June 5, 2008 / 7:10 PM / 11 years ago

INTERVIEW-Biofuels win at summit but UN food envoy fights on

* Biofuels escape curbs at U.N. food summit - U.N. envoy

* Envoy urges freeze on biofuels investments

By Robin Pomeroy and Alister Doyle

ROME, June 5 (Reuters) - The rapidly growing global bio-energy industry escaped unscathed from a food summit on Thursday, but its wings must be clipped to stop fuel-from-food stoking world hunger, the U.N. envoy on the right to food said.

The conversion of foodstuffs like maize, sugar, soy and palm oil into biofuel was one of the most controversial issues at the June 3-5 summit, pitting biofuel giants, the United States and Brazil, against countries who fear its harmful effects.

Under pressure from Washington, a draft summit declaration avoided negative language on biofuels, instead saying they present "challenges and opportunities" and calling for an "international dialogue" on the issue.

Olivier De Schutter, an independent U.N. expert on the right to food, said countries opposed to biofuels had given in, rather than hold out against the pro-biofuel countries and risk sinking the broad declaration vowing to fight hunger.

"The final declaration says only one thing: we need to have a continued international dialogue on this issue," De Schutter told Reuters on the sidelines of the Rome summit.

"That’s important in one way. It shows that agrofuels are now becoming part of the international agenda and that states may not act unilaterally in this domain," he told Reuters.

The draft declaration was still being negotiated on Thursday evening, but there was no disagreement on the biofuel reference.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, who has defended a policy that will see about a quarter of U.S. maize turned into ethanol production by 2022, said the summit declaration’s neutral language was acceptable to the United States.

De Schutter had lobbied the summit to call on the United States and the European Union to abandon policies promoting biofuel consumption — something he believes can still be achieved.


"I think we should move towards a code of conduct that should, minimally, have the requirement that soil which is suitable to the cultivation of food should not be diverted to (grow) fuel beyond the current figures," he said.

De Schutter’s predecessor, Jean Ziegler, caused a storm when he said using arable land to make fuel was a "crime against humanity". The current U.N. food envoy may use more tempered language but his message was broadly the same.

"I am calling ... for a freeze in any new investments in that kind of agrofuel which is directly competing with food."

On the last day of the three-day summit, corn futures set record highs at the Chicago Board of Trade after rain delayed seeding the U.S. crop.

But the United States, which has managed to increase its maize output and exports while growing its bioethanol production, maintains that biofuels contribute only about 3 percent of total global food inflation which has seen commodities’ prices double in the last couple of years.

"The reality is there is a basketfull of problems here that are causing food price increases and the majority of it is energy costs and increased consumption," Schafer said.

That is an argument the big biofuel countries will have to continue to make as the sceptics push for global controls.

De Schutter said pressure would continue for a strict code of conduct, which could be negotiated at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation which hosted the summit, to rein in biofuel, once considered a green alternative to oil.

"There is mounting scientific evidence that the use of energy to produce agrofuels, the use of water, the use of arable land is destructive to the environment, a threat to food security and feeding into speculation on the market," he said.

For a FACTBOX on biofuels, click on [ID:nLA802580]

For stories on food prices [ID:nL03499222] (Reporting by Robin Pomeroy)

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