Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Biofuels versus Food Production

Amsterdam, 21 January 2008 - On a rainy Monday evening in Amsterdam, the topic “Biofuels versus Food Production – Challenges and Threats for Developing Countries” - part of the SID lecture series, could not correspond better to current political developments. The world looked hopefully to Brussels where the European Commission was expected to propose a new package of actions to fight climate change. Biofuels could play a prominent role in these future EU climate action plans, but concerns about the impact of this on global food security are mounting.

In Amsterdam, Rudy Rabbinge, Professor of Sustainable Development at the Wageningen University, provided a clear answer: Biodiesel cannot be the solution to the climate chaos, because it has unacceptable detrimental effects on poorer countries. According to him, world food security is possible, although the demand for food is increasing due to population growth and more wealth. The key to feed the world is a more productive agriculture, which has always been the precondition for industrialization and economic development. Fuel from biomass takes away fertile soil for local food production, and endangers the very existence of the poor.

Rabbinge posed biofuel as a simple confrontation: Fuel for the Rich versus Food for the Poor. The only harmless potential lies in energy production from the waste products of plants. Nevertheless, they should not nourish the great illusion that we can mitigate climate change without changing our energy wasting lifestyles. Saving energy and solar energy remain the most important pillars for a climate friendly future.

Kornelis Blok, Professor at Utrecht University and managing director of the energy consultancy Ecofys disagreed with Rabbinge’s pessimistic view on biofuels. He presented data and scenario analysis from one of his PhD students to prove that bioenergy is necessary for sustainable energy systems. Moreover, he claimed that bioenergy can contribute to local development. While acknowledging the environmental and social-economic problems of large-scale biomass production, Blok suggested that certification systems and enhanced monitoring of the impacts on food production were solutions to these problems.

As so often, there was little time for direct discussion. Still time enough to realize the deep disagreement on the role of biomass as a energy source, not only between the two speakers, but also in the wider academic community. Such fundamental academic conflict is striking and even alarming when we see that Europe already stands in the middle of the decision-making process on the future of biofuels.

Two days later, the European Commission unveiled the much awaited climate change package. According to the proposal, the EU will stick to its target to increase the use of biofuels. In 2020, these should make up 10 percent of fuels used for transport, a blow in the face of critics. It remains to be seen if these aspirations will be carved into law, or if the increasing criticism from the opponents is heard.

Since October 2007, SID Netherlands and partners have organized monthly lectures around the theme 'Emerging Global Scarcities and Power Shifts.' The SID lecture series 2007/2008 continues until June 2008.

Story by Birthe Paul

Climate change and agriculture
was the topic of a CTA-Euforic side session at the EU Development Days - and will be debated again in Brussels on February 13, 2008. Earlier Brussels Briefings looked at 'Advancing African Agriculture' and Challenges to rural development in ACP countries.' See especially the interviews with Al Binger.

See also Euforic news on food security and the climate change.