Bioenergy Could Drive Rural Development

Top international experts met in Rome last week to consider the environmental and food security impact of the rapidly-expanding bioenergy industry and agreed that governments could use bioenergy as a positive force for rural development.

“It was the first time that experts in bioenergy, food security and the environment came together to discuss the important linkages between those sectors,” said Alexander Muller, Head of the Natural Resources Management and Environment Department at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, commenting on the meeting. While there is legitimate concern among some groups that bioenergy could compromise food security and cause environmental damage, said Muller, it can also be an important tool for improving the well-being of rural people if governments take into account environmental and food security concerns. Key role for governments “In food security terms, bioenergy only makes sense if we know where the food-insecure populations are located and what they need to improve their livelihoods. Environmentally, we must make sure that both large- and small-scale producers of bioenergy fully take into account both the negative and positive impacts,” Muller said. “There is a key role for governments to play in setting standards of performance. International organizations such as FAO can also have a major role in providing a neutral forum and policy support,” he noted. “We need an international commitment to make sure that food security is not impaired and that natural resources are used sustainably,” he added. Last week’s three-day meeting, which was attended by experts from around the world plus specialists from FAO and other organizations, agreed that FAO’s International Bioenergy Platform should promptly draw up a series of guidelines for Governments and potential investors. Landscape mosaics Some experts considered biofuel production could benefit the environment and increase food security if smallholders farmed biocrops and biomass as a source of energy for themselves and their local communities or contributed to commercial production for national or international markets. Some biocrops or other feedstock are best produced in landscape “mosaics” where they are grown alongside food crops and other vegetation, those experts said. Biofuel areas within these mosaics could provide other valuable benefits such as windbreaks, restoration of degraded areas, habitats for native biodiversity and a range of ecosystem services, they added. Agricultural renaissance Joseph Schmidhuber, Senior Economist with FAO’s Agricultural Development and Economics Division, told the meeting that, if managed well, bioenergy could promote something akin to an agricultural “renaissance” in some developing countries where biofuels can be produced profitably. Impact of the new bioenergy market on food security could be negative or positive, depending, at the country level, on whether the economy involved was a net exporter or importer of food and energy, Schmidhuber said. The same held true at household level, indicating that the rural landless and the urban poor were most-at risk. Special measures will be needed to protect both countries and groups, he added. New data The experts agreed to accelerate development of tools for analyzing the food security and environmental impacts of bioenergy production as well as to strengthen data and information needed by countries to assess their bioenergy potential and identify hot spots. Bioenergy crops that compete with land and water for food production should not be grown in areas facing food security challenges, they emphasized. “The objective is bioenergy that is environmentally sustainable and socially equitable,” they added. “It is a challenge that can and must be faced.” Existing famine early-warning systems that include household food security assessments and hunger surveys are now well-established and can assist in understanding the risks to vulnerable populations. “Bioenergy holds out enormous opportunities for farmers, especially in the developing world,” said Gustavo Best, FAO’s Senior Energy Coordinator, “but there are dangers too.” This article was republished with permission from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.


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