By Robin Pomeroy
ROME, June 3 (Reuters) - World leaders must agree on ways to make biofuels socially and environmentally acceptable before public opinion turns against them for good, a senior United Nations economist said on Tuesday.
Biofuels have opened up deep divisions at a U.N. food summit in Rome, with some promoting them as a green way to wean the world off oil, and others demanding a halt to the transfer of food away from hungry mouths and into fuel tanks.
Once viewed as a way to divert surplus food production into "clean" non-fossil fuel energy, biofuels’ contribution to record high food prices have clouded their image. Hunger campaigners have called for policies promoting them to be reversed.
Astrid Agostini, an economist for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, which is hosting the summit, said biofuels could be a benefit for poor farmers and the environment if done correctly.
"It’s not black and white. Whether or not bio-energy is a bad idea depends on what’s produced and the agricultural methods used," she told Reuters, adding that the summit should pave the way to an international agreement on bio-energy to ensure it is environmentally and socially sound.
"If we go ahead with the business-as-usual scenario where countries push the current policies, we have the danger that public opinion, which is becoming increasingly hostile, will turn against biofuel for good."
Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak asked the summit to create "an international code of conduct" on biofuel production.
Opponents of biofuels were vocal at the summit, called to tackle a global food crisis that is threatening nearly 1 billion people with starvation.
"Nobody understands how $11 to $12 billion a year of subsidies in 2006 and protective tariff policies have had the effect of diverting 100 million tonnes of cereals from human consumption, mostly to satisfy a thirst for fuel for vehicles," said FAO head Jacques Diouf, opening the summit at the body’s Rome headquarters.
The United States and Europe are promoting biofuels, which divert foodstuffs such as maize, sugar and palm oil into liquid fuel for motor vehicles.
Under U.S. plans, about a quarter of the U.S. maize crop will be channelled into ethanol production by 2022 and the European Union is aiming for as much as 10 percent of road transport fuel to be biofuel by 2020.
The former U.N. special investigator on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, called for a halt to such policies. His predecessor, Jean Ziegler, once branded the use of farmland to make fuel a "crime against humanity".
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Shafer played down the significance of biofuels, saying they contributed only around 3 percent of the sharp food price rises which have put an extra 100 million people at risk of hunger — far less than the 30 percent claimed by campaign groups.
Opponents say biofuels not only push up food prices, but also cause deforestation as rain forests in countries such as Indonesia are cleared for plantation, threatening biodiversity and cancelling any benefit in reducing greenhouse gases.
But President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva launched a fierce defence of Brazil’s booming sugar cane-based ethanol industry.
"We must clear away smokescreens raised by powerful lobbies who try to blame ethanol production for the recent inflation in food prices," he said.
"It offends me to see fingers pointed against clean energy from biofuels, fingers soiled with oil and coal."