Reconciling food security and bioenergy: priorities for action
Keith L. Kline, Siwa Msangi, Virginia H. Dale, Jeremy Woods, Glaucia M. Souza, Patricia Osseweijer, Joy S. Clancy, Jorge A. Hilbert, Francis X. Johnson, Patrick C. McDonnell, Harriet K. Mugera1
Whilst most agricultural markets are one by one suffering the end of the commodity super-cycle and are plunging into crisis, for the farmers of the countries the most connected with international trade, rehabilitating policies for the endorsement of biofuels and highlighting their flexibility in contributing to stabilizing prices is proving more essential than ever.
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has just published a study funded by the US Department of Energy, which explicitly aims at demonstrating the potential of biofuels in solving the problems of malnutrition and is thus moving away from the sterile “food vs. biofuels” debate.
This report written by experts in biofuels, energy and environmental policies (extract here2), offers an analysis based on the 4 dimensions of food security (availability, access, stability and utilization) to demonstrate that we must stop using biofuels as a scapegoat for the hunger and food crisis of 2008. In particular, the report reminds us that arable land is not a limiting factor in food and energy production and though agricultural prices have largely fallen from their peak in 2008, biofuel production has not decreased since; this tends to undermine the simplistic analysis which sees biofuels as primarily responsible for soaring prices.
In addition to more opportunities and energy supplies for local communities, the report highlights the obvious but all too often ignored, “price reductions are more damaging to food security than temporary peaks because (1) they are harmful for infrastructure and investments in local value chains, (2) more than 70% of the world’s hungry populations live in rural areas, (3) price reductions catalyze rural migration to urban areas, which in term can harm production capacity”. In other words, "relatively stable and predictable prices for food and energy are essential for food security”.
Using the US and Brazil as an example, where a certain flexibility for policies in support of biofuels was introduced, the report points out the advantages of having leeway to adapt measures in order to find “opportunities for surplus”. Thus, it tends to rehabilitate first-generation biofuels, those whose value can be adjusted in function of dietary and non- dietary demands.
Ultimately, for Momagri, this report provides a solid basis for the emergence of a more rational debate on biofuels, a debate that should once again, be reconsidering policies in favour of biofuels as agricultural policies in their own right. By reducing inelasticity in demand for agricultural produce, the flexibility of measures that encourage the production of biofuels is an important lever to avoid upward or downward market excesses.
Provided industrials are compensated for a loss in production capacity, flexibility in the production of biofuels could be an excellent lever for an improved global governance of agricultural trade, although how remains to be seen. This would depend on the evolution in international cooperation towards negotiations that neither the WTO nor FAO are qualified to lead. In the very least, Europe can take this into consideration within the framework of a future reform of the CAP.
La rédaction de momagri
Biofuels and food security: short-term correlations vs. long-term trends. The high-profile expansion of ethanol production in the United States and Brazil, in tandem with a global price spike in food and commodities in 2007–2008, led many to contend that a causal relationship exists between biofuels expansion and food insecurity (e.g., Mitchell, 2008; Tenenbaum, 2008; Wenzlau, 2013).
The apparent short-term correlations are often cited as evidence of negative impacts of biofuels on food security (e.g., EPI, 2014; Searchinger & Heimlich, 2015). There are several problems with such assertions (Zilberman et al., 2013). First, many studies attribute the food price spikes in 2008 primarily to other factors such as oil prices, economic growth, currency exchange rates, and trade policies (e.g., Baffes & Dennis, 2013; Konan-dreas, 2012; HLPE, 2011; Foresight, 2011; Trostle et al.,2011; DEFRA, 2010). Speculation in food commodities also contributed to price spikes in 2008 and 2011 (Lagi et al., 2011; Hajkowicz et al., 2012). Second, the correlations did not persist as global biofuel consumption continued to grow (Fig. 2) and cereal prices fell or showed distinct patterns over the last 6 years driven by oil price, national agricultural policies, and exchange rates (FAO, 2015a,c, The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2015). Causation cannot be assumed based on correlation, but the divergence in recent trends is notable, and models using the same data can reach opposing conclusions (Table 3).
