Food in fuel tank

Published : May 23, 2008 00:00 IST

A taxi driver refuels his car with alcohol produced from sugarcane at a petrol station in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.-VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP

A taxi driver refuels his car with alcohol produced from sugarcane at a petrol station in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.-VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP

THE United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has called for a comprehensive review of the policy on biofuels as a crisis in global food prices partly caused by the increasing use of crops for energy generation threatens to trigger global instability.

We need to be concerned about the possibility of taking land or replacing arable land because of these biofuels, he said in an interview in Bucharest while attending a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). But he added: While I am very much conscious and aware of these problems, at the same time you need to constantly look at having creative sources of energy, including biofuels. Therefore, at this time, just criticising biofuel may not be a good solution. I would urge we need to address these issues in a comprehensive manner.

Climate change has been a priority for Ban since he took over from Kofi Annan, and he has embraced the potential of biofuels, derived from plants, as a long-term substitute for fossil fuels. But as food prices have soared the cultivation of biofuels has come under fire for diverting fertile land from food production.

Some of the loudest criticism has come from within the U.N. food agencies, which are struggling to keep up with commodity prices. There are also mounting concerns over the benefits of biofuels to the environment. They generally burn cleaner than fossil fuels, but fuels such as grain-based ethanol are energy-intensive to produce and tropical rainforests have been cleared to produce palm oil for use as a fuel.

The role of biofuels is currently under review in the United Kingdom pending an inquiry into the indirect impact of their cultivation by the Renewable Fuels Agency.

Against this backdrop, some senior U.N. officials are pushing for a change of policy, and attack Ban in private. Ban is just out of touch, one said. He doesnt know what is really going on in our agencies. The U.N.s own special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, called biofuels a crime against humanity, and called for a five-year moratorium.

Ban rejected that proposal. At this time I wouldnt make any definitive judgment or definitive plans, in particular vis-a-vis these biofuels, he said. I know there are some concerns raised by certain quarters about biofuels. But biofuels are a renewable source of energy when we are experiencing extreme difficulties [with] resources.

But Ban conceded that there was a food supply problem and said the primary Millennium Development Goal of halving global hunger by 2015 looked harder to reach than ever. This steeply rising food price is a new phenomenon, he said. We have only seven years left to meet the target of 2015. This is very serious. He said he was overseeing a multi-agency investigation of the issue involving the U.N. Energy Programme, the U.N. Development Programme, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the World Food Programme. They are all working on this issue, the Secretary-General said.

Julian Borger in Bucharest
Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment