Science in Society Archive

Biofuels and World Hunger

Damning report confirms critic’s charge that industrial biofuels are responsible for world’s food and hunger crisis Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Biofuels are conservatively estimated to have been responsible for at least 30 percent of the global food price spike in 2008 that pushed 100 million people into poverty and drove some 30 million more into hunger, according to the report, Meals per gallon, released by the UK charity ActionAid in February 2010 [1]. The number of chronically hungry people now exceeds one billion.

The report blames the biofuels targets set by the European Union (EU), and concomitantly, the huge financial incentives given to the biofuels industry, which together, provide a powerful driver for industrial biofuels. In 2006, the EU biofuel industry was already supported by tax exemptions and agricultural subsidies to the sum of €4.4 billion. In 2008, EU member states committed themselves to a target of 10 percent of transport fuels from renewable sources (i.e., biofuels) by 2020. If the same level of subsidies continues, the industry would receive €13.7 billion per year.

If all global biofuels targets are to be met, food prices could rise by up to an additional 76 percent by 2020 and starve an extra 600 million people.

Fuel vs food

The main agricultural crops used for industrial biofuels are vegetable and seed oils such as palm, soy, sunflower, rapeseed, and jatropha for biodiesel, maize, wheat and sugars for ethanol. Except for jatropha (see later), the feedstock are all food crops. The most immediate effect of the push for industrial biofuels is to compete with food for feedstock, thereby inflating food prices. The Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that in 2008/9, 125 million tonnes of cereals were diverted into biofuel production. In 2010, more cereal (1 107 million tonnes) were diverted into animal feed and industrial uses than for feeding people (1 013 million tonnes). Overall, world food prices increased by 75 percent from 2006 to the middle of 2008, but the price for staple food grains (such as wheat, rice and maize) went up by 126 percent. For the 82 low income food deficient countries, import bills shot up. Each 10 percent increase in the price of cereals adds nearly US$4.5 billion to the total cereals import cost of developing countries that are net importers. Independent analysts have concluded that industrial biofuels have been responsible for 30 to 75 percent of the global food price increase in 2008.

To make matters much worse, huge tracts of land have been taken out of food production, exacerbating landlessness everywhere (see [2] ‘Land Rush’ as Threats to Food Security Intensify, SiS 46). ActionAid reports that [1] in just five African countries 1.1 million hectares have been given over to industrial biofuels for export; while 1.4 million ha were taken over simultaneously to produce food for export. As biofuels displace food from agricultural land in developed countries, and as rich countries run out of water for agriculture, food production is increasingly outsourced to cheap land available in poor countries [2].

Food and fuel are competing everywhere for land. EU companies have already acquired or requested at least five million hectares of land for industrial biofuels in developing countries [1]. Just to meet the EU’s ten percent target would require 17.5 million hectares for growing biofuels in developing countries.

Landlessness and hunger

While driving up food prices can create hunger, driving people off the land that they have traditionally cultivated deprives them of the last resort of growing their own food. This is happening all over the developing world.

In Mozambique, farms are destroyed for industrial biofuels. Elisa Alimone Mongue, mother and farmer said: “I don’t have a farm, I don’t have a garden, .. the only land I have has been destroyed. We are just suffering with hunger, .. even if I go to look for another farm, they will just destroy it again.”

“They actually took the land when it was already tilled…They haven’t paid us anything… What we want is to get our farms back because that is what our livelihood is dependent on… we are dying of hunger and there is nothing we have that is actually our own.” Matilde Ngoene, another mother and farmer said.

Julio Ngoene is fighting to save his community and its way of life. He is the village chief of approximately 100 households of more than 1 000 people. A biofuel company is setting up a project near his village and has taken over 80 percent of the village farmland without permission, and destroyed the crops. At the beginning of the project, the company promised to resettle the village, but two years later, Julio and the villagers have still hear nothing, and no one in the village has received compensation.

Land expropriation is sometime violent, and often by false promises and trickery.

In Indonesia, in the village of Aruk, people have come into direct confrontation with palm oil plantations. Twenty-five plots were cleared without permission. One villager lost his 10-acre plot. “I went to my land one morning, and found it had been cleared. All my rubber trees, my plants had been destroyed… Now I have to work as a builder in Malaysia, so I can feed my three children.”

