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Food versus Fuel - The Debate Continues

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During the recently concluded World Water Week Conference in Stockholm, Paul Bulcke (pictured above), President and CEO of Nestlé, the world's largest food company, voiced his company's concerns regarding the continuing use of food crops for biofuel production.

'No to Food for Fuel,' is the company's policy stance, one that other large food corporations and some governments are beginning to consider seriously.

One of the chief concerns Bulcke expressed about using food crops as feedstock for biofuels stems from global water shortages and the impact on food prices from diverting food producing acreage to biofuels production.

According to Nestlé, growing and harvesting crops to be used as fuel not only is a waste of food, but also a waste of water. This was also the consensus of the Stockholm Conference.

Nestlé argues there are more efficient ways to produce biofuels, such as using food waste or other non-food biomass. The company advocates the responsible use of water and suggests the use of agricultural wastage is a more sustainable alternative.

For large food corporations such as Nestlé (beyond ethical and sustainability matters) the direct competition between the food and the energy sectors for raw materials and for water is another concern.

Several studies on the use of farmland for fuel have confirmed crop wastes and other cellulosic materials such as palm-oil byproducts are just as effective as a fuel source. Animal wastage, algae or municipal solid waste also are potential sources for ethanol extraction and, if used on a larger scale, offer a solution to the problem of industries competing for the same raw materials.

Roughly 40% of American corn production is now used to create biofuels, due in large to government subsidies and higher returns from the energy sector.

A similar situation exists in Europe, leading the EU Commission to admit recently there has been too much government support for biofuel production. As EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger points out, as alternative biofuel production technologies become more competitive, subsidies have to be lowered.

Concerned about resource shortages and rising food prices, Nestlé has lobbied both EU and US governments to lower their biofuel quotas. The EU Commission is now working on plans to lower its biofuels use target by 5%.

Biofuels are not delivering on GHG Emission reductions

Adding to the already complex set of factors influencing the food versus fuel debate are recent findings that the extensive use of biofuels is not delivering the greenhouse gas emissions reductions once hoped for. Recent studies conducted by German scientists, for example, suggest that biodiesel use in Europe has not lived up to its emission reduction target of 35 percent.

This is highly problematic considering the large amounts of subsidies that have been paid by governments for the production of what is billed as more environmentally friendly alternative fuel source.

Overall, the food versus fuel issue is far from clear. Numerous conflicting assessments have yet to confirm the direct link between biofuels production and rising prices for foodstuffs. Many other factors contribute to the rise in food prices, such as increased energy costs, and bad harvests due to drought conditions that have plagued both European and North American agricultural production.

Nonetheless, governments and corporations in Europe and North America are sensitive to the impact that the using food crops for biofuels could have on prices, and research into the use of second-generation feedstocks for more sustainable biofuel production has become widespread.

Apart from lower biofuel targets set by governments, reducing water intensity in farming will also play an important role in shaping future policies.

Nestlé's clear stance against Food for Fuel during the World Water Conference is being reflected in the EU Commission's efforts to use non-food feedstock for fuel production.

The EU declared in its goal for 2020 is the need to avoid biofuels which are either in competition with food or require additional land. This plan also tackles the issue of water wastage and increases the chances for a more sustainable biofuel production.

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