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To feed or to fuel? 

  • 22 June 2022

By Francisca Marques Jesuit Missions Journalist

The fact that food such as wheat, maize and oilseeds can be converted into fuel for cars and machines may surprise most people. Biofuel presents itself as an alternative to the very polluting fossil fuels, which undoubtedly have benefits in a world facing serious climate problems. However, the development of this industry has posed new challenges that are acute now more than ever when the world is facing a global food crisis.  

If biofuel was produced using non-edible food waste it could be a very effective solution. However biofuel is made from ingredients which are essential for the food security of millions of people. Therefore, at a moment when people all over the world are facing major challenges to feed themselves, maintaining the high production of biofuel might lead to disaster.  

“Human beings are more important than fuel” 

Kevin Ouko is the Research and Policy Analyst at the Jesuit Justice and Ecology Network in Africa (JENA) and has been following issues relating to food and fuel closely. During an interview with Jesuit Missions, Ouko explains that things can get very bad very soon in all of Africa, including Kenya, where he is currently. 

“Global food crisis has been aggravated by the climate change issues, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and the Covid-19 pandemic”, says the expert. A statement in line with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ view that “…the war, together with other crises, could unleash an unprecedented wave of hunger and economic collapse around the world”.  

Guterres called for the flow of food and grain from Ukraine and Russia to continue so that the supply chain of wheat and maize might stabilise. Yet, at the same time this appeal is being made, many G7 countries – who will be meeting from 26 June in Germany – are buying the remaining wheat for use in the production of biofuels. In fact, Europe is currently changing 10,000 tonnes of wheat – the equivalent of 15 million loaves of bread – into ethanol for use in cars every day. 

No doubt biofuels play an important role in the transition to a low-carbon economy, however, the choice being made by many countries is putting cars ahead of people. “The debate over food versus fuel has been going on since the early 2000s when fuel production from food stock began. Since then, the production has been increasing significantly, but no one wants to acknowledge the challenges it poses”, states Kevin Ouko, concluding that “human beings are more important than fuel. We must look at the trade-offs of producing biofuel”. 

“It will not take much more time, before people starve” 

Worldwide, there is a great deal of concern over the global food crisis. Jesuit Missions received very worrying reports from our partners in Burundi and Malawi. “Our resources have not increased, but prices have gone up. It will not take much more time, before people starve. I would say that life, in general, has become more difficult”, reveals Fr Verdaste, from the Service Yezu Mwiza. 

In Malawi, a large part of  the economy relies heavily on Russia and Ukraine, as well as the US, for its wheat.  According to the Projects Officer at Jesuit Centre for Ecology and Development in Kasungu, the country imports two thirds (Laborde and Pineiro, 2022) of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. “If the country does not find alternate suppliers, severe shortages are expected”, states Martha Piri. This may lead to the question of whether all food should be dedicated to feeding people instead of producing fuel. And as usual, poor people are the most affected by economic hardships. According to Phiri, “maize prices will have a much greater impact on the poor, as a source of 68% of calories and approximately 36% of total food purchased”.  

There have been a number of organisations raising awareness about this issue, including Jesuit Missions, which has launched its “Food not Fuel” campaign. This is a petition which is urging the British Prime Minister to discuss this topic during the 48th G7 summit, which takes place between June 26th and 28th. 

Sign the petition now: