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Right to eat comes before fuel, minister says

Mortiz Leuenberger says human rights cannot be sacrificed on "the altar of mobility"


An international conference is taking place in São Paulo, Brazil, to discuss biofuels and how promoting them could help solve global security and environmental issues.

In an interview with swissinfo, Environment and Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger explains the Swiss position: that the right to food comes before the right to mobility.

Organised by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the conference has attracted representatives of all United Nations member countries as well as scientists, academics, and business owners. The gathering, which runs until Friday, centres on "biofuels as a driving force of sustainable development".

Switzerland is one of the first countries to have equipped itself with laws that set specific criteria for fostering the development of biofuels. But Leuenberger explains why extracting energy from renewable organic matter isn't a silver bullet for the world's energy woes.

swissinfo: Are biofuels a problem or an opportunity?

Moritz Leuenberger: Both. At first, biofuels raised a lot of hopes. But now we see that they are more harmful than we thought at first. And we must not forget the problem of the land set aside for food production. That is why we need to correct certain misunderstandings and make a global assessment.

While the European Union is still looking for criteria to evaluate biofuels, in Switzerland we already have a set of criteria to determine whether the ecological assessment is positive or not.
According to our criteria, biofuels must be less polluting that those deriving from fossil fuels, not harm biodiversity and must respect the social conditions of workers

swissinfo: But we have to distinguish between different types of biofuel?

M.L.: Currently there is a lot of talk about the second generation of biofuels, particularly those based on vegetable waste. If this vegetable matter is not used to feed people or animals, then that would be a reasonable alternative.

But in this case we still have to ensure that the plants used are not being grown purely to produce biofuels. The principle role of plants is to feed, and that must be preserved.

swissinfo: What difference do you see between ethanol made from sugar cane in Brazil and ethanol made from maize in the United States?

M.L.: In principle, ethanol derived from sugar cane is better than that made with maize. But I say we must make a global ecological assessment.

There is still the problem of the social conditions of workers, which are sometimes unacceptable. And there is the risk that the land area under cultivation is increased by greater deforestation.

That is why we cannot give a general answer to this question, but must make an ecological and social assessment of each case. I cannot give a definitive answer. I do know that it is possible to produce bio ethanol under fair conditions, also in Brazil, and the aim of this conference is to highlight the differences.

swissinfo: Could Switzerland not produce its own biofuels?

M.L.: We already manufacture bioethanol from wood and biogas using our own technology. We should continue to develop this.

Small communes and enterprises are producing biogas in a very well organised way: people sort out their vegetable waste and the communes collect it for gas production. If large cities like Zurich or Bern decided to make it too, that would have a big impact. But these decisions are made by the communes and we cannot influence them.

swissinfo: Couldn't the production of biofuels be the answer to some of the problems experienced by Swiss agriculture?

M.L.: If it uses up vegetable waste, yes. But what I said for others also applies to us in Switzerland. The production of food destined for mobility is reprehensible from an ethical point of view.

swissinfo: When are we going to establish criteria at the international level and who will oversee them?

M.L.: One of the aims of the conference is to establish such criteria. They will not be defined in São Paulo but the event marks the beginning of a process moving in that direction.

swissinfo: What is Switzerland's message at this International Conference on Biofuels in São Paulo?

M.L.: It is that the right to live, the right not to go hungry and the right to food come before the right to mobility. You cannot sacrifice human rights on the altar of mobility. These principles are not directed against anyone. They are universal and valid for everyone.

Of course people also need to move. Moving around is the very sense of life itself. I am not defending immobility but you cannot sacrifice fundamental rights. So I say yes to mobility but it has to be a mobility that is sustainable. Biofuels can play an important role in that but it is necessary to channel their production in a sustainable way too.

swissinfo-interview: Claudinê Gonçalves

In brief

Less than half of the world's harvests are directly used for human consumption: 700 million tons are used for animal feed and 100 million tons are transformed into biofuels.

In Switzerland, biofuels represent 0.2 per cent of general fuel consumption. They cover 1.5 per cent of global needs.

The European Union is the largest producer and consumer of biodiesel. The diesel made from rapeseed, soja and palm nut provides 2 per cent of its needs. The EU aims to increase this to 10 per cent by 2020. That is the equivalent of 19 per cent of the global production of oil-producing plants.

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Biofuels are mainly produced from maize, rapeseed, soja, beetroot and sugar cane. It takes 200 kilograms of maize and 4,000 litres of water to produce 1 litre of ethanol.

In 2007, 52 billion litres of bioethanol were produced worldwide, three times more than in 2000. The main producing countries are the United States (27 billion litres), Brazil (19 billion), the European Union (2 billion) and China (2 billion).

The production of diesel made from agricultural raw materials reached 10 million litres in 2007, ten times more than in 2000. The largest producers are the EU (6 billion litres), the United States (2 billion litres), Indonesia (400 million litres), and Malaysia (300 million litres).

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