Duncan Hames MP writes… Must we continue to use food for fuel?

The European Union is currently committed to ensuring that 10% of each Member State’s transport energy will come from biofuels by 2020. This originated as a well-intentioned attempt to combat climate change, but time has shown that using food for fuel can have devastating impacts on hunger and the environment. I’ve come to accept that it is time for a re-think.

In addition to concerns over their green credentials, biofuels are now recognised to be a key cause of hunger, affecting millions of people in developing countries. The World Bank, OECD, WTO, IFPRI, IMF, and five other UN agencies recommended that G20 governments abolish biofuel mandates, saying that “prices are substantially higher than they would be if no biofuels were produced”.

Concerns over the sustainability of biofuels are shared by major corporates too. Unilever, Nestle, and Carrefour all declared that “biofuels mandates should be evaluated regarding their impact on global food security priorities.”

Liberal Democrats, here and in the European Parliament, have sought to regulate for genuinely sustainable biofuels. The Department for Transport has frozen UK biofuel mandates under the leadership of Norman Baker, and Energy Secretary Ed Davey recently stated that “we’ve made a real mistake in the EU [on biofuels] and we’ve got to end that mistake, the sooner the better”.

The International Development Select Committee, chaired by Sir Malcolm Bruce MP, is leading an inquiry on food security and has also given priority to the issue of biofuels. Our DFID Minister Lynne Featherstone recently confirmed that the G8-linked event on hunger on 8 June will raise the issue. Nick Clegg himself has recognised the impact of land grabs, the majority of which result from the need to grow biofuels, and is championing this issue under the UK’s leadership of the G8 this year.

The last few years have seen many organisations, from ActionAid to Oxfam, calling for an end to European biofuels targets. At our spring conference in Brighton I spoke at an ActionAid event on this issue and subsequently raised it with the Department for International Development’s Secretary of State, Justine Greening on the floor of the House of Commons.

All this is taking place against a background of one in eight people going to bed hungry every night. That is why the IF campaign has been calling for an end to the use of Food for Fuel as part of its campaign against hunger.

The Prime Minister has this year pledged to “lead the way in the battle against hunger”, and it is Liberal Democrat ministers who are taking concrete action on the impact of biofuels.

It is striking that the amount of food burned as biofuels in the petrol tanks of our G8 combined nations could feed 441 million people according to ActionAid’s recent research. 6 million hectares in sub-Saharan Africa – that’s about half the area of England – are now under the control of European biofuel companies. And a disproportionate number of these projects are run by UK businesses. Many of these land ‘investments’ to grow biofuels are in countries with some of the highest levels of food insecurity, including Senegal, Zambia and Madagascar.

If you’d like to find out more, the IF campaign Food Not Fuel week shows the extent of support there is to put these policies right.

What policy better illustrates the law of unintended consequences? The case against increasing the biofuel mandate is now clear. We should continue to pursue reductions in the carbon emissions arising from transport – just not at the expense of those who continue to go hungry.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Turning food into fuel is the emotive top slice of the question. The important point is using land to produce fuel and therefore making it unavailable for growing food. Woodland and marginal land which can be used to produce either biomass or inputs to intelligent biofuel generation may be fine, if well managed.

  • jenny barnes 17th May '13 - 8:52am

    You could probably get more reduction in road fuel use by increasing the tax on it. I still see new gas guzzlers driving around doing 25 mpg or less, when many cars achieve 50, 60 or 70 mpg. Fuel is too cheap.
    Biofuels… doesn’t wood count as bio fuel? We want to keep our woodlands, and if so they need management, rather than neglect. Logic says that they will be managed when fuel-wood is valued enough.

  • Andrew Suffield 17th May '13 - 8:59am

    The obvious question is: if this land was not being used for growing fuel, would it be used for growing food? Clearly fuel brings in more revenue, and I don’t recall European food companies buying up large tracts of sub-Saharan Africa for the purpose of feeding people in that part of the world.

  • Turning food into fuel to burn in gas guzzling cars is utter madness. But as Mike Tuffrey points out :
    ” So this has to be about reduction in demand for energy, and not only about finding alterative supplies.”
    Mike Tuffrey, correctly points to what must surely be, the over arching aspiration for our future energy use? And indeed, there has been a great deal of very good (cross party), work on this issue. One man that needs to be listened to, is your very own John Hemming MP, who along with others has done some excellent work on how we might manage future energy use in the UK.
    The link (regarding TEQ’s), is well worth a look (and has some very good explanatory videos), if you are interested in possible ways of managing energy use in the wider economy. TEQ’s, is not a perfect solution by any means, but if implemented as designed, it would be a fair for all, solution, and would get the public to take a serious look at their personal energy use, which can only be a good thing (IMHO).

  • jenny barnes 17th May '13 - 4:07pm

    Gareth :Can someone please point out to me an occasion in all of human history where energy consumption went down?

    Nope. Human global energy demand doubles roughly every 35 -50 years. Which means that in each half century as much energy is used as was used in the previous entire history of the human species. Doubles every 50 years.

