Top international experts met in Rome 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 Müller, Head
of FAO’s Natural Resources Management and Environment Department,
commenting on last week’s meeting.
‘While there is legitimate concern among some groups that
bioenergy could compromise food security and cause environmental
damage, 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,” he said.
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,” Müller
“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
Last week’s three-day meeting, which was attended by experts
from round 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
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
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.
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.
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."
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