Scientists challenge food-vs.-fuel argument

A new report debunks public misperceptions about food security and biofuels development
By Ron Kotrba | June 15, 2016

A team of experts from 10 institutions released a new report, “Reconciling Food Security and Bioenergy: Priorities for Action,” that turns the food-vs.-fuel debate on its head by confronting some of the public’s misconceptions about the food security impacts of biofuels—and offers clarity on the source of these perceptions.

“It is important to acknowledge that public perception about the interaction of bioenergy, in particular biofuels, and food security is mostly negative,” the authors write. “Popular media reinforce beliefs reflected in the assumption used in economic models that biofuels produced from crops or on cropland compete with food production and increase food prices. Cartoons of hungry children juxtaposed to corn being ‘fed’ to cars have generated an emotional response to biofuel policies that is difficult to overcome ... Sensational news garners attention while subsequent corrections are overlooked.”

Some of the interesting points made in the report—points that refute recent reports such as Transport and Environment’s analysis of the Globiom findings that I discussed at length in early May—include, “despite ongoing population growth and deforestation, the total land area used to feed the world has remained steady since 1990. The average area of cropland used to feed one person has fallen from 0.45 hectares (ha) in 1961 to 0.22 ha in 2006 and is projected to be close to 0.19 ha at present, based on FAOStat 2015. At 0.19 ha per capita, 1.7 billion hectares, or about a third of all arable land available today, could feed the population of 9 billion projected for 2050.”

Furthermore, the authors note that “output from most agricultural land is far below potential yields. Thus, the land required to feed humanity is a fraction of that currently classified as agricultural.”  

The authors also say that when considering land, context is critical. “Local competition for land reflects historic inertia and can be politically and socially sensitive. Even though no further deforestation is required to feed humanity well into the future, deforestation continues due in part to poor understanding of the local causes. Effective policies to conserve natural areas do not require reducing food or biomass production but may involve incentives for efficient resource management and recycling of water and nutrients.”

One of the key goals of the report is to point out that food and energy security are complementary goals, as embodied in the United Nations-led 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and as also reflected in the Paris Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The authors outline a number of ways in which development-focused efforts to promote food security and secure clean and reliable sources of energy for local populations can align in a synergistic way.

The report identifies science-based steps to ensure that biofuels, food crops and natural resources can be managed sustainably together.

The report says the effects of bioenergy policies on food security could be strongly positive, if designed in the right way, and could help attract the kind of investments in agriculture that are sorely lacking in many of the developing countries that currently experience high-levels of hunger and poverty. The report also stresses that food and bioenergy don’t necessarily compete for land, and that land is often not the most critical factor affecting food security. The authors of the report ultimately challenge many of the arguments that have demonized the role of biofuels and bioenergy, within the food-vs.-fuel debate.

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

Co-author Jorge Antonio Hilbert of the Instituto de Ingeniería Rural INTA in Buenos Aires, Argentina, said, “Many negative views about food security and biofuels are based on the misinterpretation of terms and modeling.”

The report contains a number of conclusions that point to how bioenergy can promote food security. A key message relates to how infrastructure and marketing improvements can make agricultural markets work better, and simultaneously enhance the viability of bioenergy projects. Another major message relates to how flex crops could be promoted, that provide food in addition to other valuable co-products or uses that can contribute directly to bioenergy production.

A significant share of a country’s energy can be provided by biomass while also enhancing food production, according to the report. Glaucia Souza of the University of Sao Paulo said, “Brazil’s sugarcane ethanol program has demonstrated through a 40-year process of continuous monitoring, learning and adaptation that it is possible to couple increased incentives for land restoration and ecosystem services with enhanced food security and poverty reduction.”

Published in the journal Global Change Biology Bioenergy, the report is the final result generated by an international and multidisciplinary collaboration initiated at an international conference on Biofuels and Food Security, hosted by the International Food Policy Research Institute in November 2014.

Joining ORNL and IFPRI in preparing the report were 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; Stockholm Environment Institute Africa Centre, Nairobi, Kenya; BEE Holdings, Tampico, Mexico; and the World Bank.

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