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A tractor in a field of rapeseed +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Food or fuel

Christoph Hasselbach, Helle Jeppesen / sms
October 18, 2012

The European Commission issues a new set of recommendations on biofuel production. It wants a larger portion of renewable energy to come from more sustainable sources like waste products rather than food crops.


In 2009, the European Union set a goal of having 10 percent of energy in the transportation sector come from renewable sources by 2020. The goal served two purposes: reducing dependency on expensive fossil fuels and cutting emissions of greenhouse gasses.

While the European Commission is officially sticking to that goal, it is changing the sources it wants to see used in the production of that renewable energy. Responding to growing criticism, the Commission said it wanted to see biofuels created from waste products rather than from crops on land that could otherwise be used to create food.Biofuels have been named as a contributing factor to increasing food prices. Rainforests are being cut down in some developing and emerging nations to make room to grow food, since existing fields are currently being used to grow biofuels. Some countries have seen income grow after specializing in the production of biofuels for the lucrative European and North American markets.

Hedegaard and Oettinger give a press conference at the EU headquarters in Brussels on October 17, 2012. Photo: JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
Oettinger and Hedegaard presented their proposals on WednesdayImage: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

"The discussion that we are feeding our oversized cars on the backs of starving people in Africa has upset a lot of people," said Jürgen Meier of the Environment and Development Forum.

He added that he was concerned about the effect rising food prices would have on the world's poor. "It is also a problem for farmers who make investments and need to be able to calculate how they will make ends meet."

Fight for resources

European commissioners Günther Oettinger and Connie Hedegaard said current development methods were no longer sustainable."We are suggesting that the portion of first-generation biofuel, that is fuel made from food: grain, rapeseed, corn or other fruits, be frozen at its current rate of about 5 percent," said Oettinger, the commissioner for energy.

An Indonesian plantation worker stands next to his back hoe being used to knock down trees to make way for a palm oil plantation Photo: ddp images/AP Photo/Ed Wray
Rainforests are cleared for production of both food and biofuel cropsImage: AP Photo/Ed Wray

Second- and third-generation biofuels, which are made from waste material, straw and algae among other products, should become a larger source of renewable energy. Hedegaard posed the rhetorical question that needed to be asked in "rich Europe:"

"We have to consider do we want to use scarce food resources for producing fuel or should we be careful to try to use other stuff to try to make the alternative fuels that we need," said Hedegaard, who's commissioner for climate action.

The Commission's recommendations still need approval by EU member states as well as the European Parliament before becoming binding laws.

Compromise leaves everyone grumbling

Both commissioners agreed they wanted to keep jobs and investments that have been made in first-generation biofuels and did not want any businesses to be closed. Still, they said subsidies for this type of biofuel production would be gradually cut to create an incentive for new investment to focus on more sustainable forms of biofuel production.

Oettinger admitted few would be happy with the Commission's plans: those planting crops to be used in biofuels want to see existing subsidies continue while many environmental protection and development organizations would rather see an immediate change in policy. The Commission aimed to find a "regulative third-way," Oettinger said, adding that investors would know what sectors would receive subsidies and how long they would last.Jürgen Schmid, head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology in Kassel pointed out that the EU's main aim in setting a renewable energy goal was to help the environment, but added that biofuel does not cut CO2 emissions when emissions from land use are taken into account.

A child holding ears of corn Photo: +++Katalin Pöge+++ taken 08/2011
This corn could be destined for gas tanks, humans' plates or animals' feeding troughsImage: Katalin Pöge

"The EU reducing its goal is a step in the right direction, but a zero would have been better," he said.

The Commission also compromised with the biofuel industry by saying that the use of soy and rapeseed was a climate-friendly production method. Studies have shown, however, that the two crops produce more carbon dioxide emissions than the ethanol used in the E10 biofuel made from grain or sugar.

We'll know more tomorrow

Journalists asked the commissioners whether policymakers shouldn't have been aware of the food-vs.-fuel debate surrounding biofuels so that they wouldn't have had to backtrack on the subsidy policy. A 2008 study by the German Government's Advisory Council on Global Changes recommended the transport sector cut emissions by investing in electric cars rather than biofuel.

Oettinger replied, "I am sure that in three years there will be commissioners standing here who know considerable more than we do. But based on what we know now, we are making the best possible recommendations to the Commission."

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