Gordon Brown raised fresh concerns about the impact of biofuels yesterday, as he put rising food prices on the world agenda by writing to fellow G8 leaders to prepare an international package on food scarcity.
He wants the issue to be on the agenda of the G8 summit in Japan in July, and said he had concerns about the way in which the rush towards environmentally questionable biofuels might displace much-needed food production.
He is also likely to discuss the issue with US leaders when he meets them in Washington and New York next week. He wants the IMF and World Bank to engage on the issue this year. The US has taken a more enthusiastic approach to biofuels as a way of tackling climate change.
In a letter to the Japanese prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, setting out a plan to address the food crisis, Brown wrote: “There is a growing consensus that we need urgently to examine the impact on food prices of different kinds and production methods of biofuels, and ensure that their use is responsible and sustainable.”
Britain is introducing subsidies for biofuels, but acknowledged the concerns of environmentalists when the transport secretary, Ruth Kelly, commissioned a review into their impact in February.
At the EU level, Brown has opposed an increase in biofuel targets, expressing his concern at their impact on deforestation, precious habitats and on food security. The letter from Brown, released today, follows a warning on Tuesday by the UN’s top humanitarian official, Sir John Holmes, that food prices could spark worldwide unrest and threaten political stability.
Brown’s concern in part stems from advice given by his chief scientific adviser, John Beddington, that the effects of the food crisis would bite more quickly than climate change. Food prices have risen 57% in a year, according to the UN’s food and agriculure organisation. The price of rice has doubled, prompting countries to slow exports. Price rises have been attributed to the speed of growth in countries such as China.
A World Bank report yesterday claimed that biofuel consumption had helped push global food prices up by 83% in the past three years, and would drive inflation and strain developing economies into the next decade.
In his letter Brown said: “Rising food prices threaten to roll back progress we have made in recent years on development. For the first time in decades, the number of people facing hunger is growing.” He called for a redoubling of “our efforts for a WTO trade deal that provides greater poor country access to developed country markets”. “Market incentives” would close the gap between world cereal supply and demand in the longer term.
Proposing “social safety nets for the poorest”, he said: “We may need to increase … the scale of our support for humanitarian programmes.”