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Water Challenge - a blog by Peter Brabeck-Letmathe


I hope this blog will create discussion about the important issue of water use and availability around the world.

Your comments and views are very important and I encourage you to help me build and develop the conversation.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

Chairman Nestlé SA

Biofuels: our efforts to phase out mandates and subsidies continue

No Food For Fuel

Despite all the facts showing the devastating impact of using food for fuel even modest first steps like the 5% cap for food-based biofuels as proposed by the European Commission seem to have difficulties to find a majority. With the letter below sent to some of the European leaders that I signed together with ActionAid, Oxfam, WWF and Unilever, we insist that is not just a matter of local politics but one that implies global responsibility.

As a reminder, water is the linchpin. We are already overusing the sustainable supply of freshwater by more than 10%, and now we face increasing withdrawals to grow food used for fuels – up to 9,100 litres of freshwater per litre of diesel – driven by government policies using mandates and subsidies in more than 40 countries across the world, as well as developing countries. It is a cure worse than the disease.
The letter is posted below – as usual I would appreciate your comments, and, if possible your support. The matter is too important to remain silent.

Food for European biofuels: buying farmland and freshwater usage rights in Africa

Mandates and subsidies for biofuels in over 40 countries (source: USDA)

A few days ago, the European Parliament’s environment committee approved draft legal measures that would cap the share of food-based biofuel used in vehicles at 5.5%, ahead of a plenary vote in September. Earlier this month, I personally co-signed a letter by ActionAid, a leading international non-governmental anti-poverty organisation, asking for a 5% cap on using food for fuel, with a perspective to phasing out this devastating policy in the years to come.

You may wonder why I am bringing this up on a blog devoted to water. After a rainy first half of the year, people may say that we have enough water here in Europe. But an ActionAid report, ‘Adding Fuel to the Flame’, shows the impact of EU biofuels policy on developing countries. It revealed that between 2009-2013 some six million hectares of fertile land had been taken over by European biofuel investors in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, taking advantage of mandates and subsidies in the Union.

Biofuels – a joint letter to Prime Minister Cameron

<b>ACTIONAID: </b>food not fuel campaigners

Several of my posts over the past few months have addressed the issue of biofuels, notably their massive impact on freshwater withdrawals, food availability and prices. At a time when we are running out of water, governments directly and indirectly subsidise products such as biodiesel that, according to the US Department of Energy, require up to 9,100 litres of freshwater per litre of diesel. In December 2012, together with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, we organised a meeting at the European Parliament on the negative repercussions of biofuel subsidies and mandates.

In the meantime, things have started to move in the right direction – a cap on the use of biofuels has been proposed. This rather timid and – I believe - insufficient step is fiercely challenged by pro-biofuel groups. ActionAid, which was also involved in our December meeting, took the initiative to support the cap with an open letter to UK Prime Minister David Cameron, one of the strong supporters of a more rational biofuels policy. I personally co-signed this letter which you may find here below.
Your comments and, hopefully, messages of support would be most welcome.

The disturbing consequences of our thirst for biofuels

“Now that the United States is using 40% of its crop to make biofuel, it is not surprising that tortilla prices have doubled in Guatemala… Just three years ago, one quetzal – about 15 cents – bought eight tortillas; today it buys only four.” This startling development, set out and explored in great detail in the International Herald Tribune on Monday, illustrates one of the main unintended consequences of the huge increases in biofuel incentives, subsidies, mandates and other regulations. I urge readers to take a look at the article.

As regular readers of my blog will know, this is a topic close to my heart. I believe, however, that this message is worth repeating, as some governments and organisations are still in denial. At least partly in order to avoid an unpleasant truth, the re-designed method to estimate the number of people going hungry to bed, no longer captures “the effects of food price and other economic shocks” (Source: FAO, the State of Food Insecurity in the World, Rome, September 2012).

But food prices do matter in the real world of the hungry. As the article states, “the average Guatemalan is now hungrier because of biofuel development,” This is an unacceptable state of affairs and action needs to be taken. I hope readers of this blog agree with me?

Are biofuels a cure worse than the disease?

<b>PETER BRABECK-LETMATHE</b>: Addressing the IISD-organised discussion

“Are biofuels a cure worse than the disease?” This was the provocative but important question posed by Ronald Steenblik, a senior trade analyst for the respected OECD thinktank, who was speaking in a personal capacity at this week’s high level debate on EU subsidies reform chaired by Ms. Sirpa Pietikäinen, MEP and chair of GLOBE EU.

Behind Mr Steenblik’s comment is an assessment of biofuel subsidies that I share – namely, that the unintended social and environmental consequences of biofuels far outweigh the benefits claimed by its supporters.

In last week’s blog post I argued that the reason these negative impacts have gone largely ignored is to do with the vested interests and ‘Realpolitik’ that sits behind biofuels. This week’s discussion, organised by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), was an attempt to re-establish a dialogue based on evidence, not presupposition.