A majority of papers and reports that assert that biofuels harm food security rely on assumed relationships between biofuels, rising global ‘food’ commodity prices, and food insecurity over relatively short time spans (e.g., on the order of months) (Boddiger, 2007; Rajagopal et al. , 2007; Tenenbaum, 2008; Wenzlau, 2013). Interestingly, organizations wishing to show that biofuels do not raise food prices often cite the same FAO ‘food com- modity’ data over similar time spans (e.g., see Zhang et al., 2010; Mueller et al., 2011; and GRFA, 2015). The assumptions underlying both sides of this food-vs.-fuel debate are questionable and subjective (Table 3). Long-term trends (over years and decades) for food insecurity and food commodity prices illustrate that the world’s most severe famines (Roser, 2015) occur during extended periods of depressed global food prices (Sumner, 2009). The emphasis on biofuels and food commodity price spikes has diverted attention from more constructive efforts to improve data (Gibson, 2013) and to identify effective mechanisms to address the food security issues that matter most, namely those having an impact on human health and morbidity.
Priority actions to reduce risks of food insecurity. Biofuel projects can address food security concerns by applying best practices that reduce exposure to risks of food insecurity (Table 4). Many recommendations for investments in biofuels tailored for developing nations have been published (UNCTAD, 2014; FAO 2010, 2011a, 2015b; FAO, IFAD, WFP, 2002, FAO, IFAD, WFP 2013).
Lifting people out of poverty is essential to reduce hunger (von Braun et al. , 2009, FAO, IFAD, WFP, 2014, 2015b; Coleman-Jensen et al. , 2015). The creation of stable, gainful, rural employment is a high-priority, poverty-reduction strategy (Conway and Wilson, 2012; FAO, IFAD, WFP, 2015b). Improvement in rural household incomes is proposed as a proxy indicator for improvement in food security when assessing the sustainability of biofuels projects (Dale et al. , 2013).
Bioenergy projects that improve resilience can reduce vulnerabilities that lead to food insecurity (Gustafson et al. , 2016). Resilience refers to the ability of the system to recover following disturbance, and vulnerability refers to inability to withstand a hostile situation.
Reducing risk exposure might take the form of facilitating the transition of households from livelihoods that are subject to high levels of variability–such as low level subsistence farming dependent on a single crop – toward more stable sources of revenue and income.
Exposure to risk can also be reduced by programs that help build rural assets and diversify income sources. If the exposure of households to environmental or socioeconomic shocks cannot be reduced, then a bioenergy project might aim to increase the capacity of
vulnerable households to cope with shocks when they arise. Resilience is achieved by ‘strengthening sustainable local food systems, and fostering access to productive resources and to markets that are remunerative and beneficial to smallholders’ (FAO, 2015d).
Interactions among bioenergy, food security, and resource management, focusing on more
sustainable systems. Making progress toward sustainable development goals requires attention to provision of social and ecosystem services as well as economics across integrated production systems. Sustainability involves assessing trade-offs among multiple dynamic goals and striving for continual improvement, rather than achieving a specific state.
Assessments should compare the relative merits of alternative trajectories in meeting goals. The trade-offs depend on historical developments and prevailing local economic, social, environmental, political, and cultural conditions (Efroymson et al. , 2013). Because sustainability is context specific, local stakeholders should help set priorities, define the purposes of the assessment, and establish the temporal and spatial boundaries for consideration (Tarka-Sanchez et al. , 2012; Dale et al. , 2015).
For example, dimensions of sustainability for bioenergy include soil quality, water quality and quantity, greenhouse gases, biodiversity, air quality, productivity, social well-being, energy security, trade, profitability, resource conservation, and social acceptability (McBride
et al., 2011; Dale et al. , 2013).
