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Biofuels and Food Security - A consultation by the HLPE to set the track of its study

In October 2011, the CFS has recommended that appropriate parties and stakeholders “review biofuels policies - where applicable and if necessary - according to balanced science-based assessments of the opportunities and challenges they may present for food security so that biofuels can be produced where it is socially, economically and environmentally feasible to do so”. In line with this, the CFS requested the HLPE to “conduct a science-based comparative literature analysis, taking into consideration the work produced by the FAO and Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP), of the positive and negative effects of biofuels on food security”.

As part of its report elaboration process, the HLPE is now launching an e-consultation to seek views, public feedback and comments, on the pertinence and relative importance of some key questions that the report proposes to address, in line with the request from the CFS, and that could form the building blocks of the report.

The feedback received will be used by the HLPE Steering Committee to finalize the terms of reference of the Study and HLPE Project Team that will be appointed to prepare the study and policy recommendations.

The HLPE proposes, in line with the request from the CFS, to consider biofuels with the prism of food security (positive and negative effects).

Biofuels holds a special place in the renewable energy sources. As one of the few alternative fuels to fossil fuels in the transport sector, biofuels are seen as important for energy security and a resource for the diversification of energy sources, as well as in certain cases promoting better access to transport fuels in remote areas. Biofuels are also considered to contribute to agricultural and rural development, with employment opportunities in associated sectors i.e. agriculture, industry, infrastructure and research. For oil-importing countries, they are a mean to reduce the oil importation bill. For key biofuel producing countries, they bring new investment and trade opportunities going along with the development of international markets. Biofuels are also often perceived as a way to contribute to the mitigation of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions of transportation, bringing less atmospheric pollutants locally. They are perceived as a mean to increase the efficiency of food systems by increasing productivity, for example through the use of agricultural residues and waste, while bringing additional revenues to farmers in case of better market access.

Biofuel policies, in the USA, in the EU, in Brazil and elsewhere are often benefiting of substantial public support, be in terms of tariffs, of blending mandates with gasoline or diesel, or of public subsidies.

Current trends in growth of global market for biofuels (a 400% increase from 2000 to 2008) have however triggered a development of controversies at different levels and across many stakeholders (from groups of states to individual business entities and consumers), with the economic, environmental and social effects being widely debated.

Considering biofuels in a life cycle analysis, “from well-to-wheel” GHG emissions linked to the production of biofuels are in some cases as important as the reduction linked to the substitution to fossil fuels.

This is due to high direct and indirect use of energy in irrigation, inputs, transportation, process, especially nitrogen for the first-generation biofuels, as well as the induced loss of land carbon stocks in case of conversion of forests, wetland, carbon-rich lands in order to grow biofuel crops. Concerns have also been raised on the impact of biofuels on the other environmental challenges including biodiversity, often due to associated conversion to mono-cropping, to the increase of deforestation, threats to natural reserves, and to increase pressures on water supply and water quality problems.

Importantly for this report, concerns have also been raised on the impact of biofuels on food security. First, because of a suspected role of biofuel policies to upward pressures on food prices (HLPE 2011, FAO SOFA 2008). Second, because of the suspicion that the development of biofuels has triggered large scale investments at the expense of food production, in some places associated with land acquisitions (HLPE 2011).

This has raised considerable doubts on the food security risks which biofuels might raise, in a context where there is currently 1 billion undernourished people on the planet, and where, as estimated by FAO without taking into account biofuels, food demand is likely to increase by 60-70% by 2050 due to population dynamics and the effect of economic growth.

There is also the concern, that there is currently a considerable amount of food losses and waste, estimated by FAO (2011) to about one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year, approximately 1.3 billion tonnes (much more than the amount of corn that is currently used for ethanol).

There is also the concern, on the longer term, that fuel prices, if growing faster than agricultural commodities, will trigger an increase of interest to devote land to biofuels in the long term, with potential risk on the food prices and biomass quantities remaining available for food and feed.

Are biofuels not adding too much to the – already unmet - challenge to feeding the world?

As food security is a complex issue, many facets need to be considered when looking at the interactions between biofuels and food security.

The main question is: are biofuels compatible with food security concerns at different levels, global to local? What could be done to ensure their development does not go against (and even favours) food security?

To address this question, the HLPE proposes to look at several issues:

1. What do we know about the extent of current and forecasted biofuel policies, and what is the current state and the prospects for the production, technologies and use of liquid biofuels in the world? (Some scenarios predict an increase in the share of biofuels in transport fuel from about 1.5 percent on average today to 8 percent in the developed countries and 6 percent in the developing countries in 2020. The corresponding shares in 2030 are respectively 12 percent and 8 percent.) How do this compare to agricultural production and food demand?

2. What is the extent of the competition for biomass feedstock: food versus feed versus traditional bioenergy like fuelwood, versus bioenergy and biofuels in different parts of the world, in local and international markets? If biofuels are produced by other parts of the plant than the grain, which would otherwise go to the soil, does the production of biofuels pose a risk in weakening the return of organic matter from the plant to the soil, therefore posing a risk to longer term food security?

