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Biofuels: Green Energy That Causes Hunger And Deforestation


As MEPs prepare to vote on a proposal to curb EU support for biofuels, new research underlines that growing fuel crops in place of food automatically creates either hunger or deforestation.


According to new research by Tim Searchinger, a Princeton University research scholar and acknowledged biofuels expert, a tragic equation is buried in existing modelling data used by the EU to establish the effects of indirect land use change (ILUC) – the increased CO2 emissions that displaced agricultural activity may create.

When agricultural land that had been used to grow food is given over to growing biofuels, someone somewhere will go hungry – unless previously uncultivated land is taken to grow the displaced food, or yields from existing crops increase commensurately.

But “there is extremely little evidence that you will get additional yield gains,” Searchinger said over the phone from New Jersey yesterday (9 July), “and without that you get two bad responses: You have some land expansion, and people eat less.”

Searchinger’s reading of one key report produced for the EU by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found that of every 100 calories from wheat or maize diverted to food tanks by bioethanol production, 25 calories were not replaced.

“If you step back, take the broader view and see that people are going to have to produce 60% more food by 2050 [to feed a growing world population] that we’re not going to be able to feed entirely from yield gain, biofuels will just compound that problem.”

European Parliament vote

The new analysis, which was number-crunched with the help of the EU’s Joint Research Centre, is being released by Friends of the Earth as the European Parliament’s environment committee prepares to vote on a proposal to curb EU support for biofuels.

Friends of the Earth’s biofuels campaigner Robbie Blake called it a “game-changer”

Corrine LePage MEP, who is presenting the report to the committee, wants to augment a proposed 5% cap on ‘first generation’ biofuels’ (link) share of the 2020 transport mix with ILUC factors written into statute that distinguish between the best and worst-performing biofuels, for greenhouse gas emissions.

Several amendments have been added to the text though, one of which would raise the cap to 6.5%, and the outcome of the vote is thought too close to call. After the vote, it will go to a plenary session on 10 September, before final negotiations with member states begin.

LePage sent EurActiv a written reponse to Searchinger’s research, saying: “If these results are validated, they would confirm that the EU demand for biofuels can have very detrimental impacts not only on the environment, but also on people.”

She added: “I hope this will convince MEPs who are still hesitant to support at least the 5% cap and the inclusion of ILUC factors and to support the proposed compromises on the table, rather than merely take into account the economic interests at stake.”

“If MEPs vote on Thursday to increase levels of biofuels, they will be casting a vote for hunger, and mandating that some of the world’s poorest people eat less food,” Blake added. “That is totally unacceptable.”

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