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Re: HLPE consultation on the V0 draft of the Report: Biofuels and Food Security

Patrick Binns Westbrook Associates LLC, Estados Unidos de América
17.01.2013
Patrick  Binns

I appreciate the opportunity to provide comments and suggestions for improving the current draft of the Biofuels and Food Security report.  The team has done a good job of drawing attention to many of the critical issues and trade-offs that are involved with increased development of bioenergy resources.

However, I believe that the draft report would be significantly improved by addressing the potential benefit and contribution that locally produced, smaller scale bioenergy resources could provide to enhance overall food production and achieve sustainable food security.  Although the report mentions “the potential … to supply meaningful quantities of bioenergy for local consumption without greatly taxing the world’s land use.” (p 42); there is little discussion of this critically important observation!  One of the most severe limitations to improving agricultural productivity in the Developing World is the lack of modern energy fuels and electric power that are needed for farm mechanization, irrigation, production of inputs, post harvest storage and delivering food to markets.

There is a significant opportunity to increase smallholder farmer productivity through access to appropriate farming technologies and affordable biofuels that are produced in village-to-watershed scaled “biorefineries.”  The potential to increase crop yields per hectare through the judicious use of locally produced biofuels warrants discussion and endorsement in this report.  I am disappointed that the local production of biofuels to power farm and non-farm rural enterprises is often ignored in most assessments of the bioenergy versus food security question.

When considering options for local production of biofuels, the most feasible near term technologies tend to rely on converting 1st generation biomass feedstocks (e.g. sugar cane, starch crops, oilseed or palm oil, etc.) into energy dense liquid fuels.  While it is true that these feedstocks are also used for food or fodder; ethanol and biodiesel conversion technologies are relatively mature and within reach of being economically viable.   What we urgently need is greater attention to improving the design and engineering of smaller capacity systems and the adoption of sustainable, appropriately scaled feedstock cultivation practices.  It is also critically important to recognize that most of these processes produce by-products (e.g. oilseed meals, bagasse, etc.) that have substantial value as livestock feed, organic compost fertilizer and other uses.   A strategy to build distributed, rural biorefineries could effectively supply farmers with both fuel and by-product agricultural inputs that could increase farm productivity.

The report also ignores the bioenergy resources produced by anaerobic digestion or thermo-catalytic processes that convert livestock manure and organic wastes into biogas for use in process heat, mechanical power or electric power generation applications.   Rural biogas power generation and thermal energy value-added processing facilities would contribute to greater economic output and improved social services within rural communities.  These systems also produce valuable by-products in the form of organic fertilizers, livestock bedding materials and biochar soil amendments.  Organic composts and biochar can stimulate the ‘below ground biodiversity’ of beneficial microbes and fungi that are integral to soil fertility and promote plant growth and resiliency.  As with the local production of liquid biofuels, decentralized biogas facilities in rural areas would also provide farmers with economical access to energy services and valuable agricultural inputs.

I encourage the authors to provide greater discussion in the report of the fundamental role of retained crop residues in reducing soil erosion, contributing to soil organic carbon sequestration and recycling organic nutrients for continued soil fertility.  Far too often proponents of 2nd generation biofuels argue that crop residues (e.g. corn stover, etc.) are essentially ‘waste’ resources that have limited utility in food production systems.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The beneficial use of crop residues to protect and nourish arable topsoils (as well as to feed livestock) must be noted and accounted for in any assessment of the availability and ‘best use’ of such biomass resources for 2nd generation biofuels production.    If we fail to focus on the need for long term stewardship of our soils, humanity will not be able to achieve sustainable food security.

The authors have correctly emphasized that any assessment of the benefits and detriments of expanded production of biofuels must include consideration for how such development would impact humanity’s capability to achieve sustainable food security.  As this report notes, the production of all biomass resources, whether food or non-food, will require inputs of land, water and nutrients (and of course inputs of labor, capital and energy as well).  All of these inputs have competing uses; whether to produce food, feed and fiber; to convert to biofuels; or to recycle as organic nutrients and carbon to the agricultural or forest ecosystems from which they were sourced.  Even inedible cellulosic crop and forest residues, non-food crops and algae feedstocks must be considered within the context of finding optimum balances between the opportunity costs and benefits for these renewable, but still relatively limited photosynthetically generated resources.

Finally, I applaud the report’s attention given to the issues of social equity and ethical treatment of the rural poor whose livelihoods and survival are dependent upon access to land, water and other productive resources.   Far too often the rights and needs of these important members of our society are overlooked and ignored in pursuit of grand visions of industrial development and wealth creation.  The report’s discussion of social responsibility and its recommendation for objective certification of equitable and sustainable development of biofuels is an important contribution to improving global attitudes, policies and practices with regards to bioenergy development.

Patrick Binns

Westbrook Associates LLC
Seattle, WA   USA