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New British biofuels rule sparks food debate

  • Story Highlights
  • Britain introduces new minimum limit for renewable quotient in transport fuels
  • At least two and a half percent must now come from renewable sources
  • Environmental groups say it will push up food prices and cause shortages
  • Expert: 60 percent of world's growth in corn demand due to U.S. making ethanol
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By CNN's Jim Boulden
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- At least two and a half percent of all transport fuels sold in Britain must now come from renewable sources, under new rules which came into force on Tuesday.

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Critics say the increasing use of biofuels is pushing up the world's food prices and creating shortages.

The British Government mandated the move as part of its Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation.

The European Union is pushing renewables such as biofuel as part of an initiative to lower auto emissions -- the goal is to move the target up to five percent by 2010.

Drivers may now get a mix of biofuel when they fill up, whether they want it or not.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth says a recent poll carried out in Britain shows that nine out of 10 drivers have no idea they are getting biofuel, whether in petrol or diesel, even if they think using food for fuel is causing a rise in global food prices and a shortage of food in the developing world.

"It's unacceptable for developing countries to be growing fuel for us to be using in the West instead of growing food to feed their people," said Clare Oxborrow of Friends of the Earth. She would rather see the government force car manufacturers to increase the efficiency of cars and force more people to take public transport.

In fact, the UK government is not backing EU initiatives to move the percentage of renewable fuel up to 10 percent by 2020. Britain wants the EU to further study the impact renewables made from crops on soaring food prices and the clearing of land in developing countries to meet the growing demand for crops that can be turned into fuel.

Proponents of biofuel in the UK note that they have a code of practice that encourages sustainability, but acknowledge that the huge rise in ethanol production in the United States has caused a big jump in world corn (maize) prices.

"I think the food price shocks have been a combination of issues," said Clare Wenner of the Renewable Energy Association. "But perhaps the United States could have gone a little bit more slowly about it."

Michael Lewis, commodities expert at Deutsche Bank, adds that 60 percent of the worldwide growth in corn demand in the past year is all down to the U.S. turning corn into ethanol.

And since the production of renewables in the U.S. is helped by subsidies, it's cheaper for Europe to import biofuel produced in the American Midwest than grow it on European farms.

So Europe would like to grow more biofuel.

The European Commission said again Monday that there was plenty of underused agriculture land in member states, especially in new members, and this could be brought into production without cutting back on crops for human consumption.

Many people on both sides of the debate are pushing for a second generation of renewables from sources like wood waste, non-edible crops and crops that grow much faster.

These could replace fuels made from wheat, sugar, corn and palm oil, which themselves take a lot of energy to produce -- but this transformation could be five to 10 years away.

The pro-biofuel lobby says the growing controversy over current renewable fuels could push that timetable back. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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