Biofuels policy change strands EU farmers | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 10.10.2012
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Biofuels policy change strands EU farmers

After the European Union's recent change of policy on biofuels, many farmers see their livelihood threatened. In Austria, some farmers are now looking at alternative ways to produce biofuels without using food crops.

A field of maize folds under the blades of a harvester on a farm in Lower Austria. Some of this crop is destined for our fuel tanks as ethanol. Johannes Danner drives the machine but if the new European Commission plan is adopted there'll be no subsidies and, perhaps, no demand for his golden corn.

The reason: the European Commission is changing its policy on crop-based biofuels. It's dropping its ten percent target for ethanol content in automotive fuels and it will end subsidies for crop based biofuels in 2020.

EU flag moves in the breeze in front of the European Commission building in Brussels

A new EU policy on biofuels has hit the bloc's farmers hard

It seems that the change of policy has come about due to rising public criticism of the biofuels programme in Europe. Critics argue that the industry is responsible for rising food prices as agricultural land is turned over to fuel production. And they doubt the emission reducing benefits of crop-based fuels. The decision is a blow to a rapidly growing European biofuels industry.

"We are in an area here where there is always excess production and not everything is needed for the food industry," explains Johannes Danner, who has worked on his family's farm for years.

Food vs Fuel

Fuel from Johannes' farm winds up at fuel stations from Agrana. The company has built a new 150 million euro plant largely on the expectation that demand for biofuel made from maize, wheat and other food crops will continue to grow. Agrana boss Johann Marihart is disappointed by the EU's change of heart.

"The targets to achieve 10% by 2020 were not so ambitious. They're achievable via European excess production," Marihart told DW. He adds that it is a mistake for longterm targets to be ignored as a result of political pressure.

A petrol nozzle close up at Germany's first ethanol petrol station.

Germany moved ethanol levels in petrol up to 10% just last year

But as land that was once used for cultivation of edible crops is turned over to crops for biofuel, concerns about food supplies have grown. Jean Ziegler, a former UN Special Rapporteur on food, argues that while biofuels, in terms of energy efficiency and climate change, are legitimate, the effects on the world's hungry are catastrophic.

Innovative technology

The EU is pinning its hopes on what are known as second generation biofuel technologies - fuels that are made from biological waste. BDI- BioEnergy International is a company based near Graz that has worked hard on the technology for turning wood and plant waste into diesel.

"We are putting the wood together with the side product of the mineral oil industry and converting them into diesel," explains Edgar Ahn who is responsible for research and development at the company. "The end product is diesel with 20% coming from biomass."

Biogas facility in Stuttgart, which transforms market waste to usable fuel.

Biofuels from waste products is a growing industry across Europe

The new European policy will need approval by member states. But the draft legislation shows it will promote greater production of what it calls 'advanced biofuels' by shifting subsidies away from food crop fuels to residue and waste fuels. Instead of taking edible crops from the field, forest thinnings and crop stubble will be used. It's what environmentalists and aid agencies have been calling for for years. But Jirrien Westerhof, energy expert at Greenpeace Austria, says it would be wrong to put too much faith in this new generation of biofuels.

"It simplifies it if you say that first generation is bad because it is competing with food and second generation is good because it is not competing with food," Westerhof says. "That is ignoring the fact that you take something out of the ecosystem which has an important role."

While these trimmings may not be useful for humans, Westerhof points out that they still play a role in the ecosystem.

Farmers forgotten

As Europe heads towards a different plan on biofuels, some farmers understandably feel forgotten in the whole process. Support for the farmers suprisingly comes from Greenpeace's Jirrien Westerhof. He says blaming biofuel crops for taking food from people's mouths is too simplistic and that the problem of food shortages is a global one, and complex.

A mechanical harvester in Germany cuts wheat in a field.

Farmers may have to be satisfied with just selling post-harvest offcuts to fuel manufacturers

"You can also argue that food prices that are too low cause hunger because low food prices can lead to a situation where farmers stop farming because they do not earn any money with it and they move to the cities," says Westerhof.

For now in Johannes Danner's field, the mechanical harvester continues to stir up dust and cut down the golden grain for use in Europe's petrol pumps. It's farming built on the promise of subsidies and EU targets. When those are removed, Danner can only hope that the residue from his crop, rather than the golden grain, is really in demand as a second generation biofuel.

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