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Newsletter 20th July 2007

- Back-pedalling on bio-fuels? - Goodbye to set-aside - Approved by default - No role for biotech in food security? - Risk versus benefits

Back-pedalling on bio-fuels?

Bio-fuels have had a roller-coaster ride in the past couple of years. From a situation where few people outside Brazil had even heard of their existence, they suddenly became fashionable and an undeniable “good thing”. Converting plants into motor fuel seemed to have an ideal mix of benefits, both reducing net carbon dioxide emissions and providing a renewable alternative to mineral oil. Governments thought they were on to a winner, and ambitious growth targets were set. European Union leaders earlier this year committed themselves to replacing 10% of transport fuel by bio-fuel (ethanol and diesel) as one component of an overall goal of increasing renewable energy use to 20% of the total by 2020.

 But even before this commitment was made, bio-fuels were coming in for vociferous criticism. Environmentalists were critical of the clearance of land to grow fuel crops, particularly pointing to the large increase in oil palm plantations in south-east Asia. Other critics pointed out that the present generation of bio-ethanol derived from grain takes nearly as much energy to produce as it supplies when burnt. And the market distortions created by subsidies in the USA raised the price of maize, to the distress of poor Mexicans whose staple food is the tortilla.

 The one country where ethanol is currently being produced economically and with relatively low energy input is Brazil, where sugar cane provides an almost ideal raw material. But the USA and EU have put in place import tariffs to protect their own industries, in stark contradiction to their apparent commitment to more free trade via the Doha round of WTO negotiations. Overall, this is certainly neither a pretty nor encouraging picture.

 Enthusiasts pin their hopes on the next generation of bio-ethanol (and bio-butanol, bio-propanol etc), produced by breaking down straw and other waste biomass. This has the great advantage of removing (or at least reducing) the competition between food and fuel crops: current technology would require over 70% of European farmland to fulfil the 2020 target, making it essentially unachievable without large-scale imports.

 It now looks as though a greater sense of realism is creeping into the debate, according to Emily Smith, writing in the European Voice (12-18 July edition). The Commission hosted an international bio-fuels conference the previous week, with its importance reflected by the participation not only of the Brazilian president, but also Commission president Barroso and the commissioners for energy, the environment, trade, development and external relations. Although a single directive covering both bio-fuels and overall renewable energy targets is promised for November, there will be a let-out clause if certain “sustainability” criteria are not met.

 Although there is no exact definition of these criteria, clearly having an inefficient conversion process which drives up the price of basic food is not a good idea. In addition, the 10% target is contingent on second generation, cellulosic fuels being commercially available. With the interest in the sector remaining high and still fuelled by government subsidies, there is plenty of work going on to achieve this; at this stage, the chances of success look quite reasonable. But the lesson must surely be for politicians not to bet on winners.

Battery technology, fuel cells and hydrogen generation and storage could all develop to the stage where electric cars of one form of another become a realistic option, and there are doubtless other emerging technologies waiting in the wings. In the meantime, distorting the market to favour one rather flawed option is not a good idea, however worthy the motivation.

 Goodbye to set-aside

Bio-fuels provide one sort of pressure on agricultural productivity, but the vagaries of weather also play their part. According to the Times on 17th July, Grain crisis spells end for empty fields. A combination of factors has led to the expectation that global cereal stocks will fall to 111 million tonnes this year, the lowest for 28 years. This may still sound like a lot, but it would not feed a population of 6.5 billion for long in the event of disastrous harvests. We should not forget that, despite the low real price of food and the small contribution of farming to developed countries’ economies, our complex, sophisticated societies are ultimately sustained by growing sufficient food.

 Poor harvests, higher demand and falling stocks have contributed to a doubling of the price of wheat, and the situation is such that Marianne Fischer Boel, the agriculture commissioner, is proposing allowing the current 10% of farmland in the set-aside scheme to be used to grow crops. A decision will need to be made before August, when the autumn planting season begins. This may be a one-off, to meet an immediate crisis, but it is also possible that European agriculture has turned a corner. World demand for agricultural produce may mean we have to go back to maximising production, and rising prices may make our farmers more competitive on the world market at last.

 Approved by default

A further non-decisive vote on approval of a GM crop by agriculture ministers means that the BASF modified-starch potato (for industrial use) will, by default, become the first new GM crop cleared for planting in Europe for many a long year. Failure to achieve a qualified majority either to approve or reject leaves the formal decision with the Commission, which will follow the positive advice given by scientific experts. Many people would suggest that, rather than go through this drawn-out political farce, the decision should be based on the scientific evidence in the first place.

 In practice, the group of countries which always vote against the proposals, whatever the evidence, are well aware that the final outcome will be approval by the Commission. They continue to go through the motions for their own political ends, which is bad for science, the reputation of politicians, European farmers and society as a whole. In France, pragmatic farmers are choosing to grow GM maize, and many more in other countries would surely follow their example if appropriate crops were available. They would hardly plant them unless there was a market for them so, if the European public truly does not want GM grain in their food supply, none will be grown. This seems a much more rational approach than the present one of politicians listening to who shouts the loudest.

 No role for biotech in food security?

Kofi Annan, who now chairs the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) quite rightly says (in an article in Business Day) that the continent remains dependent on food aid because of poor commodity pricing, weak markets, and inadequate infrastructure such as roads and storage facilities. He is also right to say that improved seeds and access to fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs could lead to a doubling in African food production in the next decade. How strange, then, that he specifically rules out the use of genetic modification.

 Decades of aid have failed to produce the economic growth and improvements to living standards common in other parts of the developing world. Surely ruling out one of the most promising of agricultural technologies is not the way to help provide the food security upon which prosperity can be built. Such a blinkered approach looks like part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

 Risks versus benefits

Finally, the Swedish government seems to have been successful in its efforts to have the herbicide paraquat banned in Europe. The European court of justice has ruled that the Commission did not take sufficient account of evidence of harm when it approved paraquat in 2003. The particular issue in dispute is the tenuous, flimsy and mainly circumstantial evidence for a link between the chemical and Parkinson’s disease.

 The court appears not to have made a clear distinction between hazard and risk, nor has it taken account of benefits. Paraquat has been in use for decades and is the herbicide of choice for many applications in the tropics, where its rain-fastness, rapid action and contact effect make it very effective while leaving roots in the ground to reduce soil erosion. Yes, it is toxic if ingested, but operators are very easily protected from this, and simple precautions make the risk easily manageable. Unfortunately, the court of justice seems to have taken a highly precautionary decision which will have no positive impact on health.