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Food and biofuel industry clash over use of farmland

The rising trend towards using biofuel, including in the European Union, is putting the food industry on a collision course with the renewable energy industry over the future use of the world's limited farmland.

„Land availability for both food and fuel is very questionable”, managing director Guenther Buck of food-giant Unilever warned at a conference organized by the European Parliament's green group in Brussels last week. His comments came just a month after the EU agreed that biofuels should constitute at least 10% of fuels used in new vehicles by 2020. The multinational company estimates that in 20 years time, an extra 50% food production will be needed to feed the world's growing population. „Without agricultural intensification this will require an additional 2.5 billion hectares of land – as much as two thirds of the current forest area. And this is before biofuel production sets in,” Buck said. Prices on rapeseed, which is used for both food and fuel, have doubled since 2000 and the world's wheat stocks are at a very low level, according to the Unilever director.

Meanwhile, green MEPs say that the boom in biofuel production around the globe is creating dangerous competition between the world's 800 million car owners and the two billion people living below the poverty line. The likely outcome of the clash will be a rise in the cost of food while the intensification of agriculture is also expected to lead to severe environmental problems, excess use of fertilizers, water scarcity, erosion and loss of flora and fauna. On top of this, there is likely to be further global pressure to move towards more GMO crops, Unilever argues. But the biofuel industry hit back during the 3rd International Conference on GMO-Free Regions, Biodiversity and Rural Development, arguing that both „food and fuel is possible”. „If we need to produce more food at some point in the future, it is easy to turn back the production”, Raffaello Garofalo of the European Biodiesel Board said. „Revolutions are always met by conservatism - in this case from those who are used to having the raw materials”, Garofalo said.

Biofuels have emerged as one of the greener solutions to growing demands for energy while at the same time making the industrialized world less dependent on imports from the Middle East and Russia. In addition, it can be a new source of revenue for farmers in the EU and the US. But the impact of biofuels on climate change remains questionable. Many scientific studies say the energy equation for plant fuels is negative with palm oil plantations quickly expanding into tropical rainforests. In Brazil, for example, tropical forests have been cut to produce soybeans and sugar - both used in biofuels, but also as food. The conference in Brussels last week is likely to be just the beginning of a long and serious debate on these issues as the 27-nation bloc works out how it will fulfil both the biofuel commitment as well as its promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020. (