3. Given the world’s limited arable land resources, what is the extent of the competition for land because of biofuel? Is there evidence for indirect effects on land-use change, even remotely, or biofuel policies, which could have an effect on food security? For countries with large land resources, like Russia for example, biofuel production can offer perspectives for diversification of the agricultural production and for job creation for farms which cannot rely on the production of high quality agricultural products. Is there a real prospect for the mobilization of marginal or degraded lands not suitable for growing food, and where biofuels feedstock, particularly of second generation, could be grown under sustainable practices? Could the use of abandoned agricultural land or extensively used grasslands cause relatively lower impacts than the use of other lands?

4. As the production of biofuels is linked to agriculture, are investments in biofuels and the biofuel production chains benefiting upstream agriculture? How are economic benefits shared along the biofuel production chain? Under which circumstances and conditions could biofuel play an important role in increasing farm income and enhancing agricultural development? What can be done so that the current development model for biofuels is turned profitable for farmers? Farmers have to get access to the market and to credit facilities for fertilizers and other agricultural inputs. Can effective and balanced partnerships between farmers and agro-industrial biofuel companies be found?

5. Can biofuel production be compatible with small-farming and smallholders, which form the majority of the agricultural systems in many parts of the world, and who are key to the wealth of livelihoods and food security? Income raising activities could in many cases improve the situation of the poor - like production of cane, sorghum, or other crops, whether for the food, fuel or feed, domestic or export markets. Is it possible to engage family farmers, smallholders, based on which adequate crops, into biofuels, with which effect on their own food security, on local food security and on global food security? How do the structure of the supply market and the sharing of the benefits from biofuels production determine the impacts on food security? What are the effects on the poor net food-buyers farming households, urban consumers and landless workers? Are biofuels meant to help developing countries transition from subsistence farming?

6. By causing land concentration for plantation-type production, due to considerations of economy of scale, biofuels have been accused to cause evictions or marginalization of vulnerable groups and individuals, including women in the developing countries, particularly in Africa, and indigenous peoples and other groups with insecure land titles. Can a range of social issues be addressed, including poor working conditions for labourers and loss of land rights for indigenous peoples where new plantations for feedstock are established?

7. Non-commercial small scale production of first-generation biofuels in rural settings, e.g. for household purposes in tropical developing countries has been cited as an asset for rural development and access to energy in remote areas, avoiding expensive imports and difficult provision of fossil fuels? Aren’t at the contrary careful planning and comprehensive policies required as biomass feedstocks that will be used for industrial biofuels will compete with traditional biomass used for local household energy, important for for rural populations in many developing countries?

8. Not all biofuel feedstocks are equal. Feedstock vary in the amount of energy yielded per acre of land; the amount of inputs needed such as fertilizer, pesticides and water for production; and the extent to which they compete with traditional agriculture for land. By all of these criteria, the second generation of biofuels (from high-yield ligno-cellulosic biomass such as perennial grasses and tree species) is expected to fare better than existing biofuels. The nitrogen fixing legumes, new oil crops like Camelina sativa (L.), Eruca sativa Mill. and others, GMO plants with reduced amount of lignin are promising feedstock in that regard. Is it possible, and on which basis, to distinguish the first and second generation of biofuels in terms of food security? To reach these goals, can more suitable crops, be grown, which ones, perennial versus annual, and how? What is the prospect to use biomass residues from agriculture, and forestry and also related waste, as a feedstock source as well?

9. Can new technologies overcome the food security and resource issues? Third generation biofuels, currently in the research and development (R&D) stage comprise integrated bio-refineries for producing biofuels, electricity generation and bioproducts (such as petrochemical replacements). In advanced technologies, like algae-based biodiesel or micro-organism based “solar-to-fuel” methods, the use of natural resources such as land and water are expected to be reduced resulting in lower concerns with on food security. What can we expect from these new technologies, in terms of price and production potential? As these technologies mature, how far are they from being commercially viable, and what kind of multidisciplinary research programmes are needed? What are the policy options for future commercial and R&D investment? Should we step up scientific research efforts, in which one of those technologies, as a way to overcome the current negative effects of large scale biofuel production? It is worthwhile to investigating multipurpose feedstock making use of the bio-refinery concept (Bio-based Economy)?

In assessing the positive and negative impacts of biofuels on world food security, the HLPE proposes to try to disentangle the nature and relative weight of this problem as compared to other factors affecting food security.

Biofuels are a promising source of energy with major implications for global competitiveness, energy security and uncertain social and environmental impacts. Therefore, formulating policy and regulatory frameworks for biofuels nationally and internationally is likely to require intense debate, negotiations and compromise. There is a need to consider the evolving policy landscape for biofuels, including policy measures used by major producing countries to support their industries, and their impact on food security.

The HLPE proposes to look at what can be done at different levels, multilateral, regional or national level, for food-security biofuels, given that current legislation in major producing and consuming countries, will frame the development of biofuels in the years to come.

Professor Igor Tikhonovich, on behalf of the Steering Committee of the HLPE

This discussion is now closed. Please contact for any further information.