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Ensuring sustainability

by Silvia Richter
Rising oil prices and the need to respond to climate change are boosting biofuel production. A set of international rules would serve to guarantee sustainability of this industry.

With biofuel markets booming, it is becoming increasingly urgent to regulate how bioenergy is produced and utilised. Alexander Müller, the Assistant Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), calls for an international consensus on the definition of “sustainability” and a clarification of how the human right to food can be safeguarded in this context. Speaking at an international conference on “Policy against Hunger VI: Bioenergy and Food Security” hosted by the Federal Food Ministry (BMELV) in Berlin in December, Müller recalled that low-income countries needed to pay around 25 % more for food in 2007 than in the year before. According to FAO forecasts, agricultural prices will climb by another 20-50 % over the next ten years. Rising demand for biofuels is not the sole cause of such inflation, but it contributes to the trend. To ensure food security, international safety nets are needed, Müller says, with food security not only standing for food production, as income generated in biofuel production might also contribute to food security.

BMELV official Christoph Meyer praises the Biofuel Sustainability Ordinance approved in Germany in December. He believes it will provide a base for securing sustainable production. The Ordinance sets out environmental requirements that need to be met for agrofuels to qualify for the mandatory bio-element the fuel mix in Germany must include. One requirement is that biofuels be produced in compliance with the rules of “good practice”. In addition, licensed agrofuels need to cause 30 % less greenhouse emissions than fossil fuels. In 2011, that share will rise to 40 %.

The Biofuel Ordinance’s shortcoming is the failure to define any social aspects of sustainability – as Michael Windfuhr spells out. He heads the human rights department of Diakonisches Werk, a Protestant charity, in Stuttgart. In his view, any regulation of the biofuel sector must take account of both ILO labour standards and the human right to food. He also warns against defining “sustainability” too narrowly. Biofuel production, he says, does not only impact on prices of agricultural products, but also on those of agricultural tools, rural facilities and other relevant factors. For smallholers in developing countries, he insists, even minor price hikes can have a big impact, forcing them to change patterns of production. According to Windfuhr, forecasts and assessments of biofuel production hardly take these matters into account.

To conclude, a set of international rules is need. On that basis, the production of biofuels could be certified, in order to ensure sustainability. Moreover, certification would have to take account of socioeconomic context and a country's potential for biomass production. The biofuel industry must be embedded in a comprehensive concept of rural development, with guaranteed land rights and involvement of local communities.

Silvia Richter