The rush towards biofuels is theatening world food production and the lives of billions of people, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser said yesterday.
Professor John Beddington put himself at odds with ministers who have committed Britain to large increases in the use of biofuels over the coming decades. In his first important public speech since he was appointed, he described the potential impacts of food shortages as the “elephant in the room” and a problem which rivalled that of climate change.
“It’s very hard to imagine how we can see the world growing enough crops to produce renewable energy and at the same time meet the enormous demand for food,” he told a conference on sustainability in London yesterday.
“The supply of food really isn’t keeping up.”
By 2030, he said, the world population would have increased to such an extent that a 50 per cent increase in food production would be needed. By 2080 it would need to double. But the rush to biofuels – allegedly environmentally friendly – meant that increasing amount of arable land had been given over to fuel rather than food.
The world’s population is forecast to increase from the six billion at the start of the millennium to nine billion by 2050. Already biofuels have contributed to the rapid rise in international wheat prices and Professor Beddington cautioned that it was likely to be only a matter of time before shoppers in the United Kingdom faced big price rises because of the soaring cost of feeding livestock.
His comments come just a month after the Government welcomed a European Commission target requiring 10 per cent of all fuel sold in British service stations to be derived from plants within 12 years. Already biofuels attract a 20p per litre reduction in duty to encourage their uptake. Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, recently announced additional funding for biofuel research and farmers can claim subsidies to grow crops for energy.
Last year President Bush called for a massive increase in the use of ethanol in America over the next decade. The US now devotes more acreage to growing corn than at any time since 1944. Farmers planted 90.5 million acres in 2007, 15 per cent more than a year before. If White House efforts to double ethanol production this year are achieved, and in due course 40 per cent of that corn ends up in petrol tanks, the world will face a harder and costlier time feeding itself.
A spokesman for Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, insisted that the Government was well aware of the possible negative effects of biofuels. “We take this issue very seriously and we are not prepared to go beyond current target levels for biofuels until we are satisfied it can be done sustainably.”
Professor Beddington said that the prospect of food shortages over the next 20 years was so acute that politicians, scientists and farmers must begin to tackle it immediately.
“Climate change is a real issue and is rightly being dealt with by major global investment,” he said afterwards. “However, I am concerned there is another major issue along a similar time-scale, an elephant in the room – that of food and energy security. This is giving me and many of my scientific colleagues much concern.”
Population levels are growing so fast already that an extra six million people are born every month. Growing enough food for everyone was further challenged, he said, because of climate change, which was likely to lead to a shortage of water.
Scientists say that intense dry spells will become more frequent over the next century. The supply of water will be put under further pressure because of the increased number of people who need it, not only to drink but to keep their crops alive. The production of a tonne of wheat, for example, requires 50 tonnes of water.
Because it was almost impossible to control the population increase in the short term, Professor Beddington told the conference, other measures would need to be taken. “Agriculture has been doing pretty well against the population size but things are changing now and they are changing quite dramatically,” he said.
“Don’t we need to do something about food? Demand has grown enormously, particularly in China and India, where much of the driving force is increased demand. By 2030 energy demand is going to be up by 50 per cent and demand for food is going to be up by 50 per cent.”
The increase in demand has been reflected by the rapid rise in the prices of basic commodities, including wheat, over the past two years.
Biofuels have been put forward as a means of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions pumped out by fossil fuels but recent studies have questioned their impact when all factors, such as the use of fertilisers on the crops, are taken into account. Critics have been angered by the loss of tropical rainforests, which have been cleared to allow farmers to grow biofuel crops.
Deforestation has been calculated to account for about 18 per cent of world greenhouse gas emissions and Professor Beddington said that to destroy rainforests in order to grow biofuel crops was “insane”. He added: “Some of the biofuels are hopeless, in the sense that the idea that you cut down rainforest to actually grow biofuels seems profoundly stupid.” He said that human ingenuity was extraordinary and he was confident that food production could be boosted, including by growing genetically modified crops.
Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Programme, told the European Parliament in Brussels yesterday: “The shift to biofuels production has diverted lands out of the food chain. Food prices such as palm oil in Africa are now set at fuel prices. It may be a bonanza for farmers – I hope it is true – but in the short term, the world’s poorest are hit hard.”