Renewable Matter # 3 / April

Vandana Shiva: 'No Land Just for Biofuels'

by Roberto Giovannini, interview with Vandana Shiva

The Navdanya leader points out that there is a difference between agro-industrial monocultures cultivated for replacing fossil fuels and local production of fuels from biomass. The first model must be condemned because it incentivizes waste while the second offers a chance of reusing products that could otherwise become waste.


There is no such thing as a “good” biofuel deriving from a crop cultivated for energy. According to Vandana Shiva, a physicist and founder of the Navdanya (nine crops) Movement, all biofuels that take land from the food production or, even worse, that derive from grains or other crops intended for human consumption, must be condemned because they reintroduce a model based on subsidies, energy waste and an evil agro-industrial logic. The Indian scientist explains that this must not be confused with local reusing and recycling of agricultural by-products to produce energy and from which biofuel cannot be obtained. She tells Renewable Matter that “on the contrary, these practices are extremely useful and necessary and they must be promoted and spread if we want people to go back to the countryside and work the land and being able to achieve lasting food security”.


It was said that the 2008-2009 food crisis, besides a series of climatic and meteorological circumstances, was also due to the subtraction of land to food production in favour of biofuels. What has changed since then? Is there greater awareness?

“First of all we must make it clear that all biofuels, that is liquid fuels deriving from biomass, are the same. A distinction must be made between agro-industrial monocultures intended for the production of fuel to run cars or in general to replace fossil fuels and the local and widespread production of fuels from biomass, a characteristic of the Third World. What happened a few years back was a combination of factors: first, the subtraction of land for food production to cultivate wheat to produce ethanol and soya, palm trees and rape to obtain biodiesel. Second, the speculative wave, which followed the 2008 financial and housing market collapse, launched an attack on land and raw materials. Last, the fact that the subtraction of land for food production in favour of biofuel could not exist if not heavily subsidized in the USA and in Europe. Unfortunately, these three factors are still contributing to this phenomenon. They have been neither reduced nor eliminated.”


In Europe, they have started to think to reuse marginal lands that in the past, many years ago, were used by farmers, but that are now no longer profitable and are more or less abandoned. In some cases, there are investors who are interested in industrial crops to produce biofuel. What is your take on that?

“Land is ‘abandoned’ simply because agriculture has been deliberately made unprofitable through subsidizing mechanisms and by shifting profitability to the production of animal feeds and biofuels rather than crops intended for human consumption. If we take a look at the entire food production system, this land and its production are not useless or in surplus, but it is considered so because farming families have been put in a position where they can no longer cultivate the land. This is outrageous, especially for Italy and all Southern European countries.”


What are the reasons that make this phenomenon even worse for Mediterranean countries?

“We know that in Europe, the economic downturn hit particularly hard Southern European countries. In Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal the worst problem is youth unemployment, but nobody has considered giving land to young people, thus creating both employment and food at the same time. Yet, this would be the obvious thing to do: creating both jobs and food security – with local, organic and healthy produce – rather than deliberately ravaging agriculture through subsidies. I have no qualms about calling it ‘European-style land grabbing’.”


So, there is no difference between a field of jatropha in Mozambique and a field of shrubs cultivated for the production of biofuel in Europe.

“From a land, a soil point of view, it is exactly the same thing, so to speak, and it is the same thing from a human and society perspective. Of course, poverty is much worse in Mozambique, but there is a new type of poverty in Europe, and it is definitely of a cruel kind.”


However, for many it looks like the right choice, even from a climate change point of view, leaving fossil fuel buried and shifting towards biofuels...

“Do some people really think that the current system based on fossil fuels and high energy consumption can be maintained simply by shifting the pressure from fossil fuels to biomass? It is impossible: it would require subtracting every single piece of land to food production. The reality is that we waste too much energy and we are convinced that energy consumption is an indicator of progress for our society and our economy. We must adopt a radical change of the energy model based on powering down, relying on renewables that do not put our planet under pressure. We must also understand that there is already a food crisis even in Europe.”


Apparently it would not seem so...

“But this is the case: Europe imports GMO soy from Argentina, Brazil and the USA to feed its animals. As I said before, instead, you should use land to create employment and food security.”


At the beginning, we talked about “good” biofuels. In Italy, more and more commercial farms use discarded agricultural biomass to generate heat, energy or biofuels. Are these practices also questionable or negative?

“Absolutely not. Quite the opposite, they are good, necessary and effective both in Low-Tech countries and in the most advanced ones. In reality, it is something that has been used for centuries: local reuse of agricultural waste to generate energy in a closed-loop system. I am against using large-scale, monoculture systems to generate liquid biofuels for the industrial sector and based on public subsidies necessary to make them economically viable. This hurts the land, the soil, the agricultural economy because it maintains a system that should be abandoned in favour of another based on renewables and recycling.”


You know Italy and its agricultural landscape very well. We are aware that many small farmers struggle to make ends meet despite European and national subsidies available. What can we do to reverse this trend and attract people back to agriculture?

“Once again, I would make a marked distinction between subsidies – that in reality do not go to farmers, only a tiny fraction, but to agribusiness – and the rather nominal meagre support enjoyed by small commercial farms. Let us take milk as an example. For small farmers, production costs are greater than revenues from sale on the market, but thanks to subsidies, the situation is exactly the opposite for big producers. A mechanism that weakens the former and benefits the latter. Instead, we should ban subsidies to agribusiness and help small famers. We should abandon the so-called free market logic that in reality offers freedom only to big corporations while holding farmers and consumers captive. A more direct and effective relationship between those who grow food and those who consume it is also needed. In Italy, the ‘Km 0 Movement’ has been hampered by EU regulations. For example, attempts to serve food produced locally in school canteens have been hampered by Brussels because this would go against trade liberalisation. In other words, the liberalisation logic clashes directly with the need of people to produce and consume food locally. Land cannot be just a raw material that can be grabbed scot-free, especially when it is one of the most secure and profitable ones. We must tackle the problem of land access with courage, above all for the young. This will also be discussed in the Manifest that the Navdanya Movement will present at the EXPO in Milan.”