Industry coalition demands U.N. panel withdraw report linking biofuels to food insecurity

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A coalition of renewable fuels producers is demanding that a U.N. panel withdraw a report earlier this year that linked high food prices to ethanol production.

The panel used a “mysterious process” to select members of the research team, ignored stakeholder feedback and did not disclose financial donors for the report, according to biofuel advocates from the United States, Europe and Canada who are arrayed in a Global Renewable Fuels Alliance.

“Sound science and an open, transparent, deliberative process that involves the public best inform effective policy,” the biofuel industry supporters wrote to the U.N. panel’s chairman. “It is unfortunate that the Biofuels and Food Security project has, so far, largely excluded or disregarded the views of industry stakeholders and the general public.”

The U.N. High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition released the report in June after a two-year review of the biofuel industry’s impact on food markets. It found the global increase in biofuel production over the past several years has played an “important” role in increasing food prices, as well as taken away land that could be used for other agricultural activities.

The report recommended that governments put in place biofuel policies that “shall not compromise food security” and address the industry’s impacts on land.

Members of the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance told HLPE Steering Committee Chairman M.S. Swaminathan that they had “grave concerns about the lack of transparency, openness, and scientific integrity” of the report. Signing the letter were U.S. Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen, European Renewable Fuels Association Secretary General Rob Vierhout, Canadian Renewable Fuels Association President Scott Thurlow and Global Renewable Fuels Alliance President Bliss Baker.

The group charges that the committee selected members of the project team in a “secretive” way and did not allow any biofuel industry experts to sit on the panel but instead chose a noted biofuels critic — Princeton University scientist Timothy Searchinger — who has previously authored widely referenced studies on the industry’s indirect land-use changes.

“While some members of the Project Team have exhibited a balanced, fair, and science-based approach to examining the socio-economic impacts of biofuels, others have demonstrated ideological bias against commercial agriculture and biofuel production,” the alliance said. “One Project Team member is a known detractor of large-scale agriculture and was the primary author of a highly controversial, outdated, and broadly rejected analysis of the hypothetical land use impacts of expanded biofuels production.”

The group also accuses the U.N. committee of overlooking suggestions from the public on the scope of the study and of using a questionable peer review process to externally review the report before publication.

The U.N. panel should withdraw the report until its “serious procedural shortcomings” are addressed and its financial backers are disclosed, the alliance wrote.

The high-level panel of experts is the research arm of the U.N. Committee on World Food Security, and reports are meant to inform the committee on policy decisions. In 2011, the food security committee requested that the HLPE carry out the biofuels study.

In an introduction to the June report, Swaminathan acknowledged the array of opinions on biofuels and defended the study’s methodology and selection of the project team.

“The Steering Committee of the HLPE attaches great importance to sound methodology and follows a rigorous analytical procedure,” he said. “This report has been produced by a Project Team appointed by the Steering Committee and under its oversight. The process is also open and transparent, and gives opportunities for a diversity of views, suggestions and criticism.”