Agrofuels jeopardise independent food production

SWISSAID rejects industrial production of agrofuels for the international market. This intensifies conflicts about land and water or leads to a loss of bio-diversity. Food price rises caused by the agrofuels boom mean impoverished populations have even less money to buy basic foodstuffs. It is therefore self-evident to SWISSAID: agrofuels intensify the hunger crisis.

The world is in the throes of a new phase of the hunger crisis: since the 2008 food crisis when prices for basic foodstuffs exploded on a previously unprecedented scale, the global market for foodstuffs has fundamentally changed. Prices are steep and, according to the forecasts, are likely to remain so. Families forced to spend up to three quarters of their income on food simply cannot afford the high prices.

According to the World Bank, the number of people living at starvation levels has risen by over 100 million to almost one billion. The boom in demand for agrofuels, steered by political agendas, is also responsible for this situation. The compulsory cultivation of energy-releasing plants is in direct competition with the production of foodstuffs.

Stopping funding measures

In a report compiled by all the key multilateral organisations, including the WTO, World Bank, FAO and OECD, governments of the G20 nations are required to immediately stop their funding measures for the production and consumption of agrofuels.

Agrofuels produced from sustainable raw materials such as sugar, maize, soya, palm oil, wheat or jatropha are hailed as an eco-friendly response to the dire consequences of climate change and high oil prices. Industrial countries, primarily the EU and USA, are pinning hopes on less dependency on oil and lower CO2 emissions due to road traffic.

Politics creating demand for agrofuels

Political measures such as compulsory “mixing” quotas, subsidies and tax breaks help industrial countries create steadily rising demand for agrofuels. Countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa are primarily viewed as suppliers of cheap raw materials. From 2000 to 2007, agrofuels production more than tripled, accounting for 2.2 per cent of worldwide fuel consumption. 

But criticisms of agrofuels are acute: reports emerging in connection with agrofuel production recount stories of violent evictions of small farmers and their families as well as indigenous communities, the destruction of the rainforest, working conditions akin to slave labour and the pollution of water and soil due to pesticides.

Valuable arable land used for fuel production

Several studies, including a report by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials and Technology (EMPA) – conclude that bio-fuels show a marginal impact on climate and environmental protection and poor energy efficiency.

If the indirect impact of agrofuel production is taken into account, so-called indirect land use changes, then biofuels lead to even more CO2 emissions than fossil fuels. 

From a development policy perspective, the biggest cause for concern is mainly the competition with food production. In view of the one billion starving people and dramatic forecasts about a “new era of the hunger crisis”, the question arises as to whether valuable arable land should be used for fuel production.

200 kilos of maize to fill one tank

Hans Hurni, a geography professor in Bern, calculated that 1.6 times the arable land area of the entire planet would be needed to substitute bio-fuels for current fossil fuel consumption levels. And that’s not all: it takes nearly 200 kilos of maize to fill a car with a 95-litre tank of pure ethanol. That’s enough to feed a person for an entire year. This simple comparison not only highlights doubts on ethical grounds. It shows how agrofuels jeopardise the basic right for nutrition. 

Sugar beet from Sierra Leone for ethanol production

Another cause for concern is the development of “land grabbing” in connection with agrofuel production. A Swiss firm is also affected by a current case: Addax Bioenergy has leased 50,000 hectares of land in Sierra Leone with a plan to cultivate sugar beet for ethanol production – to date, 14,000 hectares have been dedicated to this.

One third of the arable land leased in Africa by foreign companies or governments is estimated to be used for agrofuel production earmarked for export. Overall, this affects about five million hectares of land. 

Fewer environmentalists back the illusion of eco-friendly fuel than those in the automotive, oil and agricultural industries. This can be deduced from vast investments and alliances formed among these industry sectors. Agrofuels help these sectors carry on with business as usual and open up promising new markets.

SWISSAID calls for a moratorium on imports

Farmers, development and environmental organisations around the world are calling for a moratorium on industrial production and international trade in agrofuels. They are fighting a situation in which poor countries should bear the costs for climate problems so far caused mainly by industrialised countries.

In Switzerland, too, a parliamentary initiative led by SWISSAID President and former Swiss Federal Councillor Rudolf Rechsteiner calls for a moratorium on imports of agrofuels. 104 Federal Councillors signed this initiative.

Together with the “Plattform Agrotreibstoffe”, SWISSAID launched a petition against agrofuels that lead to hunger and environmental destruction. Our commitment has contributed to the drafting of a legislative proposal setting out stricter ecological and social criteria for the approval of agrofuels in Switzerland. Parliament will advise on this proposal in 2012.