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UN rapporteur urges 5-year biofuel moratorium

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, has called for a 5-year moratorium on biofuel production using current methods. This recommendation was contained in his interim report on the right to food (A/62/289, 22 August 2007), submitted to the UN General Assembly, which is currently meeting.

The Special Rapporteur stressed that rushing to turn food crops — maize, wheat, sugar, palm oil — into fuel for cars, without first examining the impact on global hunger, would be a recipe for disaster. Among the potential impacts identified are increasing food prices, increasing competition over land and forests, forced evictions, impacts on employment and conditions of work, and increasing prices and scarcity of water.

According to Ziegler, a five-year moratorium on biofuel production would provide the time for technologies to be devised and regulatory structures to be put in place to protect against negative environmental, social and human rights impacts. It would also allow measures to be put in place to ensure that biofuel production can have positive impacts and respect the right to adequate food.

The full report can be found at http://www.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/annual.htm

The issue of biofuels and impacts on indigenous peoples has also been discussed in a paper submitted to the 6th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (E/C.19/2007/CRP.6, 7 May 2007).

The paper on “Oil Palm and Other Commercial Tree Plantations, Monocropping: Impacts on Indigenous Peoples’ Land Tenure and Resource Management Systems and Livelihoods” discusses biofuels in the context of plantations and monocropping, particularly on implications on the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, territories and resources.

The paper can be downloaded at http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/6session_crp6.doc

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Item 1

Excerpts from the Report of the Special Rapportuer on the right to food (A/62/289, 22 August 2007)

Summary:

The Special Rapporteur is gravely concerned that biofuels will bring hunger in their wake. The sudden, ill-conceived, rush to convert food — such as maize, wheat, sugar and palm oil — into fuels is a recipe for disaster. There are serious risks of creating a battle between food and fuel that will leave the poor and hungry in developing countries at the mercy of rapidly rising prices for food, land and water. If agro-industrial methods are pursued to turn food into fuel, then there are risks that unemployment and violations of the right to food may result, unless specific measures are put in place to ensure that biofuels contribute to the development of small-scale peasant and family farming. Instead of using food crops, biofuels should be made from non-food plants and agricultural wastes, reducing competition for food, land and water.

C. Protecting the right to food in biofuel production:

43. Rather than persuading us to use less energy, the false promise of agrofuels suggests that we can help the climate by simply changing fuels. Yet many studies have shown that agrofuels may not even be “carbon-neutral” or make much contribution to setting off carbon dioxide emissions, once account is taken of the fossil fuels that are still needed to plant, harvest and process food crops for biofuels under highly mechanized industrial models of production. Agrofuel production is unacceptable if it brings greater hunger and water scarcity to the poor in developing countries.

44. The Special Rapporteur therefore calls for a five-year moratorium on biofuel production using current methods, to allow time for technologies to be devised and regulatory structures to be put in place to protect against negative environmental, social and human rights impacts. Many measures can be put in place during such a moratorium to ensure that biofuel production can have positive impacts and respect the right to adequate food. Such measures include: 

 (a) Promoting the need to reduce overall energy consumption and maintaining focus on all other methods of improving energy efficiency;

 (b) Moving immediately to “second generation” technologies for producing biofuels, which would reduce the competition between food and fuel. Agricultural wastes and crop residues could be used. As IFPRI has pointed out: “the efficient exploitation of agricultural wastes presents significant potential for developing bio-energy without unduly disrupting existing agricultural practices and food production or requiring new land to come into production”. [Daniel Howden, “The fight for the world’s food”, The Independent, 23 June 2007] Common crop residues that can be used include maize cobs, sugar cane bagasse, rice husks and banana leaves. In this way, biofuel production could be complementary to existing agriculture, rather than competing with it, and would not require massive diversion of food, land and water resources away from food production. Food prices would therefore remain stable, but farmers would have profitable ways of disposing of agricultural waste products, benefiting both consumers and producers;

