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Heated lobbying over Parliament’s agrofuel vote

20110929Maisernte_Rheinhausen01On September 11 European Parliament voted on proposals that aimed to limit the use of food crops for agrofuels (often referred to as ‘first generation biofuels’) that are pushing up global food prices, and to include measures against Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) – like deforestation and land-grabbing. Yet fierce lobbying by the agrofuels industry is undermining any action taken, as the European Parliament's disappointing recent vote on the topic demonstrates.

September 16, 2013 | Corporate Europe Observatory

Heated lobbying over Parliament’s agrofuel vote

Food crops used to fuel cars are pushing up food prices and displacing production to elsewhere, with serious social and environmental consequences for years, but the European Parliament doesn't take measures preventing food crops from being used for the tank.

On September 11 the European Parliament voted on proposals that aimed to limit the use of food crops for agrofuels (often known as ‘first generation biofuels’) that are pushing up global food prices, and to include measures against Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) – where the rush to produce these crops creates severe pressure for more agricultural land, furthering problems like deforestation, land-grabbing, and raised carbon emissions. MEPs voting on the issue were assailed by an avalanche of lobbying messages from industry in order to try and destroy or dilute the measures.

Two pieces of EU legislation were affected (the Renewable Energy Directive and the Fuel Quality Directive). The outcome of the vote: the amount of food crops used to fuel European cars will still grow. MEPs voted for a 6% cap on food crop use in fuel – an industry-friendly compromise and higher than the 5% limit proposed by the Commission. In addition the negative effects of Indirect Land Use Change will not be taken into account until after 2020 – some 12 years after the unsound EU policy on agrofuels was set. Meanwhile industry – strongly aided by the conservatives in Parliament – had wanted no ILUC remedy at all, ever.

Numerous lobby letters from the agrofuels sector sent in the final days running up to the vote, seen by CEO, show how they put heavy pressure on MEPs warning of potential damage to the industry. Their discourse was based around discrediting the science behind indirect land use change, and the themes of job losses in the tens of thousands and of provoking international trade disputes.

The Malaysian palm oil lobby wrote that ILUC represents “an unscientific policy that will hurt EU Malaysia bilateral relations”. The Malaysian Palmoil Council (MPOC) is not registered in the EU Transparency Register for lobbyists.[1] “ILUC is an environmentalist theory […] Palm oil as a biofuel can be a big part of the solution in Europe, just as it is here in Malaysia. But it requires European politicians to see past short-term protectionism and glitzy NGO campaigns,” reads their letter.

European agrofuel producers set up a joint lobby group European Sustainable Biofuels Forum (ESBF) and claimed that the ILUC proposals would “dramatically penalise” European producers as well. In the same way, the European Oilseed Alliance (EOA) attacked ILUC as being based on "unsound science", and they also adopted the tactic of scaremongering over job losses in Europe.

The European Biodiesel Board claimed that “220.000 jobs related to biofuels in the EU” are at stake, as well as billions of euros worth of investments. “Food versus fuel is a false choice," they argued, "The reality is that biofuel production in fact reduces global hunger by its substantial production of its co-products, particularly protein meal. Did you know that the crushing of rapeseed produces 60% protein meal and 40% vegetable oil? This is important as Europe has a big protein feed deficit for its livestock and depends on imports.” It is truly hard to see how Europe’s wasteful factory farms producing dirt cheap chicken wings do anything to reduce world hunger.

Shell joined in the chorus with its assertion that, “ILUC penalties are not supported by sound science and undermine investment confidence”. The Leaders of Sustainable Biofuels – including the CEOs of European agrofuel companies and airlines including British Airways – went one further with the wild claims of industry potential: “Up to one million jobs could be created in Europe, also in high technology areas.”

The ‘biodiesel supply chain’ (European Biodiesel Board, FEDIOL and EOA) repeated the same message with a letter-writing campaign orchestrated by the Brussels wing of the global PR firm Hill and Knowlton.

Another job claim came from Ethanol lobby Epure who also said a lot of “misinformation” was going around about the impacts of agrofuels: “The good news is that robust and impartial information and analysis allows you to look beyond the one-liners and empty slogans,” they argued. “70,000 people in the renewable ethanol sector alone are looking towards you to do the right thing. [...] We ask for your support to allow them to keep their jobs and support the fight against climate change through the production of sustainable ethanol in Europe.”

Geraldine Kutas, on behalf of UNICA – Brazil’s sugar cane barons – warned that focusing on first generation agrofuels would also exclude Brazilian sugar cane ethanol from the EU agrofuel market, claiming this is one of the most efficient agrofuels. While sugar cane ethanol is generally seen as superior to many other food crops in terms of CO2-performance, sugar cane monocultures imply a wide array of social and environmental problems including labour rights violations, water use and contamination, as well as land occupation at the expense of other uses.

A curious statement came from a number of lobby groups including FEDIOl and Pangea whose members are agrofuel producer companies with an interest in Africa. “EU biofuels policies cannot be blamed for causing land grabs or social unrest in Africa, as the EU is not importing any biofuels or biofuels raw materials from Africa.” However Pangea's mission is precisely to develop a thriving African agrofuel sector, also for export to the EU. And needless to say, land grabbing can precede actual imports by years.

However, unsurprisingly Big Food supported proposals to set a limit on food crop use and the Indirect Land Use Change factor. Food Drink Europe, representing the food multinationals including Kraft, Danone and CocaCola, does not care about climate or land-grabbing, mind you. Their argument is based on self-interest: “The sufficient availability of agricultural raw materials at competitive prices for the production of food and feed in Europe should remain a constant concern.”

These debates are the heritage of the EU's ill-fated agrofuel policy, meant as a climate measure but in reality operating like a tool to divert attention from serious climate policy and climate justice. It was heavily contested at the time for its doubtful climate merits, as well as all the other impacts suffered by communities living in the areas where agricultural land will be dedicated to keep European cars running. From this perspective the outcome of this longstanding debate in Parliament is truly miserable.

[1] Until recently, Brussels-based lobby outfit Gplus listed the MPOC as one of its clients

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