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Impact of bioenergy on food security


Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. There are four dimensions to food security: availability, access, stability and utilization.

Due to the nature of bioenergy, developments in the bioenergy sector are closely linked to food security. Furthermore, as bioenergy demand increases, agriculture also has to provide for growing food and feed demand due to population and economic growth.

The linkages between bioenergy and food security are complex. Impact on food security is one of the core social factors to be considered in bioenergy development. Other factors include opportunities for pro-poor rural development, income generation through productive activities or employment, land access and labour conditions. The growing market for biofuels presents new income opportunities for agricultural producers, including smallholders. However, benefit distribution at household level may not be equal, with evidence suggesting that increased cash returns to farming disproportionately benefit male household members. The social impacts of biofuel development will depend upon the feedstock and the production system chosen. If economically viable, small-scale cultivation of crops and on-farm or community-level use of crude vegetable oil can revitalize rural economies by improving mechanization, irrigation and transport and decentralizing energy supply. In addition, biofuel production provides by-products and co-products such as glycerine, livestock feeds and fertilizers.

The conclusions of various studies (see downloads) indicate that the liquid biofuel production has indeed contributed and is in the near future likely to continue to weaken the access to adequate food or to the resources by which vulnerable people can feed themselves, in a number of ways:

(a)           Firstly, by contributing significantly to the increase in food prices. The study recognises that there are several other factors which jointly with biofuel production have caused the steep increase in food prices.

(b)           Secondly, by causing land concentration for plantation type production, due to considerations of economy of scale, which have led and are likely to continue to cause evictions or marginalisation of vulnerable groups and individuals. Many women in the developing countries, particularly in Africa, are likely to be particularly severely affected, should extensive biofuel production spread to their part of the world. Increasing land value may strengthen the asset base of land holders, but make lease or purchase of land unaffordable for the landless. Indigenous peoples and other groups with insecure title to the land on which they make their living have also been harmed due to evictions and are likely to be so in the future.

(c)           Comparative experiences indicate that production of some biofuels, in particular ethanol, is more competitive if it relies on economies of scale related to largescale industrial production. While the employment generation potential, particularly for unskilled labour, may be significant, preliminary evidence hints at a rapid pace of mechanization and simultaneously a decrease of manual workforce.

(d)           In addition, labour rights and socioeconomic conditions in large-scale biofuel plantations can be precarious. Female workers tend to be particular disadvantaged.

Small-scale and large-scale production systems must not be mutually exclusive. Governments can promote the adoption of contract farming in which the processor purchases the harvests of independent (smallholder) farmers under terms agreed to in advance through contracts. Further, assisting smallholders in building cooperatives, marketing associations, partnerships and joint ventures, and coordinating their supply into larger production facilities will benefit smallholder participation in biofuel markets just as it holds potential for other agricultural markets.

Dimensions of food security


Availability of adequate food supplies refers to the capacity of an agro-ecological system to meet overall demand for food (including animal products, livelihoods and how producers respond to markets). Availability of food can be threatened to the extent that land, water and other productive resources are diverted from food production to biofuel production. This competition for natural resources occurs whether edible or non-edible crops are cultivated for bioenergy purposes. The degree of competition among food, feed and fuel uses of biomass will hinge on a variety of factors, including crop selection, farming practices, agricultural yields and the pace at which next-generation biofuel technologies develop. Competition will affect availability less if non-edible perennial crops are cultivated on unused and marginal lands that do not provide subsistence functions for the most vulnerable. Food supply may be positively affected if the market for biofuel feedstock leads to new investments in agricultural research, infrastructure development and increased production.


Access to food refers to the ability of households to economically access food (or livelihoods), defined in terms of enough purchasing power or access to sufficient resources (entitlements).
Access to food refers to people’s economic ability to access food as well as their ability to overcome barriers that stem from physical remoteness, social marginalization or discrimination on the basis of The primary determinants of food security for the majority of poor people are their income levels and the cost of food. Higher food prices can cause substantial problems to net food consumers including agricultural labourers, the urban poor and the large proportion of rural poor without sufficient productive assets. Competition for resource inputs places upward pressure on food prices, even if the feedstock itself is a non-food crop or is grown on previously unused land. On the other hand, farmers who are net food producers are likely to benefit from higher prices. Bioenergy growth can boost incomes by revitalizing agriculture, providing new employment opportunities and increasing access to modern energy, which can stimulate rural development.

Stability refers to the time dimension of food security.
Stability of food supplies refers to those situations in which populations are not vulnerable to losing access to resources and other forms of livelihoods due to extreme weather events, economic or market failure, civil conflict or environmental degradation and, increasingly, conflict over natural resources. Temporal distinctions between chronic and transitory food insecurity may be important to understand in the context of rapid bioenergy development. Chronic food insecurity is a long term or persistent inability to meet minimum food consumption requirements, lasting for more than six months of the year. Transitory food insecurity is a short term or temporary inability to meet minimum food requirements, usually linked to the hungry (or lean) season, a more limited timeframe with some indication of capacity to recover from shocks. Further growth in biofuels could exert additional pressure on the stability of food supplies. The use of food crops (or crops which compete with them for land resources) for biofuels may establish an effective floor price for these commodities, and price volatility from the petroleum sector will be more strongly transmitted to the agricultural sector, increasing the risk of food insecurity. This impact will be enhanced as import dependence is expected to grow for most low income food deficit developing countries, and as price transmission increases between global and national markets with greater market liberalization and the forces of globalization.

