In Europe every time we fill our cars or take the bus, we are burning food. In 2010, nearly 5 per cent of all fuels used for ground transport in Europe came from biofuels made from food crops. This figure will double by 2020 as a result of binding targets set by the EU. In a world where a billion people go to bed hungry every night, policies that convert arable land from growing food to fuel are surely wrong-headed.
Recent events in Paraguay put a spotlight on soy and the oceans of land it occupies. President Fernando Lugo’s election promise to redistribute land and carry out agrarian reform was popular but ultimately unachievable in the face of the powerful landowners that opposed him. A few weeks ago, 11 farmers and six police officers were killed during an operation to evict squatters from a huge farm used by a large-scale land owner and opponent of Lugo. Using this as a pretext, the Senate impeached Lugo eight days later.
Land has become an increasingly contentious issue and EU biofuels policies make us inextricably linked to the story.
Each year in Paraguay – the poorest country in South America – about 9,000 rural families are evicted by soy production and a million acres of land are turned into soy fields. For those who remain on the edges of huge, industrial plantations, farming becomes next to impossible, as fumigations of the soy plantations damage crops and health, and water becomes increasingly scarce as local resources are used up in irrigation. One community in eastern Paraguay has had to sink wells twice as deep into the ground to reach water – only hitting water after 20 metres, compared with an average of 10 before the plantations arrived.
In Europe every time we fill our cars or take the bus, we are burning food. In 2010, nearly 5 per cent of all fuels used for ground transport in Europe came from biofuels made from food crops. This figure will double by 2020 as a result of binding targets set by the EU. Most of the biofuel used in Europe is biodiesel. In 2008, almost a fifth of biodiesel was made from soybean oil.
Most of the soy that Europe records as imports coming from Paraguay is used in livestock feed rather than biofuels. But when organisations like the US Department of Agriculture and the Inter-American Development Bank look a bit more closely at what is actually going on, they conclude that the official data largely underestimate the amount of soy going from Paraguay to the EU for biofuels. Paraguay doesn’t export biodiesel directly to the EU, mainly because there is very little capacity to turn soy into biodiesel in the country. But, in contrast, Argentina has recently developed huge biodiesel refineries; production capacity has expanded by 700 per cent in just five years. Between 2006 and 2007, at the same time as the EU was talking about putting in place a biofuels mandate, soy exports from Paraguay to Argentina almost quadrupled.
While Argentina has removed trade incentives for Paraguayan soy imports since 2008, it is unlikely that this trend has reversed completely, given the levels of soy and biodiesel production in Argentina. Once soy is made into biodiesel it’s difficult to tell where the original beans came from. However, with 87 per cent of Argentinian biofuel going to the EU, we can be pretty confident in saying that the EU biofuels mandate has a lot to do with the expansion of soy plantations in Paraguay and other South American countries.
In a world where a billion people go to bed hungry every night, policies that convert arable land from growing food to fuel are surely wrong-headed. EU governments should remove the biofuels mandates that have such a devastating impact on millions of people, not just in Paraguay but throughout the world.
Natalia Alonso is head of Oxfam’s EU office