Choices inevitably involve trade-offs. Improving one aspect of sustainability may compromise another, and benefits for one group may involve costs for another (Table 2). Complete transformation chains rather than single bioenergy products should be analyzed to understand the interactions across sectors and industries that may influence system efficiencies for bioenergy and food security (Hilbert, 2014). A key goal is to identify opportunities where collective progress can be achieved – sometimes referred to as the triple bottom line of social, economic, and environmental benefits.
Resource management practices are more important in determining many environmental impacts than crop type (Davis et al. , 2013). Wise management of available resources supports both bioenergy sustainability and food security (Manning et al. , 2014). Hence, interactions among resource management, bioenergy sustainability, and food security are discussed with paired interactions considered first, followed by the three-way nexus (Fig. 3).
Bioenergy effects on food security. Bioenergy can foster social development, which is a precondition for food security and sustainability. Bioenergy provides energy security not only for transport (and hence broader access to food, selling markets, employment, and services) but also for food processing, business development, and drying and storage of surplus production (Durham et al., 2012; Lynd et al., 2015). The latter, providing an outlet for surplus, diversifies sources of income and improves supply resilience in the event of market shocks or shortages. Innovation is stimulated as new institutions and actors are empowered to engage in expanding biomass production. The early investments made by developed, developing, and emerging economies alike in biofuels illustrate the universal nature of the linkages between energy security and development (Johnson & Silveira, 2014).
The capacity for biofuels to help balance another commodity market has been demonstrated by the Brazilian sugar–ethanol industries. Similarly, U.S. ethanol legislation passed in part due to recognition of latent productive capacity for maize. In the decade leading up to 2012, U.S. maize production increased steadily and exceeded targets for fuel blending under national legislation. In 2012, the U.S. experienced the most extensive drought recorded since the 1950s (IMF, 2012; USDA, 2013). As impacts of the drought became evident, markets responded; some ethanol plants reduced output; others shut down temporarily. Thanks, in part, to the ethanol ‘supply cushion’ and market flexibility, there was not a notable jump in commodity prices as the 2012–2013 crop was harvested, despite a drought affecting 80% of U.S. agricultural land.
While several studies discuss potential negative effects of biofuels, few examine the ways that biofuels can positively influence food security. First, adequately planned biofuel production can add value, stabilize, and diversify rural production systems (Kline et al., 2009). Additionally, energy is required throughout the food supply chain; therefore, to the degree that biofuels enhance sustainability and accessibility of energy supplies, particularly energy for households most at risk from poverty, they enhance food security. Furthermore, as long as farmers and agro-industry are free to respond, diversified markets for products can spread risk and reduce price volatility compared with more narrow markets. Adding bioenergy markets to existing uses of local produce can thereby increase price stability. Finally, efforts to enhance sustainability of biofuels have generated spin-off effects in other sectors and placed greater scrutiny on resource management associated with conventional production (Woods & Kalas, 2014). The result is improved sustainability for many nonbiofuel products that constitute the majority of final uses for palm oil, sugar cane, soybean, and maize.
1 Respectivement: Environmental Science Division, Climate Change Science Institute, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, TN 37831, USA, International Food Policy Research Institute, 2033 K St NW, Washington, DC 20006, USA, Center for Bioenergy Sustainability, Environmental Science Division, ORNL, Oak Ridge, TN 37831, USA, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, Exhibition Road, London SW7 1NA, UK, Instituto de Quimica, Universidade de Sao Paulo, Av. Prof. LineuPrestes 748, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Department of Biotechnology, Delft University of Technology, 2628 BC Delft, The Netherlands, CSTM, University of Twente, 7500AE Enschede, The Netherlands, Instituto de Ingenier ia Rural INTA, cc 25 1712 Castelar, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Stockholm Environment Institute Africa Centre, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), United Nations Avenue, Gigiri PO Box 30677, Nairobi, Kenya, BEE Energy, 2000 Nicasio Valley Rd., Nicasio, CA 94946, USA, World Bank, 1818 H Street NW, Washington, DC 20433, USA
2 The entire report is available from
paragraphs in bold are those underlined by Momagri