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Face the truth: Europe’s biofuels bonanza causes hunger in Africa

28.06.2012 - 12:30

For the past few years, a project called “One City, One Book” has been running in my native Dublin. It’s a simple concept: during the month of April everyone is encouraged to read the same literary classic.

I’ve decided to import the idea to Brussels and give it a political edge. So I call on all folk above the age of 15 to borrow or buy Destruction Massive by Jean Ziegler before the end of July. Those who cannot understand French are urged to check out the book as soon as it is published in English (with the title Betting on Famine) this coming autumn.

Ziegler, a former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, mixes personal observations with sharp analysis to illustrate how global hunger is not an accident of nature but the consequence of deliberate policy choices made by an unaccountable elite. He opens with a heartbreaking account of how nurses in Niger have to turn away starving children due to a lack of resources. That is not a problem suffered by the corporate giants who are the target of his fury. Ziegler emphasises that a small number of leading companies often have more finance at their disposal than the governments of the countries where they are headquartered. Just 10 firms control one third of the world’s market in seeds. Six control 77% of the market in fertilisers.

The European Union is depicted – accurately – as a vassal of big business. There is a slightly comic scene involving Davide Zaru, an Italian diplomat tasked with representing the EU at meetings of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. One morning last year an exasperated Zaru confessed that he was unable to help Ziegler win support for a motion recognising the rights of peasants. The text in question denounced the grabbing of land by private interests and accused both investors engaging in this practice and governments who backed them of causing a rural exodus, mass unemployment and worsening poverty.

For a good clue as to why this message was unpalatable for EU officials, we can go back to a statement Ziegler made in 2007. “Producing biofuels with food is criminal,” he said. Several North American and European trade associations were so incensed with his comments that they complained about him to Kofi Annan, then the UN secretary general.

The situation is now a little more nuanced. The production of biofuels is a central factor behind the grabbing of land in Africa. Yet rather than using food crops, many of the players in this murky game have recently chosen jatropha, a poison, as the fuel source for the SUVs congesting our roads. A recent study by the campaign group ActionAid, however, explained how the proliferation of jatropha plantations is causing malnutrition rates to climb.

In 2009, the British-registered firm Sun Biofuels started clearing land in Kisaware, Tanzania, to set up an 8,200 hectare plantation. By the middle of last year, it had planted 2,000 hectares of jatropha. ActionAid undertook a survey of people from the 11 villages whose land was taken over for the plantation. More than 80% of respondents said they had not received any payment from Sun. Meanwhile, the area devoted to food crops has fallen by 14% and local harvests by 11% in order to make way for jatropha. Declining incomes have meant that many villagers, including children, can only afford two meals a day, whereas they previously ate three.

Nearly 5% of Africa has been bought by private interests since 2000, according to Land Matrix, an online database. This means that an area the size of Kenya – one of the continent’s biggest countries – has been snatched up.

The EU appears determined to accelerate the phenomenon of land-grabbing, even if it doesn’t state so openly. In 2007, the EU’s governments agreed a collective target of ensuring that biofuels power 10% of all car and truck journeys by 2020. A chorus of sensible voices have subsequently demanded that the goal be suspended or scrapped. Among them were the European Environment Agency, an official EU body.

Not only has the EU’s top institutions refused to heed these appeals, they have set additional targets for increasing biofuel use. Before Sun Biofuels went into administration in the second half of last year, it received a major contract from Lufthansa. The German carrier is participating in an EU-sponsored initiative to allocate two million tonnes of biofuels for aviation annually by 2020.

EU officials maintain that the biofuels they are promoting will meet “sustainability” criteria. But the way that the discussions have been framed leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the officials consider “sustainability” as no more than one of those buzzwords they utter without conviction.

Some €4.7 billion is likely to be spent on biofuel research as part of Horizon 2020, the Union’s next multi-annual science programme. Energy and transport firms are intimately involved in shaping the projects that will be financed. A “biofuels technology platform” set up for this purpose brings together Volvo, Airbus, Total and Volkswagen.

This club of polluters says it wishes to “radically cut” greenhouse gas emissions and wants us to believe that biofuels will enable it to do so. So long as the club rigs the game, the EU will remain in denial. Tackling climate change requires us to become less dependent on the car and plane. The biofuels bonanza prevents that truth from being told.