Ceveriano surveys a sugar plantation. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

What are biofuels? What's the problem with them?

Biofuels have been around a while now, yet the debate continues: are biofuels good or bad? Our little Q&A should help clear things up.

What are biofuels?

Biofuels are liquid fuels made mostly from crops which can be mixed with fossil fuels to run ordinary cars. They are made from corn, wheat, sugarcane or sugar beet in the case of ethanol, or oilseeds such as rapeseed, soy or palm oil in the case of biodiesel.

What’s the problem with biofuels?

In short, our limited resources – land and water – are being used to make biofuels for our petrol tanks when they should be used to grow much needed food in a world where one in eight people go to bed hungry every day. As wealthy countries demand ever more food for fuel, food prices soar and millions go hungry, while a global land rush means farmers are often forced off their fields in brutal land grabs to make way for more biofuels, destroying livelihoods and exacerbating poverty and hunger even further.

Won’t using biofuels help reduce carbon emissions?

No, in fact some biofuels actually accelerate climate change through what is known as indirect land use change. Even when crops for biofuels are grown on available farming land, new areas have to be cleared to grow crops for food, including carbon stores such as forests and peat lands. As a result, millions of tons of greenhouse gases are released – in many cases even more than those produced by fossil diesel.

Why should we take your word for it?

A wide range of independent academics and research institutions, international organizations such as the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, civil society groups from North and South, and private companies such as Unilever and Nestlé support our arguments.

So then why are some governments resisting change on biofuels?

Our knowledge of biofuels and their impact is evolving rapidly and many policy makers have not yet fully digested this information. There are also powerful special interests, namely industry and farming lobbies, who are working hard to keep the current system of support for biofuels from which they benefit.

What action does Oxfam propose?

Oxfam is calling on governments to scrap the rules and laws that divert food from those who need it the most and put it in fuel tanks. The full impact of biofuels on both people and the planet, including food price increases, land grabs, and indirect land use change, must be accounted for. Far more climate friendly and cost effective strategies to reduce emissions from transport exist, such as setting higher efficiency standards for cars, and creating better transport systems.

Now in Europe, there is an excellent opportunity to make things right as our leaders will decide on reform of EU biofuels policy in the coming months. They must listen.

EU biofuels cartoon

You may also like

Blogs: Our blogs about biofuels

Read the report: The Hunger Grains: The fight is on. Time to scrap EU biofuels mandates

Biofuels force reduced food production – new research out of Princeton University (via Friends of the Earth Europe)

EU biofuels policy comes at an unacceptably high economic, social and environmental cost – time to fix a failed policy - open letter to EU decision makers, signed by more than 110 NGOs, pdf

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