Balancing Biofuel, Food Crops a Challenge for Britain Britain has been forced to seek a compromise between finding greener ways to fuel its economy and growing food to feed its population. A new law went into effect there Tuesday that requires 2.5 percent of all gasoline and diesel sold for any vehicle to come from biofuels.

Balancing Biofuel, Food Crops a Challenge for Britain

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

All this week, we're looking at the effects of rising food costs. And one thing that's helping pushing up those prices is the use of grain for biofuels. Starting this week in Britain, two and a half percent of all fuel for vehicles has to be biofuel. That percentage is supposed to increase in the coming years.

And critics initially found this too timid a response to global warming, but the current food shortage has some relieved that policies weren't more aggressive. NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

Ms. VALERIE SHAY (Bonnett's Bakery): Four pounds seventy, please.

(Soundbite of cash register)

ROB GIFFORD: The global food crisis has started to affect Bonnett's Bakery in the tiny town of Chatteris, just north of Cambridge in eastern England. Standing behind the counter serving wholesome whole meal loaves is Valerie Shay.

Ms. SHAY: The price of wheat has gone up, which affects the price of a loaf of bread, I'd say about 10, 15 percent rise on our bread.

GIFFORD: The trickle of customers into the bakery seem philosophical about the extra 40 or 50 cents on the cost of a loaf of bread, perhaps because unlike most of the developing world, where up to 80 percent of income can be spent on food, in Britain and much of Europe, that figure is more like 10 to 15 percent.

Europeans grumble a little, tighten their belts, cut down on luxuries and get on with it. But there's one group of Europeans who, for once, are not grumbling at all.

Mr. GEORGE MUNNS(ph) (Farmer): It'll just take a little bit of persuasion to get her started.

(Soundbite of engine starting)

GIFFORD: Forty-seven-year-old George Munns climbs on board his big green tractor on the 500 acres he farms just outside Chatteris. For decades, it's been tough for British farmers, as rock-bottom crop prices meant huge financial difficulties. But suddenly, in the last couple of years, with the rise in demand in China and India and poor harvests in places like Australia, all that has changed.

Mr. MUNNS: Wheat prices three years ago were around 60 pounds a ton. Now the spot price for wheat is around about 170.

GIFFORD: That tripling of the price Munns gets for his wheat has revitalized his farm as a business. And it's meant that while a few years ago he and neighboring farmers were looking at the possibility of growing crops for biofuels, now he's just not interested.

Mr. MUNNS: We won't do anything particularly to make biofuels here now, just because of the - it's just not worth it.

GIFFORD: Britain had turned much less land over to biofuels than other European countries such as Germany. But still, only two percent of European agricultural land is used to grow such crops, compared to between 20 and 30 percent in the United States. So, spokesman on agriculture at the European Union in Brussels, Michael Mann, believes the EU is a part of the solution to the world food shortage, not part of the problem.

Mr. MICHAEL MANN (Spokesman, Agriculture, European Union): We're seeing huge areas of land in countries that have recently joined the European Union coming into production that previously people left unplanted. We're also trying very hard to move into the second generation of biofuels, which don't use agricultural raw materials but use byproducts and waste products. And also, we will import a certain amount of our needs.

So we don't see the European Union biofuel policy will a major affect on food prices or food availability.

GIFFORD: John Alliston, dean of the School of Agriculture at Britain's Royal Agricultural College agrees. He says, of course the world does need to find a replacement for burning fossil fuels. But in the current dilemma, he said, Europe should stick to its strengths.

Professor JOHN ALLISTON (Dean, School of Agriculture, Royal Agricultural College): In mainland Europe, we are good at producing food because of the climate we have and because of the rainfall we get, and so that's that I think we should be doing. Maybe other parts of the world that produce sugar, perhaps, might want to produce the energy.

GIFFORD: The grim contradiction at the heart of this debate is that at present, at least, it seems impossible to move to greener ways of powering machines and simultaneously feed the world. Solving that contradiction is at the heart of what those in Europe and elsewhere are now trying to do.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Cambridgeshire, England.

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