe, wanted MEPs to vote for a five per cent limit of biofuels that compete with food in Europe (we’d love to stop the use completely, but we knew that would be impossible now). ActionAid also wanted to stop use of the worst biofuels for climate change. Supporters went to Brussels the week before the vote to tell their MEPs how important this was. And they went to Parliament to say that ‘Food should be used to fill people, not cars’.

But, sadly, MEPs chose to vote for a six-per-cent limit. They did not listen to the EU’s research – they said how biofuels make food more expensive. They did not listen to the 200,000 messages sent by supporters of organizations across Europe, including ActionAid and Friends of the Earth, asking for Food not Fuel. They showed that they support industry – which has, not surprisingly, been fighting against the limit.

One per cent does not sound like a big difference, but it is an increase on the use of biofuels now. A six-per-cent limit would allow crops which could feed over 200 million people to be burnt as fuel in cars each year.

But some progress was made – the vote was very close. Many MEPs listened to people asking for Food not Fuel. The vote also showed that European policy on biofuels is changing - MEPs agreed that biofuels cause hunger and contribute to climate change.

After years of campaigning on biofuels, it’s easy to feel sad by the vote. But it’s amazing how far we’ve come – when ActionAid started our campaign in 2009, we were the only group talking about the effect of biofuels on hunger. Because of the support of the public, and the work of other organizations, such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Oxfam, we’ve really been able to change this.

What happens next?

We are very disappointed with this vote, but this is not the end. We now look to the European Council, where member states can still make this proposal stronger.

Minister Norman Baker told ActionAid last week that Britain will support a five-per-cent limit, which is great news. But they must do more than just support a limit. We want the government to lead the countries of Europe to make sure that the final agreement is a low limit.

Before the G8 meeting, Prime Minister David Cameron said: ‘I agree that we should not allow the production of biofuels to make food less secure.’ Now Britain must make sure this happens.

Lucy Hurn is Biofuels campaign manager at ActionAid UK

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