[Rachel's Introduction: Many "second-generation" biofuel technologies may prove highly controversial because they include techniques to genetically modify trees and algae, perhaps abandoning the precautionary principle as a basis for such research.]
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By Oscar Reyes

BRUSSSELS -- With the publication of its draft Renewable Energy Directive this week, the European Commission confirmed that it plans to plough ahead with a 10 per cent target for the use of agrofuels (also referred to as biofuels) in transport by 2020.

The controversy surrounding this measure intensified in the past fortnight when the EU Joint Research Centre and the UK Parliament Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) both expressed strong doubts that the proposed target could be achieved sustainsbly.

In an attempt to diffuse this pressure, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso claimed on Wednesday that the target would be accompanied by "the most comprehensive and sustainable system anywhere in the world for the certification of biofuels." A closer look at the Directive shows that most of the key environmental and social concerns have not been addressed.

The most dire warnings concern the impact of agrofuels on food security. This is partly an issue about competition between food and fuel crops. Last October Jean Ziegler, the UN rapporteur on the right to food, warned that the diversion of arable land to fuel rather than crop production was "a crime against humanity." But it is the affect on food prices that could prove to be the more damaging aspect of agrofuel expansion. The world's poorest people spend 50 to 80 per cent of household income on food -- and it is poverty, not scarcity, that is the major cause of hunger.

In response, the Directive promises efforts to analyse the 'the impact of EU biofuel policy on the availability of foodstuffs in exporting countries', including effects on price. But simply acknowledging the potential problem falls far short of taking action to address it. Already, food riots in Mexico, Indonesia and India have been attributed to price rises blamed on agrofuel expansion. There is mounting evidence that "increased demand for biofuels is causing fundamental changes to agricultural markets that could drive up world prices for many farm products." as the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2007-2016 warned.

The environmental sustainability of the push for agrofuels has been questioned too. With one-fifth of annual carbon emissions coming from deforestation, fuels grown on recently cleared lands actually increase emissions rather than cut them. In addressing this, the Directive states that biofuels on land of 'high biodiversity value' will not be counted towards meeting the target. But in closing one door, another opens. The problem is not simply that new plantations are uprooting trees, but also that they displace other agricultural activities onto cleared and deforested land -- a structural change that no 'sustainability criteria' can track.

The Commission's sustainability proposals fall far short on other environmental issues too, with no firm measures to address the impact of fuel crops on soil degradation or water scarcity. Up to 4,000 litres of water go into the biomass needed for one litre of biofuel - a major drain for producing countries which already face severe stresses on their water supply.

Responding to such concerns, Barroso stressed that the EU is looking towards the 'rapid development of second generation biofuels'. Yet many of these technologies would prove highly controversial, since they include techniques to genetically modify trees and algae, endangering the precautionary principle as a basis for such research.

Social and labour issues, meanwhile, are simply left out of the EU's criteria altogether. Yet if the current agrofuel boom continues apace, Oxfam warned last November, millions of people face displacement from their land, while the sugarcane and oil palm plantations on which these crops will be grown have a record of horrific labour standards, including the exploitation of bonded labour. No proposals have been forthcoming from the Commission on these social implications, which ducks behind international trade rules whenever these issues are raised.

For these reasons, the suggestion that the dangers of agrofuels might be mitigated by the development of 'sustainability criteria' falls short. It would now be better, surely, to implement a moratorium on targets and incentives for agrofuel use.

The author is editor of Red Pepper magazine and Communications Officer at the Transnational Institute. He is currently completing a book on carbon trading.

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