Blog: Dean BestUK, US reignite biofuels debate

Dean Best | 25 March 2008

To those of you who enjoyed a break over Easter, welcome back.

In the UK this morning (25 March), we have seen the return of one of the more burning issues on the food industry’s agenda – biofuels.

The rise of biofuels – and their impact on the food industry – has provoked fierce debate in scientific and campaigning circles. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic, however, have pushed on with biofuels projects in the name of combating of climate change – despite concerns that the so-called greener fuels could, in fact, damage the environment. Moreover, biofuels have been blamed for pushing up food prices around the world.

However, in recent weeks, there has been some disquiet over the issue among the political elite and today, in The Guardian newspaper, one of the top scientific advisers to the UK government warned that pressing ahead with biofuels without more research into their impact on the environment and agriculture would be misguided.

The UK government is in something of a bind. The EU has been a vocal supporter of biofuels and has set a target of 5.75% of petrol and diesel coming from renewable sources by 2010. The European Commission wants to almost double that amount by 2020 and has swatted away claims that using more corn for biofuels has led to higher food prices. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, however, is said to be ready to resist plans for the 2020 target. A showdown on the issue, at least in the UK and Europe, looks likely.

Food industry executives in the US, meanwhile, would share Brown’s caution. President Bush has bet big on biofuels, handing out financial assistance to encourage biofuel production, in a bid to break American reliance on fuel from the Middle East. However, Washington’s push has hit sections of its food industry hard, with rising grain costs forcing cuts across meat processors and leading to bakers even marching on the US capital in protest.

And last week at the Reuters Food Summit in Chicago, senior management at the likes of Sara Lee, Kraft Foods and ConAgra Foods expressed their unease at government policy on the issue.

"We certainly as a society want to decrease our dependence on foreign oil," Rick Searer, president of Kraft’s North American operations, told the summit. "Unfortunately, the biofuels mandate is having unintended consequences in terms of its impact on the price of food."

Those unintended consequences are concerning many throughout the food industry. However, it seems that biofuels, in some form, are here to stay. Nevertheless, there are a myriad of issues that need to be ironed out – and a full and frank debate that needs to be had – before a definitive conclusion on their merits can be drawn.


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