BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe's energy chief announced seven green certification schemes for biofuels on Tuesday and promised in future to tackle the unwanted side-effects of turning food into fuel.
Guenther Oettinger said biofuels' indirect impacts were dangerous for the planet's carbon balance and food supply.
"It is a real concern ... particularly in the big producing countries, southeast Asia and in South America," Oettinger told reporters. "This is an evolution which we cannot accept."
The European Union agreed three years ago to get 10 percent of its road fuels from biofuels -- at a time when such fuels were widely regarded as good for the environment -- but since then controversy has raged in Europe over the target.
Oettinger took a first step toward limiting biofuels' impact on the environment on Tuesday, launching a green standard to prevent companies from clearing forest, peatlands or grassland to grow biofuels for the European market.
The European biofuel market is expected to grow to about $17 billion a year and is being eyed by European farmers as well as growers of sugarcane in Brazil and palm oil in southeast Asia.
Oettinger named seven certification schemes, including Bonsucro and Greenenergy for Brazilian sugarcane, and the Round Table on Responsible Soy Association.
But environmentalists were unimpressed, including activist lawyers ClientEarth, which sued the Commission in May for more details of its selection process.
"The way that this has been handled underlines the Commission's practice of shutting out meaningful public participation in the development of its biofuels policy," said ClientEarth lawyer Janet Pritchard.
Critics say the EU's biofuel target creates an incentive for farmers to hack directly into forests to create space to grow fuel crops -- known as direct land use change.
But they also charge that even biofuel crops planted in Europe can send shock waves through global food markets and indirectly promote deforestation -- indirect land use change.
Recent research shows that when more food is needed, the majority of new farmland, possibly as much as 80 percent, comes from burning down forests.
"That would be dangerous for the CO2 balance if valuable rain forests no longer exist, and it can also be a problem in terms of ensuring that there is sufficient food in the region in question, in order to avoid famine," Oettinger said.
Many biofuels are now thought to be worse for the climate than the fossil fuels they are intended to replace.
The European Commission's own research shows it may lead to an indirect one-off release of around 1,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide -- over twice the annual emissions of Germany.
The industry argues that the science is still too uncertain to challenge the law.
"We can't quantify it," Oettinger said, adding that a new European strategy on the issue would be launched this year.
Research commissioned by Oettinger shows the biggest indirect impact comes from biodiesel from European rapeseed, Asian palm oil and South American soybeans.
A Greenpeace report on Tuesday showed those biofuels at sale at fuel stations around Europe.
The EU's farming commissioner argues against redrawing the investment map overnight, and the Commission looks set to cushion the biodiesel industry.
But not all farmers favor the growth of biofuel.
Some agriculture ministers meeting in Brussels demanded a review on concerns that biofuels were pushing up the price of animal feed and, in turn, meat.
"A review of the EU policy on biofuels due to its relation to the increase of feed prices was requested by some delegations," said notes from a discussion of the beef sector.
Additional reporting by Charlie Dunmore, editing by Rex Merrifield and Jane Baird