Producing bioenergy doesn’t have to conflict with food security

Report offers a new perspective on the ‘food vs. fuel’ debate
July 6, 2016
by Siwa Msangi

As the world confronts climate change, demand will increase for both bioenergy and sustainable food sources. Many assume these needs conflict. In fact, though, many synergies already exist between growing food and biomass for fuel, and good policies can boost them further. A new report, “Reconciling Food Security and Bioenergy: Priorities for action,” in the journal Global Change Biology: Bioenergy, synthesizes a number of important ideas on bioenergy and food security that came out of a conference hosted by IFPRI in 2014.

The report addresses the “food vs. fuel” debate that has taken place in the literature on biofuels and food security, and in public discussion, since the 2007-2008 food price crisis, and challenges the idea that there is not enough land to meet food, feed and fuel needs.

First, it’s important to stress that ordinary people depend on bioenergy, and will benefit from improved access to it. Millions of people currently use crude sources of biomass for their everyday cooking, heating and lighting needs—and can spend enormous amounts of time searching for it, over often-denuded and degraded landscapes. This burden mostly falls on women, who feel the effects of low-quality energy most keenly in terms of both time-burden as well as the health impacts of inhaling smoke from indoor wood and charcoal fires.

Bioenergy can also be produced sustainably. The potential for producing biomass for energy in a sustainable way is still untapped in many regions, such as Southeast Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and can potentially provide significant amounts of renewable energy with minimal changes in land cover.

It’s also possible to balance food and fuel production using integrated cropping systems. “Flex crops” can provide products for either food, feed or energy markets, allowing a degree of flexibility and adaptability that is advantageous within a volatile market environment where the relative prices might move in favor of one product, versus the other—thereby allowing producers a steadier stream of revenue and more economic stability.

This flexibility is built into the Brazilian sugar and ethanol sector, and has allowed producers to source products for either food or fuel markets, as market forces demand. The main constraint that the Brazilian ethanol sector has faced in recent years is the large subsidies that have been given to fossil fuels (in the form of tax reduction on gasoline). This tax cut makes gasoline cheaper than ethanol, and has created unfavorable conditions for the industry. Nevertheless, the flexibility built into the ethanol and sugar production systems makes it more robust in the face of market pressures. (For more evidence, see Bioenergy & Sustainability: Bridging the Gaps. Several of our report’s authors participated.)

Another misconception the report addresses is the idea that making biofuels contributes to consumer food price volatility. Biofuel production may affect some agricultural commodity and feed prices, but this does not necessarily translate to large changes in household food spending. The report points out the weak empirical links between biofuels and levels of price volatility or real food prices, and challenges the notions that have been reinforced in some literature and popular opinion connecting biofuel production to higher incidences of hunger.

The commodities that are often the focus of quantitative price analyses on the impacts of biofuel production on agriculture—such as raw corn, wheat, and sugar—are different from the actual food products that consumers buy at the retail level, and their prices don’t necessarily move together.

The report notes that food security is multi-dimensional, and that only a subset of its four “pillars” (access, availability, utilization and stability) relate directly to prices.

In fact, investments in the agricultural value chain to improve productivity, marketing, and processing capacity will benefit both sectors seeking to make agricultural crops the feedstock for energy products, and those producing crops for food, feed, or industrial uses. Relieving the constraints on the agricultural sector that limit productivity and value growth is one of the most important interventions that can be undertaken for improving food security, and can also benefit biofuel or bioenergy ventures to create additional value for agricultural producers.

Overall, the report tries to bring a balanced perspective on the linkage between energy and food security, and to encourage readers to look beyond just biofuels—at a wider array of bioenergy systems and products—when considering the tradeoffs and synergies that might exist between them. The report offers a synthesis of best-practices in bioenergy development, as well as recent evidence from the literature that points to the ways in which the goals of promoting access to clean and reliable energy can be aligned with the objectives of eliminating extreme poverty and hunger.