July 23, 2013
The European Parliament’s somewhat frenzied concern about the possible indirect land use change (ILUC) resulting from EU biofuel policies is a splendid example of the phenomenon of unintended consequences. While acting on the basis of some pretty questionable science, the MEPs are constructing a new form of protectionism which is likely to damage the interests of those who can afford it least. While easing their eco-consciences they are likely seriously to damage the wellbeing of many people in Africa. The ILUC preoccupation has been the major driving force behind the European Commission’s proposal to limit the use of crop-based biofuel to 5 per cent of the EU’s renewable energy quotient (or 5.5 per cent in the Parliament’s view). The Parliament is now pursuing further limitations on biofuel s which it believes will limit ILUC.
The European Commission’s and MEP’s main preoccupations driving this legislative activity are alleged reduction in the planet’s carbon sequestration capacity through reduction of forest and wilderness resulting from increased crop productiion and concern to limit the amount of food grains and oilseeds used to make bioethanol and biodiesel – on the emotive assumption that this involves putting ‘food into fuel tanks’. MEPs pushing for these further biofuel limitations believe that if the EU imports vegetable oils to make biodiesel this will automatically mean the destruction of forests and wild places in Africa and South America. The scientific basis for these assumptions is pretty tenuous. And as far as Africa is concerned, this putative legislation is likely to be positively harmful.
Sub Saharan Africa has nearly two thirds of the world’s unused or under-used agricultural land. As well as having the lowest average per capita income on the planet, it also has the greatest number of under-nourished and starving people. The single most obvious solution to these problems is the development of agriculture. This is currently the region’s major potential source of economic growth as well as the way out of poverty and food shortage. The export of agricultural commodities is a growing economic driver. Money earned in the international market stimulates not only expansion of commercial agriculture, but also has the potential to increase domestic food supply and food security.
Also currently, world prices for palm oil and other vegetable oils are at a low ebb, with a dismal effect on African and Asian incomes; further restrictions on European use can only make matters worse. The Parliament’s draft proposal, seeks to exclude the use of any biofuel feedstock produced from land converted since 2008. This would have no impact on land use in Europe, but could prevent crop producers – small ‘out-growers’ as well as larger commercial farmers – in Sub Saharan Africa from supplying Europe’s biofuels market. All of any increased supply would be likely to come from land already in production – with little or no effect on the continent’s –or the planet’s – carbon sequestration capacity.<23/07/2013>