Scientists have challenged the popular belief that growing crops for bioenergy will cut food production, a concern they say is stalling new schemes.
In a new report, the researchers also identify five ways that countries as diverse as the United States and Brazil can achieve their targets to increase energy security, foster rural economic development and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Experts contributed from ten institutions across Africa, Europe and America, including the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the World Bank and Imperial College London in the UK.
Previous studies into growing crops for use as fuels have tended to blame bioenergy crops for food shortages. In the new report, ‘ Reconciling Food Security and Bioenergy: Priorities for Action ’, published yesterday in the journal Global Change Biology – Bioenergy, the authors have revealed underlying assumptions in previous studies that lead to inaccurate conclusions.
These include oversimplifying the causes of local food shortages and obscuring the opportunities for bioenergy to contribute to solutions. The report also found that these misconceptions were commonly reproduced in media coverage.
"Reliable information about the actual local effects is essential, but has been lacking in food-biofuel-climate debates," said lead author Keith Kline of ORNL’s Climate Change Science Institute.
The report also highlights some practical recommendations for governments and policymakers. Dr Jeremy Woods, a coauthor from Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy, noted that properly designed biofuel schemes invest in infrastructure and know-how that help protect against sudden changes in environment or markets. "Integrated systems with diversified market options mitigate inevitable shocks caused by weather or unforeseen crises," he said.
The authors also highlight the need for more plantations of ’flex-crops’ that are simultaneously fuel and food or can be switched between these markets as conditions or economics demand. Crops such as sugarcane, for example, can be eaten or converted into ethanol fuel for automobile engines.
"A significant share of a country’s energy can be provided by biomass while also enhancing food production," according to Dr Glaucia Souza of the University of Sao Paulo. "Brazil’s sugarcane ethanol program has demonstrated through a 40-year process of continuous monitoring, learning and adaptation that it is possible to couple increased incentives for land restoration and ecosystem services with enhanced food security and poverty reduction."
They also recommend that policymakers design new flex-crop schemes to be resilient to economic and environmental changes, including climate change, by cultivating diverse species of crops, varying how land is managed by farmers, and selling products across a range of markets.
The authors recommend that policymakers work with communities to ensure that local people benefit from the new schemes, and conduct ongoing programmes of education, analysis and capacity building in the face of climate change.
"Access to clean and reliable energy is integral to the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, along with the alleviation of poverty and eradication of hunger," said Dr Siwa Msangi of the International Food Policy Research Institute. "Social, cultural and economic differences require that solutions to food and energy security be locally defined."
Read the full research report.