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

Stephen Thornhill Dept of Food Business & Development, University College Cork, ...
30.01.2013
Stephen Thornhill

Firstly I would like to congratulate the team on the very interesting and thought-provoking zero-draft.

With reference to the CFS brief, my overall impression is that the draft provides a very useful analysis of the negative effects of biofuels on food security, but contains relatively little on positive impacts.

For example, our field research of biofuel operations in Mozambique and Tanzania found that households with paid employees in such operations were far more food secure, both from a calorie and micronutrient status, than other households in the same locality (and had shown the greatest improvement in food security since the operations were established)[1].

The other main impression drawn is the tendency toward generalizing about biofuels, particularly with regard to policy recommendations. We know that some biofuels are more efficient than others. Brazil has been producing cane-based ethanol since the 1970s without any major criticism of its impact on food security, and we know that cane is, for the most part[2], an efficient biofuel feedstock for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as are a number of other feedstocks. Calling for an end to blending targets or mandates on these types of biofuel could be regarded as counterproductive to reducing global warming and food insecurity.

Furthermore, the cane-ethanol sector in Brazil has provided employment, helping to alleviate poverty and improve food security in many rural areas. This has been replicated in other countries, as illustrated by a study in Thailand showing how the ethanol sector there contributes far more jobs than the oil industry per unit of energy output, reducing the country’s oil import bill and helping to raise food productivity through spillover impacts[3]. Another recent report by the Stockholm Environment Institute suggests that cane ethanol production could be significantly increased in Malawi to help alleviate fuel shortages, due to the high import price of oil, and reduce deforestation.

Much criticism has, of course, been aimed at US maize-based ethanol due to its relatively low efficiency in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and, perhaps more importantly, due to its influence on world food prices. As the US is the leading global exporter of maize, the US price generally denotes the world market value for maize, so the sharp increase in US ethanol demand is assumed to have had a significant impact on the rise in maize prices around the world.

However, much would also depend on how US supply increased to match ethanol demand, and the USDA suggests that a significant part of the rise in supply was due to additional plantings and multi-cropping by farmers and the use of higher yielding varieties[4], as well as a swing away from soybeans and other crops. This, together with the substantial amount of co-product outputs going back into the food and feed sector (both in the US and as exports to countries like China), would have dampened the price-raising impact of increased ethanol demand and limited the amount of maize diverted from animal feed and other markets. Indeed, it could be argued that these feedstuffs would not have been produced without the biofuel policy incentives, although it is impossible to tell how US maize supply and demand would have evolved without biofuels.

Then there is the point made by the FAO AgriMarket team, PANGEA and others that US maize price changes are not necessarily reflected in the markets where food insecurity prevails. And there is also the fact that (as stated in the draft) some rural farmers would benefit from rising prices as net sellers. Our research showed evidence of a multiplier effect where biofuel operations had been newly-established, introducing effective demand into a locality and encouraging increased food production by local farmers. Indeed, Swinnen and others rightly point out that NGOs and others lobbied against artificially depressed world cereal prices for many years, which acted as a disincentive for food production in many developing countries.

So, whilst the US maize ethanol policy may indeed have contributed to the rise in world maize prices, its impact on food security may not be as adverse as first appears. More importantly we need to find the right balance in the level and stability of food prices, which would provide an incentive for farmers in food insecure countries to raise productivity, whilst providing affordable food to consumers.

It is also important to acknowledge and support biofuels used for providing energy in rural and remote areas, as well as clean cooking stoves to reduce the many deaths caused by indoor smoke inhalation, and the hours spent in collecting fuelwood by so many people in the developing world, as well as reducing deforestation.

Regarding the policy recommendations, it would be important to ensure that beneficial biofuels and investments are encouraged, whilst those biofuels providing limited or negative benefits for GHG emissions, food security and other key socio-environmental issues (eg land and water rights), should be discouraged, including the removal of targets and other supportive policies.

So blending targets (and even mandates) may be suitable from a food security (and climate change) perspective in some circumstances, but this would largely depend on the biofuel feedstock and whether the country has sufficient land and labour resources to meet food and biofuel demand, as well as the way in which the biofuel is produced.

In this regard the development of multi-stakeholder sustainable certification schemes should continue to be encouraged and officially approved (and even mandated), such as that of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB), which incorporates GHG emission and food security criteria. Only those biofuels and operations meeting environmental and social criteria should be authorized. Land and water rights must also be part of any certification system for allowable biofuels (also included in the RSB scheme), and any operations should adhere to the principles of responsible agricultural investment. 

In this way beneficial biofuels can be encouraged to promote food security and mitigate climate change.  

Stephen Thornhill

Consultant and Department of Food Business and Development, University College Cork, Ireland.

[1] This supports the general perception that food insecurity is largely due to poverty and lack of access to food rather than lack of availability.

[2] Where it does not result in the release of large emissions from land cleared for new cane plantations

[3] See Silalertruksa et al (2012), Biofuels and employment effects: Implications for socio-economic development in Thailand.

[4] See Wallander et al (2011) Where did the corn come from to fuel the expansion in ethanol production?