Rising Food Prices: It's Time to Stop Burning Food as Fuel

15/10/2012 23:18 BST | Updated 15/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Recent headlines about rising food prices are just the latest in a succession of reports illustrating how our daily staples are becoming increasingly expensive. The effects of this are hitting people hard - not just poor people in the UK but in parts of the world where almost one billion people cannot afford enough nutritious food to stave off hunger.

At a time like this it seems even more nonsensical that we are burning food to make fuel for cars, and that a European Union target is urging our Government to burn even more in future.

Earlier this year I wrote from Tanzania about the way that this EU target to use food for fuel - biofuels - is driving up the prices of food for the world's poorest people. Now, with food prices rocketing globally, we can see even more clearly why this policy is so damaging and must be reversed.

Unsurprisingly, demand for food to eat is not falling. At the same time, demand for food to burn as fuel is increasing. Add to this a terrible harvest and depleting food stocks and it's easy to see why prices are rising.

Extreme weather is having a clear impact on food supplies in many parts of the world. The USA has seen its worst drought in 50 years. Russia has experienced a heatwave. Eastern Europe has had a bad harvest. Last week the National Farmers' Union (NFU) revealed that wheat yields in England are down by almost 15% on the five year average, with productivity down to 1980s levels.

Climate change is expected to play an increasingly critical role in world supply of grain. But the high and rigid demand on grain from biofuel mandates is evidently making problems more acute. Using such a precious resource to do anything other than feed people makes ever less sense.

The biofuel in British petrol tanks could feed 10million people; across the EU biofuels could feed 185million people. This 'perfect storm' of declining supplies from climate change and rising demand from biofuels has dire consequences. For some households in developing countries, as much as 80% of their income is spent on food and even small price increases can leave long term effects by squeezing spending on health and education, as well as nutrition.

Pressure is building on politicians to act swiftly. And this week they have not one but two opportunities to do exactly that.

On World Food Day, Tuesday 16 October, agriculture ministers and officials will be meeting in Rome to discuss the current global food situation. It will provide an important moment to signal to the world that high food prices are being taken seriously and efforts being made to address the underlying causes. The on Wednesday, the European Commission is expected to table a proposal to revise EU biofuels policy, recognising the need to limit food based biofuels. The two events provide a rare window of opportunity for the UK and other progressive countries to pursue a genuinely sustainable path for biofuels, promoting only those biofuels that do not conflict with food and land.

We don't yet know what position the British government, under new transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin but most immediately with new environment secretary Owen Paterson, will take on this issue. The EU adopted its biofuels mandate with the best of intentions but time, science and new evidence have all shown that it's time to make a change in this area.

For the sake of hungry people everywhere, let's hope that our politicians step up to the plate and act this week to stop burning food as fuel.