In Tanzania, where ActionAid has conducted interviews, 175 villagers have been displaced. Farmer Rashidi Omary Goboreni said: “We deeply regret we agreed on letting [the biofuel company] operate on our land. Now we think the employment and the possibility to use their tractors was only their strategy to get the agreement… We realised we did not know if we had agreed on selling our land or leasing it for 50 or 99 years. A neighbour told us he had leased his land for 99 years and we got worried. What is hiding behind the 6 000 schilling [about €3 as an initial payment], we wondered? If we do not get employed then how will we make our living? Without land we will not be able to farm and our children will have nowhere to settle down when they grow up. I’ve heard stories about other villages who have leased their land and the villagers there are now not even allowed to pass their land. If they pick up firewood, someone from the company will tell them to put it back.”

The Chair of the UN Forum on Indigenous Issues estimated that 60 million indigenous people are globally at risk of displacement because of industrial biofuels.

The jatropha scam

There have been warnings against jatropha biodiesel going back several years [3] (Jatropha Biodiesel Fever in India, SiS 36). Jatropha has been hyped as a miracle non-food biofuel crop that would simply grow in marginal areas not suitable for food crops. But there was clear evidence that it would only deliver anywhere near the promised 1 300 litres of oil per ha when grown in fertile land with plenty of water, and that’s what companies have set their eyes on.

In Tanzania, jatropha is being grown in areas with good rainfall and fertile soils. In Sahel regions of Senegal, jatropha will only survive with irrigation; and it’s a similar story in Swaziland, which is suffering persistent drought.

Jatropha is also promoted as offering employment and livelihoods. But the evidence is otherwise. Employment is often sporadic, being labour intensive during planting and very little until harvesting. In India, where jatropha is becoming well established the promise of high yields has remained unproven regardless of whether they are grown on fertile or poor soils. The initial forecast was that it would only be cost-competitive if yields reached 3-6 tonnes of seeds per ha per year. Private companies have now had to revise projections down to 1.8 – 2 tonnes per ha, but even that remains to be achieved.

And worse has come from reports on the ground.

“Until now I haven’t got any seeds from this jatropha. I feel bad. Now it is almost four years and I am not getting any income. There is no improvement.” Wanjang Agitok Sangma, in India said.

In northeast India, local farmers and communities were being enticed to experiment with jatropha. Raju Sona grew jatropha for one year on land he used to grow vegetables for his family. “No one will buy jatropha. People said if you have a plantation then surely you have a good market, but we didn’t see such good market. When I got the message that there was no market, I got discouraged. I was very upset. I felt very bad. I expected profit. I threw it [the seeds] away.” He went back to growing food, adding. “If we plant jatropha we will have a problem because [it means] we have to buy food from outside…. Vegetables are very expensive [so] we can save money with all the things we grow – we are cultivating potatoes and cabbages. If the land is planted professionally, it could grow 4 000 to 6 000 cabbages in six months to sell in the market. This is good land for growing ginger, onions and garlic.”

Another farmer in India, Parindra Gohain (alias), said: “Until now we have had no income from the jatropha plantation. They told me it would be two years before we would have income, but it is already three years. People are a little down now because the whole project is already four years running and there is no income. I still hope that I will get profit otherwise I will pull up the plants.

Compromised food security and labour conditions

Some farmers were tempted to sell their land in return for employment, only to find that the promised level of pay failed to materialize, and the low earnings left them unable to buy sufficient food. One farmer in Senegal, Mamadou Bah (alias) said: “I and the community expected to increase our cash income and revenues by working on the plantation. Our food is insufficient because we gave away our land. We have to fight for our rights and find alternatives to fill the gap in food and livelihoods.”

“Instead of farming their land, people go to work for the [biofuel] company… There are now fewer farmers involved in farming their own land. Food is becoming a problem…

The price of food has been increasing every now and then. The increasing food prices have to do with food shortages within the village due to lower production on the farms.” Tanzanian farmer Aailyah Nyondo (alias) said.

