Farmers block oil refineries and depots across France

Dozens of French farmers blocked access to 13 refineries across the country on Monday to protest plans to import palm oil for use in biofuels, a move they denounce as unfair competition which jeopardises their livelihood.

The blockage was described as "illegal" by French Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert.

It urged clients not to rush to petrol stations to fill their tanks, which could spark panic buying and shortages.

The minister called on angry protesters to sit for negotiations to reach "adequate solutions", insisting that the government would not back down on its decision to allow energy giant Total to import palm oil at a biofuel plant in La Mede, southeastern France. Environmentalists also blame palm oil cultivation for deforestation in southeast Asia.

Responding to a call by the National Federation of Agricultural Producers Unions and Young Farmers, the workers began yesterday the actions they will carry out for at least three days, and could be extended throughout the week.

"In South America the average cattle ranch has 24,000 cows, while in France we have on average just 80 - and yet we're always being told to be more environmentally friendly", said Christiane Lambert, president of the FNSEA farmers' union, France's biggest.

Total's decision was "the last straw", she said in an interview with Franceinfo television.

Palm oil is cheaper than rapeseed oil as a feedstock for biodiesel.

According to Deutsche Welle, they are also anxious about emerging competition, as local biofuel producers might want to go over to a cheaper palm oil from overseas instead of buying locally produced and more expensive rapeseed oil. French farmers say its growing use has added to their competitive disadvantage because of high taxes and strict environmental regulations in France. Some European lawmakers are pushing for a ban on palm oil use in biofuel, citing its effect on the environment.

Indonesia and Malaysia are the two largest producers of palm oil.

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