 (c) Adopting technologies that use non-food crops, particularly crops that can be grown in semi-arid and arid regions. The cultivation of Jatropha Curcas, a shrub that produces large oil-bearing seeds, appears to offer a good solution as it can be grown in arid lands that are not normally suitable for food crops. Over half of Africa’s arid lands are considered suitable for Jatropha cultivation and cultivating this plant would not only produce biofuel but could simultaneously provide livelihoods for African farmers, increase the productivity of the soil and reverse land degradation and desertification;

 (d) Ensuring that biofuel production is based on family agriculture, rather than industrial models of agriculture, in order to ensure more employment and rural development that provides opportunities, rather than competition, to poor peasant farmers. Organizing cooperatives of small farmers to grow crops for larger processing firms would provide much more employment than the concentration of land into heavily mechanized expanses and plantations. As ActionAid has pointed out “Biofuel could even be an important tool to fight hunger and poverty if it comes together with a set of appropriate policies involving smallholder farmers.” [www.actionaid.org/pages.aspx?PageID=34&ItemID=287]

Item 2

Released October 11, 2007 - 9:30 PM - from Swissinfo © Copyright swissinfo SRI
UN rapporteur calls for biofuel moratorium

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food is demanding an international five-year ban on producing biofuels to combat soaring food prices.

Switzerland's Jean Ziegler said the conversion of arable land for plants used for green fuel had led to an explosion of agricultural prices which was punishing poor countries forced to import their food at a greater cost.

"232kg of corn is needed to make 50 litres of bioethanol," Ziegler said on Thursday. "A child could live on that amount of corn for a year."

Using land for biofuels would result in "massacres", he said, predicting a reduction in the amount of food aid sent to developing countries by richer ones.

"It's a total disaster for those who are starving."

Ziegler's proposal for a five-year moratorium, which he plans to submit to the UN General Assembly on October 25, is aiming to ban the conversion of land for the production of biofuels.

Ziegler said he hoped that by the time the moratorium was lifted science would have made sufficient progress to be able to create "second generation" biofuels, made from agricultural waste or from non-agricultural plants such as jatropha, which grows naturally on arid ground.

Taking Brazil as an example, Ziegler said he deplored the fact that sugar cane plantations, whose products were used for biofuels, were spreading at the expense of food-producing land.

He said ten hectares (100,000 square metres) of food-producing land could sustain an average of seven to ten farmers, whereas the same area could only produce enough sugar cane for one farmer.

Threat to poor

Only two years ago, with the twin spectres of peak oil prices and climate change looming, biofuels seemed the ideal alternative energy.

Now it is the poor who have to contend with the flip side of biofuels: spiralling cereal prices, say experts.

"The days of cheap food are over," said Joachim von Braun, director of the International Food Policy Research  Institute, in an article for the Swiss Agency for Development and

Cooperation (SDC) in September.

Over the past decade, while production of biofuels using corn, sugarcane, soybean and other staples has risen  dramatically, malnutrition has continued. Nearly 900 million people worldwide suffer hunger, 70 per cent of them food producers, peasants and rural dwellers.

Von Braun warns this figure could hit one billion in just a few years and that rising demand and increased bioenergy costs are affecting food prices.

"The bioenergy market receives considerable state funding and is dominated by the heavyweights in the oil, cereal and automobile industry," he said.

"Barring technological progress and enactment of regulations based on transparent standards, we are looking at a 20-40 per cent increase in food prices between now and 2020. And the poorest, some of whom live on 50 cents a day, will be unable to foot the bill."

Environmental impact

A study commissioned by the Swiss authorities in May also concluded that biofuels might not be the panacea for the world's fossil-fuel woes.

Such fuels, touted as an ecologically friendly source of energy, might be more harmful for the environment than their fossil counterparts, it said.

According to the authors, while it was true that biofuels might emit less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels when consumed, producing them was generally more stressful on the environment.

Growing and processing crops for energy purposes or feedstock can have the heaviest environmental impact, as soil quality can be affected adversely, for example through fertiliser overuse.

swissinfo with agencies

 


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