Under pressure from international groups, the European Commission president requests data on whether raising crops for fuel has led to higher food prices
In the wake of mounting pressure from international organisations such as the World Bank and the United Nations World Food Programme, European Commission President Barroso has requested a study on whether there is any relationship between the recent skyrocketing of food prices around the world and biofuels.
"I have personally asked for a study on all aspects: the impacts on prices, the impact on agriculture, the impact on development, etc. All the aspects," said the president.
He made the comments following a meeting with Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme last Wednesday (17 April) but until now they had only been reported by the Belgian press.
"We must have the courage to re-examine our [biofuels] objectives," said Mr Leterme on the margins of the meeting with the commission president.
A spokesperson for the president confirmed on Thursday (24 April) that a study had been requested but said this is only to supply him with data on the relationship so he can form an opinion on the recent concerns about a link.
"The president is not however considering changing the ten percent biofuels target," said Mark Gray, a commission spokesperson.
"It is simply for the president to look at the data on a possible link with food prices."
Mr Gray refused to be drawn on whether the commission would publish the data gathered.
"We haven't ruled it in or out whether it could be published. It's for him to decide."
EU leaders last spring agreed that the EU should increase the use of biofuels in transport fuel to ten percent by 2020, up from a planned 5.75 percent target to be achieved by 2010.
Commission divided over biofuels target
The move comes amid speculation that there is a growing division within the commission over the question.
Last week, the commission's development chief, Louis Michel, speaking to the Belgian Senate, said that biofuels were a "catastrophe".
"I have long said that the fashion for biofuels could be a catastrophe especially in countries which are not self-sufficient in food," reported the Belga news agency.
Furthermore, last weekend, the UK's Guardian newspaper quoted a commission official saying: "The target is now secondary."
However, the following Monday, energy spokesperson Ferran Tarradellas denied that there was any reconsideration of the target.
On Tuesday (22 April), the Reuters news agency reported that during the commission's internal discussion on sustainability criteria for biofuels, environment commissioner Stavros Dimas and development chief Louis Michel had been on the one side, arguing for social criteria such as the link with food prices to be considered, but were shot down by energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs and trade commissioner Peter Mandelson.
And Thursday (24 April), agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel argued that biofuels cannot be the reason for rising food prices. Speaking at a hearing in Copenhagen, she said of the 2.1 billion tonnes of grain produced worldwide, only 0.1 billion tonnes are used for biofuels, Danish daily Politiken reported.
"This could not tilt the prices," she said.
However, Mr Gray categorically denied that there was any division. "There is unanimity on the subject and we have underscored that we are looking at second and third generation biofuel alternatives and that we are developing sustainability criteria for the rest."
A spokesperson for Mr Mandelson said: "The commissioner certainly raised the issue of food security and that it would have to be watched in any biofuels scenario."
"It wasn't as clear-cut as some articles in the media would make it out to be."
"The problem with social criteria is that you have to be very careful with WTO compatibility," he added.