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UN expert faults US, EU biofuel use in food crisis

By BRADLEY S. KLAPPER. Capital Press 9/10/08

GENEVA (AP) - A United Nations expert said Wednesday that recent studies indicate that U.S. and European Union targets for biofuel production by their grain farmers have been the biggest cause of the world food crisis.

Olivier de Schutter, a Belgian professor, also said an international monitor may be needed to supervise the production of energy sources such as ethanol, which may end up being less beneficial to the environment than expected, even as they cause global food prices to rise.

Citing various reports, he said said biofuel production targets outlined by the United States and European Union have led to increased speculation on agricultural land and commodities, and diverted cropland and feed away from food production.

He said the International Monetary Fund estimated that 70 percent of the rise in corn prices was due to biofuels, with 40 percent for soybeans.

The World Bank, de Schutter added, concluded that biofuels from grains and oilseed in the U.S. and EU were responsible for up to 75 percent of changes in commodity prices.

"There is a consensus that these initiatives have had a significant impact," said de Schutter, who reports to the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council. His message to Washington and Brussels: "They should without further delay revise their policies."

The U.S. mission to the United Nations in Geneva declined to comment. France, the current holder of the EU presidency, had no reaction, said mission spokesman Gael Morand.

While energy sources such as ethanol have been touted by rich and poor countries as renewable and potentially cleaner than traditional fossil fuels, their use has come under increasing scrutiny in the last year amid greater research of their effects on the environment and global food prices.

De Schutter said he disagreed with the view of his predecessor in the post of U.N. special investigator on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, who last year called for a five-year moratorium on biofuels production to prevent massive hunger.

The food riots that occurred earlier this year in some cities around the world seemed to some, at least, as a confirmation that these were legitimate fears.

But de Schutter said not all methods of biofuel production are equally culpable.

Brazil's ethanol-producing sugarcane growers, he said, have not contributed to food price hikes because the industry's development has been accompanied by a near tripling of Brazilian sugar exports since 2000.

By contrast, U.S. and EU targets for biofuel production by their grain farmers have had direct and indirect effects on the rising price of staples such as corn and soybeans, he said.

In a 43-page report to the council, he proposes a "permanent forum" for international monitoring of biofuels where countries would have to show how the benefits of an increase in production would outweigh negative effects on food availability and nutrition. The body would also examine investment decisions and their effects on food commodities.

But such an approach would be loathsome to many rich and poor countries that are skeptical of any international control over how they allocate their own land and resources.

Talking to reporters, de Schutter conceded that this was a "delicate issue," but said biofuel production increases in one country cannot be ignored elsewhere, if they are not being accompanied by "social safety nets for the poor" and benefits for small farmers, who comprise the majority of the world's hungry.

In his report, he said: "Policies aimed at promoting the use of agrofuels from feedstock, having an inflationary impact on staple foods, could only be justified under international law if very strong arguments are offered." Biofuel production targets and international biofuel markets are steps in the wrong direction, he added.

The United States is the world's biggest ethanol producer, and U.S. President George W. Bush has made the fuel a central part of his plan to cut gasoline use by 20 percent by 2017. Brazil is second, but the largest exporter.

European governments have made similar targets to boost biofuel production.

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