Intellectual Honesty

By Robert Vierhout | February 14, 2013

Over €51 billion ($68.6 billion) turnover. Almost €5 billion net profit. These are the core 2012 annual results of Dutch/British food company Unilever, the company that is big in selling small ice creams. Impressive results in times of economic crisis and circumstances that they describe as bringing “intense competition and volatile commodity costs.” The other Big EU Food producer Nestlé has not yet published its annual results, but in the first six months it already showed a net profit of €4 billion. I assume it will be double by the end of 2012. With this level of turnover and profit, I am surprised that these two companies maintain their aggressive views on biofuels.

Recently the Nestlé chairman, who also is member of the board of ExxonMobile and chairman of Formula One, said to Reuters that biofuels helped boost food prices. Very likely his company is more to blame for higher food prices than any biofuel producer in the world. In any case, Nestlé’s profit did not suffer from higher commodity prices and Nestlé wasn’t forced to shut down plants because of the drought we had last year. He is quoted saying that “it is really unbelievable that when we have insufficient food in our world that we give it to cars.” This shows the man’s lack of intellectual honesty.

As usual, he is mixing up commodities and food on purpose. He knows that the corn and wheat for biofuel is all feed quality and doesn’t impinge on the Mexican tortilla or a loaf of bread. But besides this fact, he is ignoring that this year the world is producing a huge mountain of 2.2 billion metric tons of grain (USDA data). That is more than the world population can eat. If people do not have access to food, it is because they cannot afford it. This is where Big Food is intellectually not honest.

We see the same lack of intellectual honesty in the first draft report on biofuels and food security produced by a group of so-called experts for the United Nation Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on World Food Security. The experts were asked to “conduct a science-based comparative literature analysis ... of the positive and negative effects of biofuels on food security.” Maybe, in the expert’s brief, the word “positive” was deleted for it has become one long witch-hunt against biofuel policy all over the globe.

The report is not the literature review requested and far from scientific. I have been looking for a methodology to justify the literature referenced but couldn’t find any methodology. Nor could I find a section on coproducts and the implication for feed/food supply—an item not to be swept under the carpet, when one assesses biofuels and food security. A major 550-page-plus FAO study on biofuel coproducts issued last year doesn’t appear anywhere in the references. It is an opinionated, selective report drafted by a group of people of whom some have never ever said one positive word on biofuels in their life. It is shocking that the FAO is allowing this sort of biased report to be drafted.

The global biofuels industry needs to take this report seriously, even the fact that it has been drafted. For me, this is a warning sign that we can expect a new wave of attacks on biofuel policy later this year. As usual, several NGOs will use this report to claim that the most important international organization on food affairs wants biofuel policy to stop. They will not care if the report is biased. For them intellectual honesty doesn’t matter either. Stopping biofuel justifies whatever means it will take—even if that involves spinning and telling half-truths, using methods that go against the moral integrity these organizations claim to embrace.

Author: Robert Vierhout
Secretary-general, ePURE
[email protected]