Science in Society Archive

UN 'Right to Food' Rapporteur Urges 5 Year Moratorium on Biofuels

The message of Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits (SiS 35)[1] getting through to the top. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Ban on conversion of land to biofuel production

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, has called for a 5-year moratorium on biofuel production. This recommendation was contained in his interim report [2] submitted to the UN General Assembly, which met in October 2007. He stressed that rushing to turn food crops — maize, wheat, sugar, palm oil — into fuel for cars, without first examining the impact on global hunger, would be a recipe for disaster. Among the potential impacts identified are increasing food prices, increasing competition over land and forests, forced evictions, impacts on employment and conditions of work, and increasing prices and scarcity of water.

According to Ziegler, a five-year moratorium on biofuel production would provide time for technologies to be devised and regulatory structures to be put in place to protect against negative environmental, social and human rights impacts. It would also allow measures to be put in place to ensure that biofuel production can have positive impacts and respect the right to adequate food.

The 232 kg of corn needed to make 50 litres of bioethanol would enable a child to live for a year, Ziegler pointed out [3]. He said using land for biofuels would result in “massacres”, predicting a reduction in the amount of food aid sent to developing countries by richer ones.

Ziegler’s proposal for moratorium aims to ban the conversion of land for the production of biofuels. He hopes that by the time the moratorium is lifted science would have made sufficient progress to be able to create “second generation” biofuels, made from agricultural waste or from non-agricultural plants such as jatropha, which grows naturally on arid ground.

I have dealt with the limitations of such “second generation” biofuels [4] (Ethanol from Cellulose Biomass Not Sustainable nor Environmentally Benign, SiS 30) and the sustainability of jatropha is looking increasingly uncertain, as far as large plantations are concerned [5] (Jatropha Biodiesel Fever in India, SiS 36).

Ziegler rightly deplored the fact that sugar cane plantations for biofuels are spreading at the expense of food-producing land. Ten hectares of land could produce food to sustain 7 to 10 farmers, he said, whereas the same area could only produce enough sugarcane for one farmer (see also [6] (Biofuels Republic Brazil, SiS 33).

Days of cheap food over

The competition for land to grow food has intensified as biotech companies have jumped onto the biofuels bandwagon [7] (No to GMOs, No to GM Science, SiS 35).

Just days before Ziegler was due to present his report to the UN General Assembly, news came of two men killed and five wounded when guards working for the Swiss biotech company Syngenta clashed with Brazilians invading a GM seed farm in Parana state. The group Via Campesina had organised the action in protest at what they called the illegal growing of the seeds. One guard was killed [8].

“The days of cheap food are over,” said Joachim von Braun, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute, in an article for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) [3].

Nearly 900 million people worldwide suffer hunger, 70 per cent of them food producers, peasants and rural dwellers. Von Braun warns this figure could reach one billion in a few years, and predicts a 20-40 percent increase in food prices between now and 2020, leaving the poorest, some living on 50 cents a day “unable to foot the bill.”

Article first published 08/11/07


  1. Ho MW. Biofuels: biodevasttion, hunger & false carbon credits. Science in Society 33, 36-39, 2007.
  2. Ziegler J. Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the right to food. Office of the Unied Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  3. “UN rapporteur calls for biofuel moratorium”, 11 October 2007, Swissinfo SRI, via TWN News, 25 October 2007.
  4. Ho MW. Ethanol from cellulose biomass not sustainable nor environmentally benign. Science in Society 30, 32-35, 2006.
  5. Ho MW. Jatropha biodiesel fever in India. Science in Society 36 (in press).
  6. Ho MW. Biofuels republic Brazil. Science in Society 33, 40-41, 2007.
  7. Ho MW. No to GMOs, no to GM science. Science in Society 35, 26-29, 2007
  8. “Two killed at protest against GM seed farm”, John Vidal, The Guardian,,,2197018,00.html

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