ISSN 2330-717X

Rio+20 To Stoke Debate Over Biofuels


By José Pedro Martins

The debate over the use of farmland for the production of biofuels, which affects food security worldwide, will resume with force during Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development set to take place in Rio de Janeiro in early June 2012.

Various non-governmental organizations which will participate in the People’s Summit, an event held parallel to the official conference, are already mobilizing to challenge the expansion of biofuels at the expense of agricultural land used for food production by family and community farming, and object to the potential environmental effects of this.

As the seat of Rio+20, as it was for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, Eco-92, Brazil is at the center of the debate about the impact that the progress of biofuels has on food production and food security around the world.

The controversy began with intensity in October 2007, when the then- UN special rapporteur for the right to food, Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler, released a report confirming that the expansion of ethanol —a biofuel derived from sugarcane— would be helping to raise food prices, consequently deteriorating food security conditions for the world’s poorest people.

In his report, Ziegler suggested a five year moratorium on the production of biofuels that are made using food sources, like sugarcane in Brazil and corn in the United States. He added that a 1 percent increase in food prices meant 16 million more people would be undernourished around the world.

Crime against humanity

The tone of the criticisms of biofuels escalated in April 2008 when Ziegler said the mass production of this alternative energy source to fossil fuels was a crime against humanity, in the light of their impact on world food prices.

Ziegler’s statements were met with a quick and emphatic response from then-president of Brazil, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), who said Ziegler didn’t know Brazil’s reality. The hike in food prices could not be blamed on biofuels, according to Lula.

The strongly-worded declarations by the rapporteur sparked an intense worldwide debate about the relationship between biofuels and food security. At the time that controversy was attributed to the fact that much of US corn production was earmarked for biofuels, which contributed to higher food prices.

But concern remains for United Nations organizations, as indicated by recent publications. In “The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2011,” the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, made clear its concern about the impact of biofuels on food security.

“High and volatile food prices are likely to continue. Demand from consumers in rapidly growing economies will increase, population continues to grow, and any further growth in biofuels will place additional demands on the food system,” the report said.

“Furthermore, biofuel policies have created new linkages between the price of oil and the price of food commodities,” it explains. “When oil prices increase, demand for biofuels will increase, thus raising food prices, with the opposite happening when oil prices decrease.”

The FAO’s new director-general, José Graziano da Silva of Brazil, has argued that biofuels production should not influence food production. He has also said, however, that four Latin American countries — Argentina, Brazil, Colombia y Paraguay — according to FAO studies can increase biofuels production “without affecting food security”, in terms of land availability. Biofuel derived from corn is of most concern to FAO, he added.

Continued expansion of agribusiness

The issue of biofuels is therefore at the heart of the global debate on food security and on the alternatives to fossil fuels which cause global warming. In Brazil it is very clear the concern NGOs have about the expansion of biofuels, particularly ethanol, in environmentally sensitive areas like the Pantanal and the Amazon.

“It’s an environmental crime and has disadvantages for food production,” said Plínio de Arruda Sampaio, president of the Brazilian Association of Agrarian Reform, or ABRA. Ethanol only contributes to “sustain the automotive industry, which is destined to go through upheaval” given issues like global warming, he said.

Brazil has 355 million hectares suitable for farming. Currently, 9.4 million hectares are used for sugar cane. Studies by the Brazilian government show that in coming years sugarcane crops will take over more land.

The document, “Brazil: Agribusiness projections 2010/2011 to 2020/2021,” by the Office of Strategic Management within Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply, indicates there is a projected expansion of land used for sugarcane and soybean, “two activities that are competing for space in Brazil.” According to the report, those two crops “are due to expand in the coming years by 7.4 million hectares: 5.3 million hectares of soybean and 2.1 million hectares of sugarcane.”

“Many farmers, because of prices, will keep choosing sugarcane, and that’s bad — even worse because the migration and overcrowding of cities continues,” said Sampaio. The advancement of soybean and sugarcane crops is highlighted by organizations that support landless campesinos and small-scale farmers, like the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, or CNBB, and the Pastoral Land Commission, or CPT, as a source of escalation in the country’s agrarian conflicts.

Now NGOs and civil society organizations in Brazil are focused on actions aimed at Rio+20, to discuss the so-called green economy —which is defined by the United Nations Environment Program “as one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”— and the fight against poverty, two issues closely linked to the controversy over biofuels and food security.

A document signed by several organizations, including the Brazilian AS-PTA Agricultura Familiar e Agroecologia, and the international EcoNexus, ETC-Group, More and Better, and Third World Network, lists the “20 policies Rio+20 could immediately adopt” to strengthen food sovereignty, reduce environmental damage, and support the “innovative work of campesinos, the producers and providers of small-scale food production.”

The initiatives suggested in the document include: restoring public support for farming to face the food crisis, converting lands used for biofuel production to land for food production, adopting policies that decrease soil erosion to protect long-term food security, and supporting campesino-driven conservation strategies.

In another document, organizations like Vía Campesina, Friends of the Earth Latin America/Caribbean, and the World Rainforest Movement, made the call to “affirm our rights and those of nature against the commodification of life and the greenwashing of capitalism.” Environmental NGOs consider that a green economy would just be a strategy to uphold the destructive and unjust structures of capitalism.

Clearly, the controversy related to biofuels and food security will be one of the highlighted topics at Rio+20 and the People’s Summit. It is “totally plausible to increase the production of energy from other sources, like the wind and sun,” ABRA’s Sampaio said, just as it is “fundamental to change transportation systems around the world.” For him, these challenges “cannot be resolved within the capitalist system.”

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Latinamerica Press is a product of Comunicaciones Aliadas, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Lima, Peru, specializing in the production of information and analysis about events across Latin America and the Caribbean with a focus on rights, while strengthening the communications skills of local social leaders.

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