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Biofuels, hungry for land

Set against a vast number of people without access to food, a growing proportion of agricultural land is given over to the production of biofuels to power cars.

Rapeseed, sugar cane, maize, wheat and other cereals: just a few of the agricultural products that can be used as biofuels, energy sources generated by crops which could, however, also be used to feed part of the world's population. The production of biofuels is one of the great food paradoxes affecting society today: a competition between humans and machines for the use of land and water.

The figures
According to the International Energy Agency, by the year 2035, global demand for energy will be a third greater than in 2011 (particularly in China and India, but also in the Middle East and South East Asia), with global demand for biofuels reaching 172 billion litres in 2020, compared with 81 billion in 2008. This translates into another 40 million hectares of farmland to be used for biofuel cultivation, on top of approximately 3% of the world's agricultural land which is used today.

Between 2000 and 2010, the need to produce energy from crops has driven investment in large tracts of farmland (upwards of 200 hectares) by means of licensing, sales or leasing (usually for between 55 and 99 years), by various public and private investors and partnerships.

Land grabbing
The term “land grabbing” was coined as a derogatory description of cases where such investment happens without the free consent of the local population, in conditions that are either opaque or else in violation of human rights, as reported by the International Land Coalition, a consortium of more than 200 NGOs, farmers and international agencies. Today, the phenomenon of land grabbing affects almost 60 million hectares of land and over 1000 investments worldwide, according to data gathered by the independent monitoring body Land Matrix.
The cultivation of crops used for biofuels negatively impacts the cultivation of diverse varieties for food use. Indeed, it is important to be aware that on the global level the price of food crops is closely linked to the price of oil: if the latter goes up, biofuels become more attractive and demand for them increases. And because most biofuels (known as first generation biofuels, derived directly from food crops) are produced using the same "raw materials" as food crops or livestock – i.e. land, water and labor – it results in a competition between the energy sector and the food sector for the use of available resources.

Controversial policies
Variation in the price of oil and policies favoring the production of biofuels, introduced by some countries with the aim of sustaining a more environmentally friendly energy market, are therefore responsible for uncontrollable fluctuations in the market for food crops and generally tend to cause price increases.
The Milan Protocol on Food and Nutrition, a platform for future initiatives to encourage food sustainability, asks that, until such incentives are removed, governments at least develop emergency plans to regulate the production and use of biofuels in the short term, while world markets are still under pressure and food supplies decreasing. In parallel to this is support for second generation biofuels, produced from crops such as weeds, which do not compete for the use of land for food farming, or from seaweed or by-products from the processing of wood or maize.
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