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

Land and Water Division FAO, Italy
FSN Forum

I.             Comments with regard to land:

The part on land tenure is done well. For example, the para:

“The justification for such investments lies in the notion of “available” land which is equated with unused and un-owned land. NGO and peasant organization mobilization have exposed this myth and it is now accepted that land which is the object of investment is normally land which is occupied by traditional communities under different forms of communal rights or as State land”.

Is exactly what we have tried to highlight as a result of our field projects and the evidences coming from the discussions stimulated by the  Land Portal initiative (  There is no available land, meaning land without people. Every single square meter of land has some sort of historical right (whose extension might be discussed, but it exists). This means that a serious participatory approach is needed, more than, as advocated by the authors, a simple compliance with the FPIC principles.  As is said later in the report, section on “SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF BIOFUELS:

Where profound asymmetries of power and economic resources exist, rights can be routinely trampled on. In addition, opportunism and corruption, which are endemic to modern governments and not the preserve of failed States, can cheat communities out of their rights while formally following the rules of the game. On the other hand, within traditional communities, co-option and opportunism are favored by patriarchal systems of authority. Empowerment, therefore and the promotion of a vigorous civil society are the pre-conditions for the ability to defend and negotiate rights”. (p. 49)

This is what FAO has been doing, through several types of concrete field approaches for both land and forestry communities: I do want to recall our (NRL) approach to Participatory and Negotiated Territorial Development (PNTD) and the Forestry approach  to Community Forestry. Similar approaches also exist for fishery communities.  What they have in common all these approaches is the fact that they start from the recognition of the centrality of the problem of asymmetries of power and therefore do have a pro-active position to work in order to mitigate it. Since this document will have an FAO logo, I do consider that it would be worth recalling what are FAO experiences and proposals, before going to other  proposals, like FPIC, which are certainly more fashion, but who clearly do not pretend to attack the core problem of asymmetries, therefore leaving the problem where it is.

II.            The part regarding the quantification of land and water resources needed for biofuels is not as good:

It is not clear how land and water use for biofuels is quantified. Both references and calculation methods are not clear. It appears that the writers are of the opinion that there are not enough land and water resources to grow more biofuels in the future than already done now. Whether this is true is not substantiated enough by evidence and references. Especially the part on water use for biofuels is weak. The report does not make distinction between irrigated and rainfed agriculture, between consumptive and non-consumptive use, between geographical locations and the different sources of water.

Please find below some more explicit comments on the most relevant sections in the report (focused on water use for biofuels).

Executive summary:

The first paragraph of the Executive summary of the report reads:

If 10% of all transport fuels, to date, were to be achieved through biofuels, this would absorb 26% of all crop production. At present, if we would use the totality of the world´s crops to produce biofuels, it would represent at most only 13% of the world´s primary energy, which, if inefficiencies in appropriation were included, would realistically be closer to 9%, and which in 2050 would only correspond to 4-6% world’s energy. This would further mobilize 85% of the world´s fresh water resources.

The least sentence, that 85% of the World’s fresh water resources is mobilized by crop production, is not true. Currently about 2.7 billion cubic kilometers are being withdrawn for irrigated crop production, which is about 6%. It is not clear to me where these 85% are coming from. Later on in the report (p41), a reference to Foley (2011) is mentioned, but this reference is still to be added to the references. It is likely that evapotranspiration by all agricultural land including, grasslands and production forest is meant, but even then these 85%  seem high. Also, the major part of the evapotranspiration is rainfed and taken directly from the soil and not from lakes, rivers and aquifers which form the world’s fresh water resources.

Policy recommendations:

Draft Policy recommendation 3:

3. The negative experience with jatropha has shown that the pressure on land provoked by biofuels is equally a pressure on water resources. Investments in land are increasingly being understood as simultaneously investments in water. Policy must now catch up with analysis and integrate land and water so that land concessions cannot be made without an evaluation of the impacts of land use on water resources.

