Report shows bioenergy can support food security and sustainable development

juni 16, 2016

OAK RIDGE, June 14, 2016 – Bioenergy development and food security can be simultaneously improved, contrary to the popular belief that biofuels displace food crops, according to a report released today by an international, multidisciplinary team of experts from 10 institutions.

“Reconciling Food Security and Bioenergy: Priorities for Action” identifies science-based steps to ensure that biofuels, food crops and natural resources can be managed sustainably together. The report, published in the journal Global Change Biology – Bioenergy, was coordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

The recommendations include increasing production of “flex-crops” that can provide fuel, food and other services; working with local populations to assure benefits target the right people; diversifying crops, land cover, and product markets to increase resilience against external forces; and ongoing education and analysis.

The report explains how multiple goals can be achieved through proper monitoring of relevant sustainability indicators.

“It is a mistake to ignore local costs and benefits of biofuels based on generalized assertions or global models. 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.

“Local contexts and priorities must be considered when evaluating sustainability,” said Patricia Osseweijer of Delft University of Technology, co-author of this publication.

Developing a sustainable bio-based economy is a key part of national strategies to increase energy security, foster rural economic development and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“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 Siwa Msangi of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). “Social, cultural and economic differences require that solutions to food and energy security be locally defined.”

The report cites increasing evidence that global land area is not the limiting factor for food and bioenergy production.

“A significant share of a country’s energy can be provided by biomass while also enhancing food production,” according to 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.”

The report cautions against an overreliance on generalized modeling than can result in misconceptions about biofuel impacts on food security.

“Many negative views about food security and biofuels are based on the misinterpretation of terms and modeling,” said coauthor Jorge Antonio Hilbert of Argentina.

“Reconciling Food Security and Bioenergy” examines underlying assumptions in previous studies that have blamed biofuels for food shortages. The report cites common inaccuracies in media coverage and models that have over-simplified key drivers of local food insecurity and obscured the opportunities for bioenergy to contribute to solutions.

Jeremy Woods, a coauthor from Imperial College, London, noted that properly designed biofuel programs invest in infrastructure and know-how that increase resilience and adaptability in supply chains. “Integrated systems with diversified market options mitigate inevitable shocks caused by weather or unforeseen crises,” Woods said.

The report’s recommendations for ensuring that food security and bioenergy are successfully integrated include engaging local stakeholders to form the most effective strategies for their conditions, identifying and encouraging flex-crops and other strategies that diversify and stabilize local markets, applying good management practices and tools such as those provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, planning and implementing multiple-use landscapes that improve efficiency and minimize waste, communicating clearly about specific goals, and strengthening collaborations with existing development programs.

On the final point, for example, sustainability initiatives sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and private partners apply landscape design to improve sustainability of using crop residues and energy crops as feedstocks for biofuels.

“It was not easy to reach agreement among authors from four continents and backgrounds ranging from land-use planning for biodiversity conservation to rural economic development and agriculture technologies,” Kline said. “Luckily, we shared an interest in improving food and energy security while simultaneously advancing climate-smart resource management. That helped us reach consensus.”

The report was produced through an effort coordinated by ORNL following a November 2014 workshop organized by Washington, D.C.-based IFPRI.

Joining ORNL in preparing the report were researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, UK; University of Sao Paulo and the Bioenergy Research Program in association with the Sao Paulo State Scientific Research Foundation, Brazil; the University of Twente, Delft University of Technology and BE-Basic, The Netherlands; Institute of Rural Engineering, National Institute of Agricultural Technology, Argentina; Stockholm Environment Institute Africa Centre, Nairobi, Kenya; BEE Holdings, Tampico, Mexico; and the World Bank.

The research report is available at

Click here for the press release from the IFPRI.

For the Dutch press release click here.