They were touted as the solution to climate change but they have ended up making it worse, depriving millions of people of food, land and water - and UK consumers are paying the price at the pump. Replacing fossil fuels with biofuels has backfired and only big business is benefitting.
In 2009 EU governments agreed that 10 percent of transport fuel sold in the EU would come from renewable sources by 2020, with almost all of the quota expected to be met using biofuels made from food crops. But the rush to meet the target has contributed to a surge in food prices and land grabs, resulting in greater hunger and malnutrition in poor countries.
Summer 2012 saw corn and soy prices hit record highs in the wake of the worst drought to hit the US in fifty years. This is the third major spike in international food prices in five years, leaving millions in the poorest countries struggling to make ends meet. At same time, spurred by the demand for biofuels, farmers are growing crops to feed cars not people. In a new report Oxfam reveals that the land used to power European cars with biofuels for just one year could produce enough wheat and maize to feed at least 127 million people.
As well as hitting the world's poorest people hard, the EU biofuel target is costing UK consumers through higher fuel prices. By 2020, it could cost UK consumers an extra £35 a year as motorists unwittingly subsidize big business to meet the target.
Biofuels are not even the solution to climate change they purport to be. In fact meeting EU biofuel targets could be as bad for the environment as putting 26 million extra cars on Europe's roads as biofuels displace other crops onto forests, peatlands and grasslands - all of which keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
Oxfam is not alone in its concerns. In a rare moment of consensus about the drivers and solutions to global hunger, ten international organisations published a report in June 2011 calling for G20 governments to scrap biofuel targets because of their contribution to food price spikes. At the time, this clear recommendation got short shrift, but last week the French government committed to 'push for a pause in the development of biofuels competing with food'. This announcement came just two days after the leak of a European Commission proposal to limit the use of crop-based biofuels in the EU.
The UK government's own analysis suggests that suspending the EU biofuel mandate in 2018 could reduce global food price spikes, like the one currently being experienced as a result of the US drought, by up to 35 percent.
The leaked European Commission proposal shows that the debate on the impact of EU biofuel policies on climate change and food prices is increasingly difficult to ignore. But the proposal provides no real solution and could in fact make matters worse. At the moment about 4.5 percent of ground transport fuel used in the EU is made up of biofuels, with about 90 percent made from food crops. Not only would the Commission proposal increase that amount to five percent, but it would allow biofuels made from non-food crops to make up the difference - which use up our limited resources of land, water and soil, when they should be used to produced much needed food.
Analysis by the IMF and World Bank shows that most land deals happen in the poorest countries with the weakest protection of people's land rights. Affected communities rarely have a say, and women are the least likely to be consulted even though they are often the most seriously affected . Families are being forced from their homes and left without land to grow enough food to eat or make a living, even as food prices rocket.
It is rare for such a simple action with such a significant impact on hunger to be within the grasp of politicians. The UK has already frozen its biofuel target at five percent due to concerns about environmental and social sustainability. The new secretary of state for transport, Patrick McLoughlin, has a chance to make a difference to the lives of millions of hungry people by pressing the European Commission and other EU governments to drop the targets completely. It is completely unacceptable that we are burning food in our petrol tanks while poor families go hungry and millions are being pushed off their land. Fighting hunger has never been so simple: it's time to scrap the biofuel targets.