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Oxfam International Says EU Biofuels Plans Could Prove Disastrous for World’s Poor

Europe’s plans to increase the use of biofuels as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector could prove disastrous for some of the world’s poorest people, according to Oxfam International.

The international aid agency warns that the European Commission’s target of a 10% biofuel composition in member states’ transport fuels by 2020 has set off a supply scramble in the South that poses a serious threat to vulnerable people at risk from land-grabbing, exploitation, and deteriorating food security.

In the scramble to supply the EU and the rest of the world with biofuels, poor people are getting trampled. The EU proposals as they stand will exacerbate the problem. It is unacceptable that poor people in developing countries should bear the cost of questionable attempts to cut emissions in Europe.

—Robert Bailey, Oxfam

Biofuels may offer the potential to reduce poverty by increasing jobs and markets for small farmers, and by providing cheap renewable energy for local use, but the huge plantations emerging to supply the EU pose more threats than opportunities for poor people. The problem will only get worse as the scramble to supply intensifies unless the EU introduces safeguards to protect land rights, livelihoods, workers rights and food security, according to Oxfam.

EU member states agreed that the ten per cent target must be reached sustainably, but Oxfam warns that the current proposals contain no standards on the social or human impact.

The EU set its biofuel target without checking the impact on people and the environment. The EU must include safeguards to ensure that the rights and livelihoods of people in producing countries are protected. Without these, the ten per cent target should be scrapped and the EU should go back to the drawing board. Let’s be clear, biofuels are not a panacea—even if the EU is able to reach the ten per cent target sustainably, and Oxfam doubts that it can, it will only shave a few per cent of emissions off a continually growing total.

—Robert Bailey

Published reports cited by the agency show that as much as 5.6 million square kilometers of land—an area more than ten times the size of France—could be in production of biofuels within 20 years in India, Brazil, Southern Africa and Indonesia alone. The UN estimates that 60 million people worldwide face clearance from their land to make way for biofuel plantations. Many end up in slums in search of work, others on the very plantations that have displaced them with poor pay, squalid conditions and no worker rights. Women workers are routinely discriminated against and often paid less then men.

In Indonesia almost a third of palm oil is produced by smallholders most of whom lost their land to advancing plantations and were ‘rewarded’ with a two hectare plot. These smallholders are bonded to the palm oil companies which provide them with credit and are required to sell to them—which means they do not get the best price for their oil.

Biofuels need not spell disaster for poor people in the South—they should instead offer new market and livelihood opportunities. But the agro-industrial model that is emerging to supply the EU target poses little in the way of opportunities and much in the way of threats. Without the right policies in place among companies, producer governments, and importing governments, the kinds of negative social impacts outlined above will only get worse as the scramble to supply intensifies.

—Biofuelling Poverty

Oxfam says that ensuring sustainability must come before achieving the 10% target, which should be flexible. The agency calls for a formalized process, based on annual impact assessments and reviews of food security, to be introduced so that the target can be revised if it is not being achieved sustainably.

Oxfam also charges the EU with developing social standards to apply to all biofuels irrespective of their origin.




Strange: for decades NGOs like Oxfam have been beating down our doors telling there weren't enough agricultural opportunities for the third world.
Now that the biggest opportunity presents itself, they complain again. Bizarre.

These NGOs would be out of work because of bioenergy because that is the best development chance for developing countries. That's probably why they cannot stand the thought.

I trust the UN's Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) more, when it says biofuels and bioenergy present the biggest opportunity for development in decades, and that it can alleviate poverty on a mass basis.


Two words, algae and cellulose. Things are about to change. I always laugh when I read things like "10% targets" for biofuels. Sometime in the next few decades, petro-oil will drop below the 50% level of the liquid fuel market. Synfuels and biofuels will make up the rest. It's going to get figured out, believe me.

These kinds of reports are outdated the day they're released. They're fighting the last war.


Communist propaganda.


