Biofuels are liquid fuels made from recently alive plant or animal material. Most UK forecourt fuel now contains a small proportion of biofuel, in order to fulfil government targets which began this year. Diesel contains biodiesel, made from vegetable oil, petrol contains ethanol made from grain or sugar.

Are biofuels contributing to the world food crisis?

Yes. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that increased biofuel production is responsible for 30% of recent world food price rises, and are calling for a halt to making biofuels from grains and oilseeds. Similar moratorium calls have been made by Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Oxfam and the RSPB, Defra chief scientist Robert Watson, over 30 MPs, the head of the IMF, several US Senators, the Guardian, New York Times and New Statesman. The world biofuel drive may now actually be hindering African farming by driving up fertilizer prices.

Are biofuels harming the environment?

Yes. Palm oil, the cheapest source of new vegetable oil, requires a tropical ‘rainforest’ climate and is expanding in South East Asia, equatorial Africa and South America, being a major driver of deforestation. Friends of the Earth’s 2008 report Losing Ground details how local communities are tricked or coerced into losing their biodiverse surroundings and traditional livelihoods.

Scientists are saying that the stored carbon released when agriculture replaces forests and grasslands negates the savings from biofuels that cause this replacement for decades or centuries. The new cultivation also emits significant nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas.

A substantial proportion of new palm oil is grown on drained peat swamp, which as it erodes releases 30x more CO2 than the palm oil saves, and which may have sheltered rare wildlife, like the critically endangered Sumatran orang-utan, tiger and rhinoceros, and the world’s smallest freshwater fish found in Sumatran swamps.

Aren’t biofuels ok if made from homegrown rapeseed, wheat or sugar?

In most cases, no. The UK is a net importer of foodstuffs, and consumes more bio-commodities overall than its land and fishing ground could produce. So, using up arable land in this way means the UK exports more hunger and deforestation.

So what can I do?

You may want to ask your MP to call for a halt to turning food into fuel. The government has stated that it is conducting a review of its biofuel policy, but it also has claimed that a halt to biofuel production would “send the wrong signals” and that biofuels are “only a very small” contributor to food inflation. This is a reckless claim, the starving can’t wait for endless reviews and the biofuel targets are worsening recession for all, pushing up food prices, as well as bad for the environment.

You can also complain to Tesco about their use of 50% biodiesel, including from palm oil, in their lorries, which doesn’t count towards government targets.

Friends of the Earth opposes all quantity targets for biofuels. We campaigned as part of a “Biofuels Summer of Action” in 2008 to tell MEPs to reject EU legislation to make biofuels at least 10% of EU vehicle fuel by 2020.

What about Second Generation biofuels made from crop wastes or wood, or jatropha grown on marginal soils in the developing world?

So-called Second Generation biofuels tend to be expensive, and the biomass they come from would often make much greater emissions savings if simply used to replace coal. Moreover, there is very little suitable land or biomass that is not already used to support livestock, make materials like paper, protect against soil erosion, etc.

As for jatropha, large areas traditionally farmed for food in Africa and south Asia are being forcibly converted to jatropha fields, having been passed off as ‘marginal lands’. In Tanzania, 11,000 villagers are being displaced by jatropha for UK firm Sun Biofuels. As with other so-called ‘wonder plants’, there is a difference between getting additional value out of existing hedging and trees, and setting up ‘green deserts’ of new tree plantations.

Are there any good biofuels we can use?

Many groups including FoE favour the re-use of genuine waste products, such as biodiesel made from used cooking oil, but these can’t replace petrol on a large scale. There have been many trials of using carbon dioxide gas to grow algae with high fuel yields, but this has yet to be shown to be workable commercially.

There is a debate over ethanol from Brazilian sugar cane. Brazil has a lot of land and sugar cane is a high yielding crop, but has a history of displacing other farming like cattle and soya into the Amazon and other biodiverse or carbon-rich areas.

How then do we cut CO2 emissions from road transport?

Curbing road-building, encouraging car-mile reduction and increased fuel-efficiency in new and existing vehicles through regulation, taxes and road pricing, funding public transport and encouraging walking and cycling; encouraging electric vehicles, plug-in or by wire, and more renewable energy to power them.

Read more on our blog about sustainable transport.