In the last number of years the interest in bioenergy has increased considerably. Where in the past the focus was very much on traditional bioenergy, with Africa being the biggest users of biomass for energy, the situation is now changing dramatically. It involves large economic interests, strong technological development, as well as a clear role in the mitigation of climate change and the Kyoto protocol.

At the same time, concern is expressed at the possible negative effects of biomass production for bioenergy on food security, both at the household, national and global levels. Does bioenergy production reduce the availability of food, or raise the market prices? Does large scale production in monoculture have a negative effect on the environment, on biodiversity, and is the net energy gain from the production of biofuel indeed positive? In other words, is the large-scale production of biomass for energy sustainable or not?

Issues and Indicators

Two publications that attempt to provide guidance on the issue of sustainability are: The key sustainability issues identified by the UN Energy publication, which was sponsored by FAO, are:

  • Ability of modern bioenergy to provide energy services for the poor
  • Implications for ago-industrial development and job creation
  • Health and gender implications of modern bioenergy
  • Implications for the structure of agriculture
  • Implications for food security
  • Implications for government budget
  • Implications for trade, foreign exchange balances and energy security
  • Impacts on biodiversity and natural resources management
  • Implications for climate change

The project group "Sustainable production of biomass" of the Dutch interdepartmental working group EnergyTransition identified the following five main criteria to test the sustainability of biomass production:

  • Related to Greenhouse gas emissions:
    Calculated over the whole chain, the use of biomass must produce fewer emissions of greenhouse gases net than on average with fossil fuel
  • Related to competition with food or other local applications:
    The production of biomass for energy must not endanger the food supply and other local applications.
  • Related to biodiversity:
    Biomass production must not affect protected or vulnerable biodiversity and will, where possible, have to strengthen biodiversity
  • Related to environment:
    In the production and processing of biomass, the quality of soil, surface and ground water and air must be retained or even increased
  • Related to prosperity:
    The production of biomass must contribute towards the social well-being of the employees and the local population

The climate change issues will be elaborated upon in the next page

Food security and rural development

Food security remains an immense problem and despite many efforts more than 800 million people still suffer from hunger. We must ensure that bioenergy will not force the world into a choice between food or fuel. Large scale use of land for the production of feedstock for biofuel production does pose a threat to the use of the same land for food production. Competing for resources. And assuming current technological conditions and agricultural practises, this may indeed be the case. However, there are also more optimistic views. The efficiency of biofuel production is currently far from optimal and huge increases in product yield/area are to be expected in the future. This will be further elaborated in one of the next pages. Similarly, not all current agricultural production is efficient either. With improved agricultural research, knowledge, capacity building, technology transfer and practises, production increases are to be expected. In addition, there are high hopes that for the production of bioenergy land areas could be used that are currently unsuitable for food crop production, such as semi-arid fringes of the Sahel, and that would assist in the reclamation of the degraded lands. In this context often the Jatropha is mentioned.

Besides the potential competition for land and water resources, the increased production of biomass for feedstock has also an effect on prices for agricultural products. As oil prices are increasing, the situation arises that biological alternatives to oil can be produced commercially. The current sugar cane based production of bioethanol in Brazil is a good example of this trend. Therefore, increase in biofuel demand can provide both a threshold as well as a ceiling to commodity prices.
The effect of this new phenomenon on food security is not straightforward. On the one hand it can price food crops out of reach for poor people. On the other hand, both the production of bioenergy crops as well as increased prices for agricultural commodities can stimulate rural development; thereby increasing food security through economic development.

A final aspect here concerns the use of bioenergy at the local level, the small scale application of bioenergy. This could provide the much awaited access to energy at the rural levels, a prerequisite for further development. More about this issue on one of the next pages.

Environmental sustainability and biodiversity

The increased use of agricultural land for commercial cash crops and increased demand to expand the amount of land available for bioenergy feedstock production will be associated with considerable pressure on the natural environment. High inputs of water, fertilizers and pesticides as well as industrial processing of the biomass into fuel can result in water scarcity, ground water pollution, land degradation and reduction in biodiversity. Applying known best practices, including crop diversification, inter-cropping, etc, and integrated pest management are a few of the measures that can reduce these impacts. Furthermore, with the gradual development of "second-generation" bioenergy, many of the current, low-efficiency annual crops may get replaced by perennial crops. This calls for the strong support for both the development of such second generation biomass conversion processes that can use the whole crop for fuel production, the selection and breeding of suitable crops, as well as improved agricultural management.

Of a different nature is the potential pressure on marginal lands, in particular fragile ecosystems, to satisfy the increased demand for cropping areas. This can have profound effects on the biodiversity of a region. This in particular as the past low productivity of such areas, that ensured to some extend its protection from cultivation, cease to be a limiting factor. On the other hand, the use of hardy perennial crops with no value as food crop, but with a new value as feed crop, may result in the restoration of many degraded areas and an increase in biodiversity and soil fertility.

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ę FAO, 2007