Nuffield Council calls for ‘ethical suitability’ for agrofuels

Nuffield Council calls for ‘ethical suitability’ for agrofuels

See also DTE agrofuels update, July 2011

Pressure on European Union Member States to achieve climate change policy targets has led to the adoption of policies promoting a sharp increase in agrofuels use and the reliance on imported agrofuels to meet targets. international concern has primarily focused on the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agrofuels production, particularly from indirect land use change (ILUC). 1 Meanwhile governments have failed to address the worsening ethical and human rights implications of Europe’s agrofuels policies. As a result, communities in agrofuel producer countries, which are often the most economically and socially vulnerable, are suffering the environmental and social impacts of Europe’s rush to achieve the EU’s renewable energy targets.

Following an 18 month inquiry, The Nuffield Council on Bioethics2 recently published a report (Biofuels: Ethical issues) which aims “to provide a framework of evaluation on the basis of which more ethical production of current biofuels and the emerging biofuels production systems can be established”.3 Section 4.12 of the Nuffield Report argues that “biofuels production breaches basic human rights when it endangers local food security or displaces local populations from the land they depend on for their daily subsistence.” 4 The report places responsibility with the policies themselves, stating that they encourage unethical practices5 by leading to extreme rapid adoption and lack of consideration for longer term environmental and human rights impacts.

The Council recommends an ethical framework to evaluate agrofuels development and guide policy making. It also highlights the need for international ethical standards, which should be guided by a set of 6 ethical principles that the production of domestically produced and imported agrofuels should adhere to. The principles state that:

  1. Agrofuels development should not be at the expense of people’s essential rights (including access to  sufficient food and water, health rights, work rights and land entitlements)

  2. Agrofuels should be environmentally sustainable.

  3. Agrofuels should contribute to a net reduction of total greenhouse gas emissions and not exacerbate global climate change.

  4. Agrofuels should develop in accordance with trade principles that are fair and recognise the rights of people to just reward (including labour rights and intellectual property rights).

  5. Costs and benefits of biofuels should be distributed in an equitable way.

  6. If the first five principles are respected and if biofuels can play a crucial role in mitigating dangerous climate change then, depending on certain key considerations, there is a duty to develop such biofuels.

The EU has an ethical responsibility to act immediately to change legislation to include human rights considerations. To ensure ethical practice, the Nuffield Council advises that agrofuel production should be compliant with a mandatory certification scheme, similar to the Fairtrade6 scheme. Under the scheme, agrofuels would be tested against a checklist of ‘ethical suitability’, based on the 6 ethical principles, and should only be considered for use when production systems fulfil these ethical standards.

It remains to be seen how the Commission will balance industry interests with ethical and environmental concerns about agrofuels impacts. Industry pressure to maintain voluntary sustainability certification schemes could weaken policy developments aimed at taking into account the human rights implications of Europe’s growing demand for agrofuels. A group of European NGOs have filed a lawsuit against the European Commission following the Commission’s refusal to provide access to information about these voluntary certification schemes.7

The Nuffield report reinforces the need for immediate action to reform current agrofuel policies so that they address ethical considerations. Under principle 5: ‘Equitable Distribution’, the report recommends that financial losses or gains should not be the only consideration in the production of agrofuels. It states that distributive inequity, where benefits in one policy area or one society may generate losses in others, should be addressed as a moral responsibility. For example, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which assist European nations to be compliant with climate change policy should not come at the cost of environmental damage or the human rights of workers and communities in poorer or more vulnerable countries or damage to biodiversity, whilst delivering benefits for climate change in the developed world.

The Commission is currently reassessing agrofuel policy options to address sustainability and ILUC issues. The result of these considerations is likely to be set into new legislation in July this year. It is essential that the Commission recognises the intrinsic link between sustainability and human rights issues in relation to agrofuel production, considering as a priority the ethical implications of EU agrofuels policy impacts on developing and vulnerable communities.

1 For an explanation of direct and indirect land use change see DTE's January 2011 agrofuels policy update.

2 The Nuffield Council is an independent body that was set up 20 years ago to assess ethical issues raised by developments in biology and medicine. For more information visit:

3 Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Biofuels:Ethical Issues. April2011. Sumary and recommendations: Introduction and overview. Point 8.

4 Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Biofuels:Ethical Issues. Chapter 4: Ethical Framework, Section 4.12:

6 Fairtrade is a global certification mark which aims to address the injustices of conventional trade by creating better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. For more information visit: