EU biofuels policy undermines development

Food Security07 Mar 2013Jasper van Teeffelen

The EU’s renewable energy policy, that brace food-based biofuels, is at the expense of food security, poverty eradication and the climate.

The European Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs and Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik recently presented their follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals, which would merge poverty eradication and environmental sustainability objectives. If the Commissioners are as serious about human and environmental development as they claim, they must first tackle the European Union’s biofuels policy, which is threatening food security, the climate, and land rights across the globe.

Inequality can mean lots of things, as the diverse array of articles and blogs on this website demonstrates, but at its core inequality is about power. The traditional balance of power between North and South is changing and the days of the Washington Consensus are behind us. Rather than Europe telling the developing world what to do, the EU has obliged itself to take into account the interests of the poorest countries in their own policy-making. After all, if Europe is serious about Southern development, it must first take a critical look at its own policies before turning to charity. Has this shift in power dynamics caused the EU to effectively take developing country interests into account in its policy-making?

The answer must be a resounding and painful no. The unequal division of power between the different Directorate Generals of the European Commission means that throughout policy-making processes, the superior bargaining power of DG’s like Trade and Agriculture trumps DG DEVCO, as do EU industrial interests those of the developing world.

The Council and European Parliament are currently debating the European Commission’s proposal to limit the contribution of food-based biofuels to the EU’s mandate of 10% renewable energy in the transport sector by the year 2020 (which is to be met almost entirely by biofuels). This proposed 5% cap comes on the back of scientific evidence which shows that food-based biofuels are not as climate-friendly as many initially thought as a result of the Indirect Land Use Change phenomenon.

As its countless development programs prove, the EU is more than committed to helping the 870 million people still suffering from hunger today. This makes it all the more painful that the Renewable Energy Directive’s mandate contributes directly to increasing food prices. Research clearly documents a link between the EU’s push for food-based biofuels and the increasing price of biofuel crops such as maize (up to 22%) and oil seeds (up to 20%).

As part of our Fair Politics series of impact studies, I traveled to Tanzania for the Evert Vermeer Foundation to hear first-hand the country’s experiences with biofuels and the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive. From 2004 onwards, the country has been faced with the arrival of European companies looking to exploit the country’s abundant land and tropical climate to produce biofuels for the EU market, especially through the not so wonderful ‘wonder crop’ jatropha.

Rural communities lament the production models of the biggest European biofuel companies in the country, which rely on large-scale land acquisition and blocking off their access to land and water resources without adequate compensation. Ministry officials (“we were caught with our pants down”) acknowledge the push of EU policy in driving companies to Tanzania and the failure to encourage sustainable development of the country’s biofuel sector.

Tanzania is not alone. Communities across the globe are faced with the irresponsible behavior of biofuel companies, who abuse land rights and local environments. Estimates run up to a total of 17 million hectares of land ‘grabbed’ globally for biofuels. The EU must put a stop to companies using harmful production models and occupying precious land and water resources to produce biofuels for Europe, rather than food for the local market.

It is now in the hands of the Council and the Parliament to ensure that the EU tackles the ill effects of its biofuels policy. The EU’s renewable energy policy cannot be at the expense of food security, poverty eradication and the climate. First, the EU must phase out the contribution of food-based biofuels to the EU’s renewable energy targets. Second, the EU must ensure that biofuels contributing to the mandate are both socially and environmentally sound by expanding its sustainability criteria.

If the best arguments the biofuels industry can come up with is that the EU’s scientific modeling for ILUC is flawed, the EU must acknowledge the inconvenient truth that food-based biofuels are not the answer to climate change. If the EU is serious about food security and reducing global inequality, it must first take a hard look at itself and the policies it upholds.

Read more on our website ( The launch of the report “Fuelling Poverty or Progress?” is on March 19th in Brussels and March 27th in The Hague.