Why are we feeding crops to our cars when people are starving? | George Monbiot

УWhat can you say about governments that, in the midst of a global food crisis, are choosing to power machines instead? They could be said to have been crazy, careless or cruel. But those words are hardly enough when you’re trying to describe the burning of food while millions are starving.

There is nothing complicated about the effects of converting crops into biofuels. If food is used to power cars or generate electricity or heat homes, it must either be uprooted from human mouths, or ecosystems must be uprooted from the planet’s surface as arable land expands to meet the additional search. But the governments and industries they prefer obscure this obvious truth. They distract and confuse us with an obviously false decision to destroy the climate.

From the outset, incentives and rules promoting biofuels on both sides of the Atlantic had nothing to do with saving the planet and anything to do with political expediency. Angela Merkel insisted on an EU mandate for biofuels as a means of avoiding stricter fuel economy standards for German engine manufacturers. In the United States, they have long been accustomed maintain the price of grain and provide farmers with a guaranteed market. That is why the Biden administration remains committed to this atrocity as the midterm elections approach.

As the Transport & Environment investigation group shows, the land used to grow biofuels consumed in Europe covers 14m hectares (35m acres): area larger than Greece. From consumed soybean oil in the European Union, 32% is eaten by cars and trucks. They absorb 50% of all palm oil used in the EU and 58% of rapeseed oil. In total, 18% of the world’s vegetable oil is converted to biodiesel, and 10% of the world’s cereals are converted to ethanol to mix with gasoline.

A new Green Alliance report,, an independent think tank shows that food used by the UK alone for biofuels can feed 3.5 million people. If the production of biofuels stops worldwide, according to one estimate, rescued crops could feed 1.9 billion human beings. The only consistent and reliable result of this technology is hunger.

It’s not just a matter of pressure to raise food prices, that’s great. Biofuel markets also provide a major incentive to seize land from smallholder farmers and local people. Since 2000 10 million hectares of land in Africa, often the best land, is bought or confiscated by state funds, corporations and private investors. They replace the production of food for local people with ‘flexible crops’: goods such as soybeans and corn, which can switch between markets for food, feed or biofuels, depending on which prices are highest. Land grabbing is the main cause of poverty and hunger.

As biofuels increase demand for land, rainforests, swamps and savannas in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil and Africa are cleared. There is a limit to how much we can eat. There is no limit to how much we can burn.

All major cultural sources of biodiesel have a greater impact on the climate than the fossil fuels they replace. Rapeseed oil causes 1.2 times more global warming, soybean oil twice as much, palm oil three times as much. The same goes for ethanol produced from wheat. Yet this consideration has not stopped reopening of a bioethanol plant in Hullin response to government incentives to use wheat grown on 130,000 hectares of land.

Every time a new biofuels market is launched, we are told that it will run on waste. A recent example is BP’s claim that the planes will be powered by “sustainable raw materials such as used cooking oil and household waste“. Invariably, as soon as the market develops, special crops are grown to supply it. All the waste that can actually be recovered is now used, but still accounted for only 17% of biodiesel in the EU and almost no bioethanol. Even these figures, according to an industry informant who contacted me, are stretched: since used palm oil, thanks to the demand for ‘green’ biodiesel, may be more valuable than new oil, it is claimed that fresh supplies are disposed of in the waste stream.

Far from listening to the concerns, last year the UK government, “responding to industry feedback”, increase your goal for the amount of biofuel used in land transport. Worse, this justifies the continued expansion of the airport by claiming that aircraft will soon be able to use “sustainable” fuels. In practice, this means biofuel, as no other “sustainable” source is likely to power mass air travel in the medium term. But there is no means of flying more than a small number of aircraft on this fuel, which does not involve both global famine and environmental catastrophe.

Now the energy company Ecotricity has starts the plan again to turn 6.4 million hectares of the United Kingdom – over a quarter of our land – into raw material for biogas plants. Ecotricity founder Dale Vince made the startling claim that “this is a plan without cons“. But as the critics tried point to him, this scheme would lead to huge opportunity costs for ecology, carbon and food. In other words, the land can be used either for growing food; or, if it ceases to be used for food production, it will extract more carbon and shelter more wildlife if it is revived. Biogas production is also triggered severe pollution eventscaused by the spread of the residue back on the ground, which is an important part of the Ecotricity plan, or by leaks and tears. This is the worst land use proposal I have ever seen in the UK.

When I challenged Vince to these issues, he told me, “We’re not the big bad company. We are conservationists who do things, and often enough, when we start something new, we upset the established view of things. ”

But we cannot use such corrections to solve our climate crisis. To leave fossil fuels in the ground, we need to change our energy system: our need to travel, our modes of transport, the fuel economy of our homes and the means by which we heat them. Modern biofuels used on a large scale are no more sustainable than the older variety: whale oil. And burning food is the definition of decline.