A United Nations expert has condemned the growing use of crops to produce biofuels as a replacement for gasoline as a crime against humanity. The UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, said he feared biofuels would bring more hunger. Growth in the production of biofuels has helped to push the price of some crops to record levels.
Ziegler's remarks, made at the UN headquarters in New York, are clearly designed to grab attention.Â
He complained of an ill-conceived dash to convert foodstuffs such as corn and sugar into fuel, which created a recipe for disaster. It was, he said, a crime against humanity to divert arable land to the production of crops which are then burned for fuel and called for a five-year ban on the practice.
Within that time, according to Ziegler, technological advances would enable the use of agricultural waste, such as corn cobs and banana leaves, rather than crops themselves to produce fuel.
The growth in the production of biofuels has been driven, in part, by the desire to find less environmentally-damaging alternatives to oil. The United States is also keen to reduce its reliance on oil imported from politically unstable regions.
But the trend has contributed to a sharp rise in food prices as farmers, particularly in the US, switch production from wheat and soybeans to corn, which is then turned into ethanol.
Ziegler is not alone in warning of the problem. The IMF last week voiced concern that the increasing global reliance on grain as a source of fuel could have serious implications for the world's poor.
Biofuels are basically ethanol and diesel. Ethanol is usually mixed with gasoline while biodiesel is either used on its own or in a mixture. Before World War II the UK and Germany both sold biofuels mixed with gas or diesel made from crude oil, but the availability of cheaper oil later pushed them out of the market.
In principle biofuels are a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional transport fuels. Burning the fuel releases carbon dioxide but growing the plants absorbs a comparable amount of the gas from the atmosphere.
Production of ethanol doubled globally between 2000 and 2005 with biodiesel output quadrupling. Brazil leads the world in production and use making an estimated 16 billion liters per year of ethanol from its sugarcane industry. In Brazil 65% of new cars run on a mix of fuel which includes 85% ethanol.
There are few problems technically since engines generally cope with the new biofuels. But current technologies limit production because only certain parts of specific plants can be used.
The big hope is the so-called second-generation of biofuels, which will process the cellulose found in many plants, should lead to a more efficient production using a much greater range of plants and plant waste.