The United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security (CFS) met last week in Rome and, not surprisingly, biofuels were again at the centre of a hot debate. Governments, industry, civil society and academics all represented at the meeting could agree on an overall mild conclusion which asks for further assessment, given the very controversial topic to which they were confronted.

In the UN’s words, the CFS recognizes that biofuels development “encompasses both opportunities and risks in economic, social and environmental aspects, depending on the context and practices” and encourages all stakeholders to help countries assess the impact of their biofuel policies. This only demonstrates that the overall dimension of biofuel production is yet to be fully captured and this gives stakeholders the opportunity to show that not all biofuels policies have negative impacts, that good examples of a fair balance between food and fuel production exist and that best practices should be incentivized. Let’s hope that this further assessment phase will help to develop a less black and white approach to biofuels.

Brazil is one of these good examples. Brazilian Sugarcane Ethanol (BSCE) is classified in places like the U.S. as an advanced biofuel and the land producing ethanol also produces sugar. In fact, in the last 20 years the volume of sugarcane harvested has tripled to respond to the growing demand for ethanol and sugar, but food production hasn’t dropped at all. Over the same period, grains production has also almost tripled in Brazil. Production of BSCE only uses 0.5% of Brazil’s total area and the agro-ecological zoning regulations limit the land used for sugarcane to 7.5% of the Brazilian territory.

In conclusion, the CFS recognized the complexity of the links between biofuels and food security and the need to distinguish between short-term and long-term impacts, despite the intense reaction of Oxfam at the end of the meeting last Friday, which argued that “Unfortunately, powerful countries refused to act despite the evidence and preferred to put biofuel industry interests ahead of peoples’ right to food”.

Unfortunately, the CFS missed the opportunity to recognize the positive role that bioenergy production has played, particularly in minimizing the downward slope of agricultural investments and commodity prices. After all, investments in agriculture generate more economic growth in developing countries than investments in any other sector.  In addition, access to energy is a condition to produce food: the more sustainable the energy produced and used, the more sustainable the food production will be!

The CFS will meet again next year and according to the action points agreed, FAO will have to come up with proposals on “contingency plans to adjust policies that stimulate biofuels production and consumption when global food markets are under pressure and food supplies are endangered” as well as “provide toolkits to device and assess integrated food security and sustainable biofuels policies”. The newly elected Chair, Gerda Verburg, the Dutch Ambassador to UN agencies in Rome, said she wants to keep negotiating with all the stakeholders represented in the Committee and focusing on the outreach for the implementation of the decisions already taken.

At UNICA, we will continue our efforts to spread the word on how Brazil has emerged as a leader in providing both food and energy from its diversified and efficient agricultural sector.

For more details on the CFS conclusions, see the final report (press release) and the HLPE study (Executive Summary).

The issue was also covered by The Guardian, Oxfam, Reuters and Ethanol Producer Magazine

Géraldine Kutas

Géraldine Kutas

A seasoned professional specializing in international trade policy, Géraldine Kutas leverages over a decade of experience to strengthen UNICA’s activities across the European Union, the United States and Asia. She has a deep expertise in biofuels and agricultural policies, coupled with extensive exposure to multilateral and regional trade negotiations in agriculture. Ms. Kutas is the author and co-author of several international publications on these topics.

Before joining UNICA, she was a researcher and a professor at the Groupe d’Economie Mondiale at Sciences Po(GEM), Paris, and coordinator of the European Biofuels Policy research programme (EBP). Ms. Kutas has also worked as a consultant at the Inter-American Bank of Development and for agro-business firms.

Ms. Kutas has a Ph.D. in International Economics from the Institut d’Etudes Poliques de Paris and a Master degree in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University, Washington DC.