Sorry to disturb your way of analising but think again, at the drought in the south. to cultivate corn or most of the biofuel plants you need water and a rich soil, in fact these elements are rare in the south, don't think that Brazil are doing a good things developing the production of corn they are taking away lands used for human hangar and destroying the amazon forest which is in danger.
NB: The oil is nonrenewable, we destroy it and we send it to atmosphere. to have the same oil reserve probably you need to reborn dinosaurs and wait thousand of years ;)thks

Kip Munro

Burning up food stocks in the oversized engines of the rich seems perverse. The fact that so much fuel is used in land cultivation, fertilization, harvesting, transportation, fermenting, distilling, distributing and engine conversion makes bio fuels very ECO unfriendly and a very poor return on investment..Perhaps the reason governments are so hot on it right now is they see it as a short term security measure providing alternative sources for the fueling the global war machine.

Any reader of this site can pick one or more of the emerging technologies for engine design that will easily reduce consumption by 10 to 20 percent without sacrificing power or creature comforts.

Sadly biofuels and high tech solutions can only slow the process of oil depletion, not halt it.


VERY VERY few people in 3rd world countries would benefit from biofuel agriculture. Look at the coffee think that makes the average people rich? We're drinking coffee, tea, eating chocolate off the backs of slaves.


mmmmm, chocolate.

Rafael Seidl

There's more than enough food in the world, it's just that the poorest of the poor cannot afford it. IFF biofuels agriculture generates the jobs that will let them pay for it, that would be a good thing. There will, however, be a transition period during which economic and political tensions in these countries will increase as tycoons rake in the profits while the general population faces rising food prices.

Of course, it would be better if the transition to second-generation biofuels came sooner rather than later. It would also help if Western nations - especially but not only the US - got more aggressive about curbing total hydrocarbon demand so renewables could satisfy a greater share of it. However, we may not have the luxury of waiting until that happens.


You also have to look at biofuels from a structural, macroeconomic perspective. Oxfam wants development in the South. But without cheap and abundant liquid fuels, all it stands for will never be achieved.

What are developing countries going to do when oil hits a catastrophic $80 per barrel?

Are they going to switch to hydrogen? Hybrids? Wind and solar for electric vehicles? Forget it. Biofuels are their only shot at a future - even though the production brings problems. The benefits far outweigh the problems.



Oil prices are already near $100!!


If you create or continue to stoke a global market in biofuels, there is essentially then an order of magnitude increase in demand for biomass including food crops...what happens then? ...

Without a very comprehensive monitoring/certification system the soils of the world will become quickly mined of organic matter and nutrients. Currently the fertility of the soil, water, etc. are considered to be free or extremely cheap inputs to agriculture. The soils of the tropics are particularly poor...most of the organic matter is in the plants themselves.

A number of civilizations have collapsed because they have depleted the soil. Biofuels, unless RIGOROUSLY regulated by the world community, will quickly do the same.


Michael, there are 2 billions of land left. And we already produce food for 12 billion people. It's not a question of a lack of resources. It's a question of distributing them in a fair way.


Oxfam's points were the substance of a fascinating debate on climate change at the Asia Society in NYC. The "skeptics" claimed the billions $$ to halt a 0.6 degree temp increase came at the expense of the poor and sick the world over. Point made was the concern with climate has buried more pressing problems such as global poverty, AIDS, hunger. Climate = a wealthy people/nations issue.

However, as Rafael points out - there is a good chance that biofuels will provide the economy to purchase food for hungry nations. A move to algal plantations sooner than later will help greatly.


Oxfam suggests:
"In addition to environmental standards, the EU must develop social standards which apply to all biofuels irrespective of their origin, such that:
1 All workers, men and women, enjoy decent work as defined by the International Labour Organization.
2 Feedstock cultivation does not adversely impact on local communities or indigenous peoples.
3 Men and women smallholders are treated fairly and transparently.
4 The right to food is preserved.

Questions for the author Robert Bailey:

a.) Are any of these standards met for other products which EU members import ( Bananas, Nike shoes, Tobacco, Timber, Beef, Crude Oil ) ? Surely minimum standards should be applied to all products and by all members of the WTO?
b.) If Oxfam paralyses the EU decision-making process preventing action on climate change, won't the poorest be worst affected by climate change - ie floods, droughts, crop failure ?
c.) Are the problems of land grabbing, slave labour etc unique to bio-fuels or common to all cash crops including timber & beef?

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