  • jenny barnes 17th May '13 - 4:11pm

    oh, jet fuel. Kerosene is a chain hydrocarbon, so in principle could be made from any convenient carbon source and water, assuming you have sufficient energy to do the chemical reforming. CO2 is no very convenient; wood or coal would work. Similarly for diesel / derv/ gasoil, which we’ll continue to need medium term for heavy trucks. You still need the energy source, though, and obviously it’s much easier to make these things out of crude oil.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th May '13 - 7:21pm

    I know a bit about this but I’m not an expert so please excuse me. Most biofuel in the UK used to be based on rapeseed oil, which grows on land that could be used for food – so there is a problem and we always knew this existed.

    Around 5-6 years ago the industry tried to move onto using Jatropha oil because it can grow on arid land, which does not compete for food use.

    However the problem with both rapeseed oil and Jatropha is that it cannot compete with fossil oil without government subsidy. Therefore from my knowledge (which is about 5 years out of date) none of these have taken off.

    The industry tried to move onto producing oil using algae, which again can be produced on land that cannot be used for food. Algae yields much more oil per hectare but there was a problem with preventing the ponds from getting contaminated and also a problem with costs if using a closed system.

    Have there been any updates on the commercial viability of these new sources of fuel? Rapeseed is dead in the water due to the food versus fuel argument but as explained there are other options.

  • Thanks for all the comments.
    Current generation biofuels derive from food crops and some waste oils, but there are limits to the degree that deep-fat-frying can sustainably power our road transport . There are some alternatives worth looking at, but they are either unsuitable for scaling to 10% of EU transport fuel energy demand, or not likely to be available at scale within 7 years. That is when the biofuels mandate reaches 10%. In the UK it is currently at 5%, and from what I can find, domestic productions of biofuels accounts for no more than 3% of UK transport fuels. So meeting the 10% EU target by 2020 appears dependent on imports which will have displaced food production.
    Support for Biomass in heat and electricity generation is certainly having an effect on the economic value of wood and therefore woodland, but that is a different matter.
    If you’re interested in reading more, ActionAid have simple FAQ: http://www.actionaid.org.uk/stop-biofuels-causing-hunger/biofuels-faq

  • Duncan Brack 18th May '13 - 11:51am

    I’m glad Duncan raised this issue, not least because we’re about to discuss it at the zero-carbon working group; there’ll be a section on biofuels in the zero-carbon paper due for debate at the Glasgow conference.

    One additional point that hasn’t been made is that when you take into account the impacts of indirect land use change, biofuels made from vegetable oils (palm oil, rapeseed, etc.) actually cause more greenhouse gas emissions than the fossil fuels they replace. So it’s good to see our MEPs and ministers back the incorporation of indirect land use change factors for compliance in the EU framework for biofuels.

    But what I don’t understand is why they seem to be opposing the cap of 5 per cent on crop-based biofuels proposed by the European Commission. Even biofuels that save greenhouse gas emissions – e.g. ethanol from corn or sugar cane – still displace food production and push up food prices and food price volatility. Surely we should be aiming for a total phase-out of subsidies for crop-based biofuels?

  • agree with the article but very wary of any stats coming from ActionAid. As their recent (scurrilous and wholly fallacious) campaigns on tax demonstrate, these people are completely cavalier with the facts and any statistics they produce can safely be assumed to be wrong!

  • Michael Parsons 19th May '13 - 5:14pm

    It might make more sense to massively support the agencies investigating safer nuclear energy from Thorium? Even if that is a UKIP policy as well! Not to say better than cutting down forests for oil plantations, or using wind power etc. that relies on “rare earths” 90% of which are found in China and so likely to end up with equipment manufactured there? Or us fighting for access to Bolivian lithium or whatever instead of oil?

  • As most of the demand for bio-fuel comes from road transport, why don’t this country, along with other western countries admit that the current road transport system of private car motoring is coming to a close. The appearance of gas guzzlers in urban environments (such as Chelsea) is just taking conclusion to insanity. True, there is sometimes no alternative to carry heavy goods where there is no rail link.
    As most people in Britain live in a urban area: then for personal use: mass transit such as trains, buses, strauenbahn is the best answer along with cycling. We maybe can separate HGV roads from cycle routes.
    On the Isle of Wight I have completely disposed of the need for a private car with using my large adult tricycle, this can carry quite a lot of goods in its basket and trailer: Its zero carbon use – main point: cycling has much improved our health !
    Where I need to travel longer distances I can still use the bus and train systems.
    There could be provision to take adult tricycles onto special rail carriages, at low cost, to cover longer distances, much better than having to drive a car for long distances.

  • Michael Parsons 21st May '13 - 12:00am


    Even with the high tax on cars and fuels and the subsidies to railroad construction trains are affordable to the rich or to those using firms’ expenses, or employed round London. Even so they are utterly inadequate, overcrowded and unpleasant and rarely go where you want (like busses) so journeys have to be completed by other means – usually by road. The reason is the wanton destruction of our rail system by the market-faith of the Tories, which removed rail access to most places, and closed many stations from which your bicycles might have been used. Their huge destruction of our transport infrastructure wiped out generations of investment in rail and water transport; it means the car is the means of travel for the poor. Taxing and attacking us for using it comes very badly in a country governed by a Coalition that is still obsessed with “market centred solutions” and hell-bent on denying needed nationalised provision in this as in other areas..

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