AS THE price of food has risen in recent months, public enthusiasm for biofuels has dimmed.
However, yesterday the European commissioner responsible for Agriculture, Mariann Fischer Boel, accused the media of making biofuels a scapegoat in the issue of rising food prices.
She said: "The storm of media comment about biofuels has become louder and louder to the point where it is difficult to hear real debate above the shriek of the wind."
Fischer Boel said the main driver of the surge in food prices was the increased demand from China and India for meat products. This move from a largely vegetarian lifestyle into one where meat eating was important had increased the demand for cereals by the livestock sector.
She also said bad weather in all the main agricultural regions of the world in the latest growing season had knocked yields. This was made more acute by an overall reduction in the acreage cropped.
While admitting that food prices were suddenly rising, the commissioner pointed out that in real terms, cereal prices were less than half today than those of 1975.
Although Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, has stepped back from the target of meeting 10 per cent of the nation's transport fuel needs from biofuel sources by 2020, Fischer Boel described this as a binding target. Failure to comply would leave a number of problems such as a fragmented internal market with some countries meeting their targets and others doing nothing.
Likewise, a lack of determination in meeting the renewable target would inevitably reduce the impetus for bringing forward more sophisticated products in the renewable energy market.
The 10 per cent level of renewable fuel would neither push up the price of food nor see a massive increase in land sown into biofuel crops, she said.
Also helping the equation was a predicted yield increase in cereals, providing an annual additional tonnage of grain of about 34 million tonnes by the end of the next decade, according to Fischer Boel. The abandonment of set-aside, which has taken land out of production for the past decade, would add an estimated 12 to 15 million tonnes of cereals to annual production.
The commissioner teasingly hinted at potential biotech benefits, saying: "I will not mention the huge value that genetically modified crops could have."
In addition, many of the biofuel crops produce large tonnages of animal feed as a by-product. Oilseed rape, for example, following the extraction of oil, leaves a meal that is much in demand in the pig industry.
Even outside the EU, the commissioner said, the increased value of food was good news for those who live in rural areas throughout the world – they would benefit from increased income.
Admittedly, some of the poorer people would suffer through not being able to afford food, but the answer to that, according to Fischer Boel, lay in more effective targeting of aid.
Fischer Boel said the current storm over the cost of food had smothered the rationale for increasing the amount of renewable energy used in Europe.
She said: "Our transport sector is a heavy polluter. It is responsible for more than 20 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change in the EU. These emissions are increasing faster than any other single source of pollution."