Is a correct one in the sense that policies should not be made without an integrated analyses of the impacts of land use on water resources. However, it is not clear what jatropha has to do with it. Jatropha is used in the report as a negative example to show that no adequate production of non-food crops can come from marginal lands (of course this is no surprise to anybody who knows a bit about agricultural production).

Draft policy recommendation 11:

11. On the other hand, the wealth of biofuels case-studies reviewed in our Report shows the importance of shifting from a narrow biofuels to a more comprehensive bioenergy policy approach. In developing countries with vast hinterlands, the mobilization of biomass for different forms of bioenergy can be the most effective development strategy to provide electricity and alternative power for cooking, water management, and local productive facilities in addition to transport fuel.

It is not clear to me how the mobilization of biomass for bioenergy can be an effective development strategy to provide power for water management. No examples are given in the report.

4. Biofuels and land

In “4.1.1. Food and Feed Demand” reference is made to FAO’s perspectives study Agriculture towards 2050. However, no reference is made to the part regarding water use in agriculture. It is clear that the writers are not convinced by the results of this study. In particular the way the potential cropland is calculated (based on the GAEZ-model). According to report:

Yet, the FAO has itself warned that these estimates are overly generous for a variety of reasons. They ignore land with major soil constraints, which according to FAO includes 70% of all the otherwise suitable land in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. In addition, as early as 2003, the FAO warned that 60% of this land was covered by forests, protected areas or human settlements.

It would be good to add a reference to substantiate the above mentioned statement. To my knowledge of the GAEZ, soil constraints, forests and human settlements are deducted from potential suitable land.

Further on is written:

What remains rarely receives much mention, but, by process of elimination, the remainder consists of wetter savannas (those savannas capable of crop production) and sparser woodlands. It has become common to view these lands as somehow surplus (Lambin 2011). One joint World Bank/FAO study actively encourages their conversion to food production or bioenergy in sub-Saharan Africa (Morris 2009; Deninger 2011). But tropical savannas and sparse woodlands have large quantities of carbon and high levels of biodiversity (Searchinger 2011b; Gibbs 2008). Their conversion would result in substantial environmental losses.

This statement may be true but it is beyond the scope of the report. The same is true for the statement:

Although the prospect probably exists to expand agricultural land if necessary to meet food needs, that would run counter to global goals to maintain carbon stores to resist global warming.

In “4.1.2 Bioenergy” some calculation are done on how much crop production is necessary for the provision of bioenergy. These calculations are ambiguous. It says that:

producing 10% of the world’s transportation fuel by 2020 would require 26% of the world’s crops today and If 100% of all the world’s harvested biomass were devoted to bioenergy, that would yield probably on the order of 30% of the world’s energy supply today If statement 1 is true, 100% of crop production would provide about 40% of the world’s transportation fuel in 2020. But total energy supply is much more than only transportation fuels, so I cannot imagine how both statements can be true.

In the same section there is the earlier mentioned statement on the 85% of water resources that are withdrawn. Also an explanation is provided on the energy inefficiency of the photosynthesis which is difficult to follow. It is especially not clear how energy content of crops are measured.

On page 47 is written:

Recent research has shown that many of the jatropha projects have now been abandoned or have been replaced by food crops as it is becoming clear that jatropha needs both water and modern inputs if it is to achieve acceptable productivity levels (Friends of the Earth, 2010, African Biodiversity Network, 2010) . Tim Williams (2012), from the International Water Management Institute, has insisted that while water is in fact the key resource, land deals are negotiated without explicitly taking into account the water implications of large-scale projects because land and water are subject to different regulatory systems and different governmental responsibilities. Large-scale projects can lead to water being overdrawn, to the diversion and the drying up of water sources. Women as water providers can be particularly prejudiced as they often have to travel greater distances to find water sources. In addition, large-scale monoculture may modify rainfall patterns.

The part of Tim Williams saying that land deals should take into account explicitly water implications of large scale projects is a very important point. This point should probably be made more explicit, and be placed out of the context of Jatropha and the fact that women have to travel longer distances to fetch water. Also the remark that large scale monoculture may modify rainfall patterns is not relevant here.

Thank you.