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29 June 2016

Is there a role for bioenergy in the global fight against hunger?

Photo by  Marcus Kauffman via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Photo by Marcus Kauffman via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A paper by an international team including SEI’s Francis X. Johnson argues that with good programme design, biofuel production can boost overall agricultural yields and food security.

Bioenergy is a key element of many countries’ climate strategies – including liquid biofuels, which are blended into petrol and diesel to reduce transport-sector emissions. For countries with agrarian economies, biofuel production can also drive development and reduce dependency on oil imports.

Yet beginning with the spike in food prices of 2007–08, bioenergy and especially biofuels have faced strong opposition. Critics have argued that energy-sector demand will make crops such as maize too costly for people who depend on them for food. There are also concerns about demand for land for energy crops displacing food production, forcing subsistence farmers off their land, and driving deforestation.

A new paper published in the journal GCB Bioenergy argues that it’s time to move past the “food vs. fuel” debate and instead focus on how to maximize the benefits of biofuel and bioenergy programmes for both energy and food security. The key, the authors find, is to follow comprehensive sustainability guidelines and to understand and adapt to the local context.

The paper argues that many of the analyses and news stories about biofuels and food insecurity have been “simplistic” and misleading, because “they obscure the main drivers of local food insecurity and ignore opportunities for bioenergy to contribute to solutions”.

For example, many have blamed the global price spike in food and commodities in 2007–08 on the rapid expansion of ethanol production in the United States and Brazil, the paper notes. Yet other studies have attributed the spike to oil prices, trade policies and other factors. Moreover, global biofuel consumption kept rising, but cereal prices fell or fluctuated in different patterns.

The authors stress that context matters greatly for understanding food security, and in determining the effect that energy policies (or other factors) might have on it. Well-designed bioenergy policies can greatly benefit food security, they argue – and they can help attract much-needed investments in agriculture in developing countries that currently experience high levels of hunger and poverty.

“It is a mistake to ignore local costs and benefits of biofuels based on generalized assertions or global models,” said Keith Kline, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL) Climate Change Science Institute. “Reliable information about the actual local effects is essential, but has been lacking in food-biofuel-climate debates.”

A multi-faceted issue

Francis X. Johnson, a senior research fellow in SEI’s Africa Centre and co-author of the paper, said biofuel production can improve or hinder food security – “the scientific analysis shows one cannot easily generalize”.

“More demand for maize, for example, may lead to higher prices, which could affect poor people in cities who buy their food instead of growing it,” he said. “But for the rural poor, biofuels can offer a means of income diversification, if they can connect into markets. It is also important to remember that only 2% of biomass goes to biofuels, while almost 60% goes to animal feed – so demand for meat in developed and emerging economies is a much bigger factor in global markets.”

The report identifies science-based steps to ensure that biofuels, food crops and natural resources can be managed sustainably together. A key message is that infrastructure and marketing improvements can make agricultural markets work better and simultaneously enhance the viability of bioenergy projects. The authors also highlight the benefits of promoting “flex crops” that provide food as well as other valuable co-products or uses that can contribute directly to bioenergy production.

Brazil is mentioned several times in the paper as an example of achieving synergies between food and energy production. “The Brazilian ethanol programme revived the Brazilian sugar industry and spun off into a variety of improvements across Brazilian agriculture,” said Johnson. “The sugarcane agro-industry investments resulted in new capacity not only in the sugarcane sector but across many allied sectors and in those agricultural sectors that shared various common features. Brazil became a major agricultural exporter and eliminated or significantly reduced problems with food security.”

Another example, Johnson said, is when certain crops, such as cassava, are produced in far greater supply than the demands of the food market. The surplus is used to make bioethanol for local use and helps to diversify farmers’ incomes. This approach has been used in Thailand and Nigeria.

“Biofuels are part of the future bio-economy, so it is just a question of where and when they are appropriate and valued,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately the debate has become politicized: by governments pushing for rural development, by advocacy groups seeking to get attention and increase donations, and by businesses seeking to expand markets for their favoured options.

“The result is an unstable investment environment that creates a boom-and-bust cycle,” Johnson added. “If biofuels are to play a useful role in the overall sustainability transition, economic (as opposed to political and social) governance should receive more emphasis, including business models, long-term contracts and other mechanisms to guide markets to the more effective and efficient biofuel options. Only by de-politicizing biofuels can we find their appropriate role.”

The paper is the final knowledge product generated by an international and multidisciplinary collaboration that was initiated at an international conference on Biofuels and Food Security, hosted by the International Food Policy Research Institute in November 2014.

The paper summarizes “our collective knowledge and understanding of how the goals of promoting access to clean and reliable energy can go hand-in-hand with efforts to alleviate poverty and eradicate hunger,” said IFPRI Senior Research Fellow Siwa Msangi, who chaired the conference and is a co-author of the paper. The messages also resonate with IFPRI’s recently launched 2016 Global Food Policy Report, he said, which devotes a chapter to energy and food security.

Along with IFPRI and SEI, the paper’s authors include researchers from the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, UK; University of São Paulo and the São Paulo Research Foundation Bioenergy Program BIOEN, Brazil; Delft University of Technology and the University of Twente, The Netherlands; Institute of Rural Engineering, National Institute of Agricultural Technology, Argentina; BEE Holdings, Tampico, Mexico; and the World Bank.

Read the paper (external link to journal)

Originally published by Stockholm Environment Institute

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