Land Rights and Biofuels

Julio Ngoene, a farmer in Mozambique
Photo: James Oatway/Panos/ActionAid

Biofuels policies have been driving up food prices and spurring land grabs internationally. ActionAid is working to bring our food and energy policies into better balance by addressing biofuels policies directly and by working on the underlying challenge of competition for land resources by protecting people living in poverty from land grabs and advancing women's rights to land and food.

To fill up a car with 25 gallons of ethanol takes 450 pounds of corn - enough to feed a single person for an entire year.

A sustainable future dependson our ability to balance the growing demands for energy and fuel with the need for access to food, water and a healthy environment. When these demands are not in harmony or when access to one need puts another under threat, it presents serious risk to our global health, economy, security, and livelihoods.

Solutions do exist to prevent the next global food crisis, meet energy demands and protect the planet at the same time. But there are also false solutions, like biofuels and land grabs, that can intentionally or unintentionally take us down the wrong path.  

Encouraged by governments, land previously used to grow food is being switched to grow plants like corn and sugar cane to produce fuel for cars. This has restricted the supply of food crops to worldwide markets – pushing food prices up rapidly.

Hefty U.S. and European subsidies and mandates have promoted a massive biofuels expansion. In the US our primary biofuel made out of corn.  

Today the US burns 40% of its corn for fuel, not food or feed for animals, even in times when droughts or floods cut down the corn supply. American farmers are planting more corn, but weather shocks due to climate change have depressed yields while growing demand for corn as food, feed and fuel have depleted stocks, pushing corn prices up. Ethanol is made out of feed corn, so the first foods to be impacted are meat, dairy and eggs.   

Since the US controls more than 50% of the global export market for corn, US corn prices correlate closely with global prices. Countries that import corn feel the hit first, but since consumers substitute other grains when one becomes more expensive, prices are pushed up across the board. Similarly, when livestock producers in importing countries can't afford high priced feed corn they often substitute with wheat or food corn, pushing those prices up as well.

When people living in poverty spend more than half of their income on food, even small price rises can make a difference, but when the price of the corn in local markets doubles, families go from buying a kilo of corn to a cup...if they can afford it at all. In 2011, the price of corn in local markets in Mexico rose as much as 106%! See our Biofueling Hunger for an in-depth look at how much rise of corn ethanol in the US has escalated hunger in Mexico.

Using food crops for fuel pushes prices up here in the US as well. In 2009 the Congressional Budget Office estimated that taxpayers spent $1 billion more in food and nutrition programs because of the high prices of corn. Grocery store b=bills have been rising between 3-4% every year and in 2012 there are estimates that prices will rise even more sharply in the year ahead. These price rises might seem small, but they hit people living in poverty, the unemployed and people living on fixed income the hardest.  

In addition to distorting the market – US and EU biofuels demand has escalated large scale land acquisitions in Africa, Asia and Latin America for the production of biofuels for export to the US and Europe. These land grabs often happen without the informed consent of the famers occupying the land, undermining the food security of the displaced families and their communities and compounding the problem.  

Biofuels have been proposed by industry groups and politicians alike as a renewable and sustainable answer to energy security, climate change and rural development. However, ActionAid believes they are unlikely to solve any of these challenges.

There may be some applications for crop-based biofuels if they are produced in sustainable ways for local consumption and do not diminish food stocks, increase food prices, displace small farmers or threaten the environment. In fact, ActionAid has supported projects where smallholder farmers  grow food crops in plots lined with trees that produce a seed that can be processed them locally to fuel farm equipment. This is an example where food and energy needs can be met with sustainable production of each and without competition for limited land and water resources.

However, large-scale production of industrial biofuels is a significant problem because:           

  • It drives up food prices, further threatening the food security of millions who are already hungry.
  • it creates new pressure on poor people's land, driving crop production into fragile ecosystems
  • There is not enough land to replace oil with ethanol. To replace 90% our gas with corn ethanol would require planting five times our corn crop and using every bushel for biofuels.    

Instead of turning food into fuel, we can feed people, protect the planet, and lower our carbon footprint if we got oil out of our food

Globally, we should be investing in small scale producers, especially women, which are practicing climate resilient sustainable agriculture models that require few, if any, oil-based inputs. When sustainably produced food is eaten locally, or regionally, it also cuts down on oil-based transportation, which reduces energy demand. We should stop turning food into fuel or converting land that could be used to grow food crops into fuel crops and instead invest in lowering our energy consumption in wealthy countries and in truly renewable wind and solar energy projects in developing nations.

ActionAid is working to build positive policy changes to address growing energy demand, climate change, and increasing demand for food can and must be mutually reinforcing. We are working to prevent the next global food crisis.

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