Civil society groups condemn new UN biofuels recommendations, says they favor industry over small farmers in poor countries; recommendations encourage biofuels development as long as it does not conflict with hunger eradication objectives

LONDON , October 14, 2013 () – Campaigners have condemned new UN recommendations on biofuels, claiming that they defend the interests of the industry rather than those of small farmers in poor countries.

Civil society groups refused to endorse the recommendations, agreed on Friday after a week of negotiations at the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in Rome, saying the result was skewed by countries supporting the biofuels industry and that governments with misgivings were ignored.

"Small-scale food producers have spoken powerfully … about the reality they are confronted with every day: that biofuels crops compete with their food production, for the land they till, and for the water that sustains them," said civil society groups. They argued that the recommendations "legitimise violations of the right to food".

The UN document acknowledged that food and energy security issues were linked, and that biofuels could compete with food crops and influence international commodity prices. It said biofuels should not compromise food security and that concerted international and national actions were important to "encourage that biofuel development and policies are in line with the objective to eradicate hunger".

However, the recommendations do not call for specific policy actions. Instead, they say governments should review biofuels policies "where applicable and if necessary" and "seek co-ordination" with food security strategies.

Civil society groups said the result was only a "minimal reflection" of concerns raised. Thierry Kesteloot, of Oxfam, said: "We regret that the whole process ended up in a decision that will not deliver tangible results … During most of the negotiations, the evidence and science were replaced by vested interests. And, while we all wait for the potential of new biofuel generations to arrive, people go hungry and land is grabbed."

In an open letter published before the talks, 80 civil society organisations called on the CFS to recognise that the promotion of biofuels is undermining the right to food, and adopt concrete recommendations to stop this. In particular, campaigners urged governments to eliminate direct and indirect subsidies for biofuels, including targets, mandates and quotas.

Industry groups issued their own statement arguing that discussions had largely excluded and disregarded the views of the private sector, and that a high-level panel of experts on food security and nutrition lacked "transparency, openness and scientific integrity" in its investigation into biofuels and food security.

In June, a report from the high-level panel concluded that biofuels have increased competition over natural resources. "Biofuels policies have been successful in developing biofuels; they now have to orient this success towards food security, which requires taking into account its various dimensions and to recognise and integrate all the potential impacts of national policies, internally and abroad," it said.

The CFS, the key UN forum for the review and co-ordination of policies on world food security, is the first UN body to take up the contentious issue of biofuels. Reformed after the 2008 food price crisis in an effort to create more space for civil society and private sector groups to negotiate alongside governments, the CFS is often hailed as the most inclusive global governance forum.

Last week's talks drew nearly 750 people, including more than 120 government representatives, almost 100 civil society groups, and nearly 50 private sector organisations.

CFS secretary Kostas Stamoulis said last week that the body's diversity is both its main asset and its biggest challenge. As a result, he warned, getting agreement on controversial issues like biofuels was bound to be difficult.

"The challenge is how to get a consensus that is still meaningful, because if you dilute it too much then it gives the stakeholders no guidance on what it is they have to do," said Stamoulis.

CFS agreements are not binding and there is no mechanism to enforce decisions, though its statements are seen as signals of the international mood and can set precedents for future discussions.

The CFS also adopted recommendations on the importance of integrating small farmers into national policies, strategy and research, calling for "country-owned visions" on how to boost investments. Small farmers, fishers, and landworkers in developing countries account for most of the 840 million people thought to be chronically undernourished, according to the 2013 State of Food Insecurity in the World report, released by the UN this month.

Negotiators at the CFS are working on a set of principles for responsible agricultural investment, to be endorsed at the 2014 session, along with an "agenda for action" for tackling food insecurity in protracted crises.
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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