Famine fuels German debate on bioenergy | Globalization | DW | 21.08.2012
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Famine fuels German debate on bioenergy

Germany's development minister is demanding an end to sales of biofuel, which critics say contributes to famine. Relief organizations welcomed the move as drought grips the US, Russia and other countries.

Environmental groups and relief organizations in Germany are not known to heap praise on Development Minister Dirk Niebel. But he has won their support with his call to end sales of the E10 biofuel.

"I am totally convinced that restrictive fuel additive regulations in Germany as well as the United States will lead to exorbitant price increases in the event of crop failures," Niebel said earlier this week in Berlin.

In the European Union, gasoline can contain between 5 and 10 percent ethanol. Since 2011, the controversial E10 gasoline consisting of 10 percent ethanol has been available in Germany. Despite heavy criticism, the German government approved the fuel's use in order to meet EU requirements for reducing CO2 emissions on roads.

Food vs. the fuel tank

Now Niebel is making a U-turn by calling for an end to E10 production - at least until it can be ascertained that "food is not being used as fuel" and until "clever methods" are found to harness plant matter for energy production.

"In other words, use the fruit for food and the rest for energy production," Niebel said.

Dirk Niebel (Photo: Steffi Loos/dapd)

Niebel alluded to future studies of biofuel's impact

Roman Herre, a nutrition expert with the human rights organization FIAN, sees a relationship between biofuel production and world hunger.

"Since the beginning of the biofuel debate five years ago, we have demanded an end to funding in this area," Herre told DW. Government subsidies for growing corn, sugarcane and rapeseed to produce ethanol, he added, "are a major problem from a human rights point of view. Here is a policy that increases hunger."

In 2010, the EU imported 780 million liters of ethanol and 2.2 billion liters of biodiesel. The main supplier of ethanol was Brazil, followed by the United States. Other suppliers included Egypt, Bolivia, Cambodia, Sudan and Guatemala.

Countries that raise biofuel crops take away fields that could be used to grow wheat and corn to feed their populations. When food prices rise on the world market, the increase hits the poorest first.

UN warns of famine

Drought and crop shortages in the US, Russia and Ukraine have pushed the price of corn and wheat up by a third since the beginning of June. US farmers expect to have one of the lowest corn yields in years.

Corn stalks struggling from lack of rain (Photo:Seth Perlman/AP)

Drought in the US and other countries has caused crop prices to soar around the world

Today, more than one billion people in the world already suffer from hunger. About half of them are small farmers in developing countries who produce food for themselves and get little if any benefit from higher food prices. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has warned of a new hunger crisis in poor countries if prices continue to rise.

However, some experts see no connection between biofuels and world hunger.

"Unfortunately, hunger has been around for decades," said Alexander Knebel of the Renewable Energy Agency, which represents the interests of companies in the bioenergy industry.

A boy in Sudan with a bowl of tree leaves (Photo: Bettina Rühl)

A boy in famine-racked Sudan eats tree leaves

According to Knebel, the push to produce biofuels hasn't increased hunger. He told DW that hunger "is a distribution problem that is linked to poverty."

Brazilian example

Knebel pointed to Brazil, saying hunger there has massively decreased even while ethanol production has spiked.

"The argument that hunger is worsened by ethanol production doesn't hold up," he said.

The Zero Hunger program launched by former Brazilian President Lula da Silva in 2003 has contributed to a 25 percent drop in malnutrition. Since its launch, Zero Hunger's various projects have helped more than 24 million people escape the vicious cycle of extreme hunger.

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