U.S., aid groups clash over biofuels

June 05, 2008|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ROME - Outside the U.N. emergency summit on food here, protesters dressed as ears of corn. Inside, Bush administration officials found themselves on the defensive yesterday on a wide range of U.S. policies, from biofuel production to genetic engineering and subsidies.

Delegates clashed during the second day of the three-day meeting on how much blame can be assigned to biofuels for the meteoric rise in food prices. The U.S. is an enthusiastic supporter of robust and heavily subsidized biofuel industry, allocating around a quarter of its corn crop to the lucrative development of ethanol.

But many other nations and numerous aid agencies contend that too much food is ending up in fuel tanks and not on dinner tables, deepening a growing threat of global starvation.

Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer, leading the U.S. delegation, emerged yesterday from a series of side meetings and acknowledged that a struggle was under way to reach compromise language on the biofuels issue.

Drafts of a final summit declaration, circulating late yesterday, reflected watered-down recommendations of "further studies" on biofuels, hardly viewed as a decisive position.

Finding consensus on biofuels, which are made from corn, sugar cane, palm oil and other foodstuffs, had been one of the goals outlined by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon in opening the summit here at the headquarters of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Opponents and supporters diverge wildly on the pros and cons of biofuels and how harmful they may or may not be.

Schafer maintains that bumper U.S. corn crops provide plenty of corn for both eating and filling tanks. He says the shift to biofuels accounts for no more than 3 percent of the hike in prices of commodities, which in some cases have doubled in recent years.

Several U.N. agencies, relief groups and the International Monetary Fund, however, say as much as 30 percent of the increase could be blamed on biofuels.

"Even 1 percent represents hardship for 16 million people," said Madelon Meijer, agricultural policy adviser for the British aid agency Oxfam. "Three percent already plunges a lot more people into poverty."

Biofuels were hailed as an alternative to dirty fossil fuels and a way to ease dependence on oil. But a steadily growing body of experts and others questions the efficiency of biofuels and asserts that ethanol production is usurping arable land that should be used for foods or left as oxygen-enhancing forests, wetlands and natural habitats.

Another alternative, of the so-called second-generation biofuels, has emerged. These are fuels made from nonfood substances such as grasses that can be made into fuel. However, they have not been fully studied and raise other concerns, such as whether they might become invasive weed-like species if cultivated near other crops.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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