New tools help countries harness the potential of bioenergy, avoid pitfalls

FAO project helps policymakers maximize benefits for rural communities, prevent food security impacts

5 March 2012, Rome - FAO has just released a suite of guidance documents and policymaking tools that governments can use to help rural communities benefit from bioenergy development and ensure that biofuel crop production does not come at the expense of food security.

Materials released today by FAO's Bioenergy and Food Security Criteria and Indicators (BEFSCI) Project include: methodologies for assessing the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of bioenergy production, indicators that can be measured when doing so, recommended good practices, and policy measures for promoting sustainable bionenergy development.

"In a few months the international community will gather for the Rio+20 conference to explore new ways to combat rural poverty and promote sustainable development. Undertaken responsibly and where appropriate, bioenergy production can offer farmers and rural people the opportunity to take part in building a new green economy, and can help counter the effects of decades of underinvestment in developing world agriculture and rural areas," said Alexander Mueller, FAO Assistant Director-General for Natural Resources Management and Environment.

But bioenergy development must avoid undermining food security, Mueller stressed. And deforestation due to the conversion of new lands to bioenergy crops as well as impacts on indigenous peoples are also issues of concern.

"Development of bioenergy must be carefully managed, and meeting social goals like sustainable rural development, poverty alleviation and food security should be guiding principles," he said.

Guidance for policymakers and investors

Funded by the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, the BEFSCI project was initiated to study the complex relationship between bioenergy and food security and help policymakers make informed decisions regarding bioenergy development.

The project has generated a number of products, including: a web-based tool for assessing potential food security impacts of bioenergy projects; a comprehensive list of methodologies and indicators to assess the impacts of bioenergy on food security at the national level; a set of good environmental practices to minimize negative environmental impacts; and a compilation of socio-economic practices currently being implemented by producers that provide examples of how bioenergy development can foster rural development and enhance food security.

The project also assembled an inventory of management and policy measures that can be used to address negative social, food security or environmental impacts of bioenergy production. And it has explored how to better include smallholders in global bioenergy value chains.

Finding the right mix of policy approaches

Additionally, a BEFSCI briefing paper published today identifies and analyzes various policy instruments that governments and planners can use to require or promote good practices in bioenergy. "The paper looks at the pros, cons and appropriateness of these various instruments, so that governments who are just beginning to wrestle with these issues can learn from the experiences of others," explained Heiner Thofern, who heads up the BEFSCI project at FAO.

Photo: ©FAO/Giuseppe Bizzarri
Storage tanks for ethanol produced from sugar cane, Limeira, Sao Paulo state, Brazil.