In Ghana, Sanatu Yaw told ActionAid: “The shea nuts I am able to pick during the year help me to have my children in school, to buy cloth and also to supplement the household’s food needs when the harvest from my husband’s farm runs out. But this year I could not get much because of the trees that have been cut. Now they have destroyed the trees so we have lost a good source of income forever, yet we have not been paid anything in compensation. That is why I confronted the white man at the meeting.”

Brazil is the largest industrial biofuel producer in the developing world, where the sugar cane (ethanol) plantation industry is well established. However, working conditions are often poor. Of the one million cane workers, about half are employed as cutters, mostly done by hand, in intense heat for long hours; and a number of deaths have been reported. The government’s own investigations uncovered virtual slave labour conditions, exploitative subcontracting systems, poor sanitation and food, unfit drinking water and overcrowded living conditions. In one investigation, the team rescued 11 000 labourers working in unacceptable conditions.

Policy got ahead of science

More and more scientists are providing evidence that most biofuels currently used actually release more GHGs compared to fossil fuels, and uses more fossil fuels to produce [2. 4] (see Biofuels = Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits, in Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free , I-SIS publication).

Unfortunately, all of the figures currently used in EU legislation in the recently agreed Renewable Energy Directive (RED) are out-of-date, and over-optimistic about the carbon emissions and energy savings of the biofuels. I shall deal with the scientific evidence on the false accounting on carbon and energy savings on biofuels that conceal their huge contributions to global warming [5, 6] (Scientists Expose False Accounting for Biofuels, and Biofuels Waste Energy, SiS 49).

Moratorium on Industrial biofuels

It is clear that biofuels are socially unsustainable in competing for land that should be growing food, increasing food prices and landlessness, causing widespread hunger, and depriving millions of the poorest of their livelihood. Meanwhile, evidence from real production data, and new analyses bear out what many scientists have been saying: most if not all biofuels offer no savings in energy or carbon emissions, especially when indirect emissions from deforestation and other land use changes are taken into account, as they should be.

ActionAid has reiterated the call for a global moratorium in its recommendations:

· Moratorium on further expansion of industrial biofuel production and investment

· Ensure member states do not lock into industrial biofuels in their 2010 national action plans

· Reduce transport and energy consumption

· End targets and financial incentives for industrial biofuels

· Support small-scale sustainable biobuels in the EU and abroad

Article first published 03/11/10


  1. Meals per gallon, The impact of industrial biofuels on people and global hunger, ActionAid, 2010,
  2. Ho MW. ‘Land rush’ as threats to food security intensify. Science in Society 46, 42-45, 2010
  3. Ho MW. Jatropha biodiesel fever in India. Science in Society 36, 47-48, 2007.
  4. Ho MW. In Ho MW, Burcher S, Lim LC, et al. Food Futures Now, Organic, Sustainable, Fossil Fuel Free, ISIS//TWN, London/Penang, 2008.
  5. Ho MW. Scientists expose false accounting for biofuels. Science in Society 49.
  6. Ho MW. Biofuels waste energy. Science in Society 49.

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There are 4 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Anupam Paul Comment left 17th November 2010 06:06:22
If we cannot stop consumerism these problems of food and unemployment will be faced by the weaker section of the society particularly the farmers of the South.And that can be realized if we try to understand the real problems of the farmers.I talk about agriculture not agribusiness,corporate farming,contract farming etc.Is it really necessary to own more than one car or a car? Some families have more than one cars.Can we care for our future generation and unborn children.?? We may well remember the song HEAL THE WORLD OF M Jackson.

mae-Wan Comment left 4th November 2010 19:07:15
Hi patriziah, this article is the first in a long series on green power to the people, please look out for the rest. There are many sustainable options and they are being implemented everyday. The most sustainable option for fuel is methane biogas from anaerobic digestion of organic wastes. It can replace many fuel uses.

patriziah odethe Comment left 4th November 2010 18:06:02
Hello, i have a what is being mention in this article is that the BIOFUELS wich are promoted to be better for nature are causing hunger? what can we do about it? shoudl we use normal fuel?...i mean at the end of the day i think both of this types of fuer are damaging human life and nature very confusing

Ilyan Comment left 4th November 2010 18:06:08
God help us. Unfortumately God can only produce Ibola in isolated villages. This problem would be solved if it were started it in a busy international airport.