of food refers to peoples’s ability to absorb nutrients and is closely linked to health and nutrition factors, such as access to clean water, sanitation and medical services. The food utilization concept is also based on how food is used, such as nutrient loss during preparation, storage or processing, or cultural practices that negatively affect the consumption of enough nutritious food for certain family members, particularly, women and girls. If biofuel feedstock production competes for water supplies, it could make water less readily available for household use, threatening the health status and thus the food security status of affected individuals. On the other hand, if modern bioenergy replaces more polluting sources or expands the availability of energy services, it could make cooking both cheaper and cleaner, with positive implications for food utilization.

Environmental issues related to bioenergy and implications for food security
The relationships between bioenergy and the environment, as related to food security, are complex and interdependent. Environmental and socio-economic benefits and trade-offs, particularly in terms of bioenergy and food security, must be analyzed and monitored across space and time. Energy (commodity) crops based on traditional agricultural output are already associated with land and soil degradation, water pollution and input and energy intensive production systems. Local environmental issues related to resource use and the potential for further degradation of the natural resource base may result in conflict over access and control over natural resources. At the global level, the environmental issues are related to climate change and the potential for bioenergy to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. This will depend on feedstock used, technological conversion and the impact on the global energy balance. The most direct link between the environment, bioenergy and food security is the impact of climate change on vulnerable, food insecure households, mostly as it relates to the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. This is in particular true for sub-Saharan Africa.

In summary, all four dimensions of food security may be affected differently. Most likely, food security may improve for some people, while others will experience deterioration. The exact net outcome will depend on the socio-economic structure of society, as well as on the specific commodities whose prices increase and the relative wealth of the farmers who produce the commodities that have experienced the price increases. Negative effects may violate an individual’s human right to food, a legal right enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights which is binding upon 156 States. On the basis of the right to food, the covenant obligates governments to provide food and other assistance for those who cannot feed themselves, to the extent that resources permit. Right to food obligations will have to be interpreted in the specific context of biofuels development.

Finally, determining the possible positive or negative effects on food security requires an understanding of the concept of vulnerability. Vulnerability in relation to food security is determined by the frequency and intensity of shocks affecting households and the capacity of these households to withstand these shocks. Vulnerable households and communities may face acute food crises due to many factors (not just weather-related) and adopt extreme coping strategies to meet food needs. The long-term and cumulative effect of resorting to these types of coping strategies reduces more sustainable access to food as well as access to factor inputs necessary to restore livelihood security and/or own food production. This is clearly the case for many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Chronic food insecurity reduces household and community capacity to face human-induced and natural hazard shocks, particularly when faced with an acute food crisis. Repeated shocks, such as higher food prices, loss of income or source of livelihood, or loss of food crops due to extreme weather events, may force households to cope with chronic poverty and seasonal or cyclical food insecurity, depleting household assets and resulting in deteriorating food security.

Resource documents for bioenergy

International Standard

Please access from: www.iso.org/iso/home.html

Other Standards
The Sustainability of Biofuels — Limits of the Meta-Standard Approach
Setting a Quality Standard for Fuel Ethanol

Benefits of biofuels  
Using modern bioenergy to reduce rural poverty
The importance of biofuels
, Luiz Carlos Corrêa Carvalho 2005

Sustainability issues  
Sustainable bioenergy: Framework for decision makers, UN-Energy
Bioenergy sustainability principles

EU Sustainability criteria for biofuels — Consolidated texts

Sustainability standards, OEKO (2006) WWF

Pathways to sustainable and poverty eradication

Potential of sustainable liquid biofuel production in Rwanda

Roundtable on responsible soy (RTRS)

RSB Principles and criteria for sustainable biofuel production

RSPO Principles and criteria for sustainable palm oil production

RSPO Supply chain certification systems

Standardized initiatives towards sustainable biomass certification

Sustainability criteria & certification systems for biomass production

Sustainability criteria for biomass and biofuels

Sustainable bioenergy and food security

Verification of compliance with sustainability criteria for biofuels and bioliquids

Global principles and criteria for sustainable biofuels production, V 0.0

Blueprint Germany: A strategy for a climate-safe 2050

Sustainability quick check for biofuels (SQCB)

Criteria for a sustainable use of bioenergy on a global scale

Criteria for sustainable biomass production

Driving legislations and targets  
Directive 2009/28/EC, Promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources
Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007
Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 - A Summary of major provisions

Renewable Fuel Standard Program (RFS2) - Notice of final rulemaking
Renewable Fuel Standard Program (RFS2) Summary & analysis of comments

Economics of biofuels  
The impact of sustainability criteria on the costs and potentials of bioenergy production
Jatropha: Money does not grow on trees!

Impacts of the EU biofuel target on agricultural markets and land use

Extractive industries and Millenium Development Goals for Sub-Saharan Africa

Biofuels production, trade and sustainable development

Challenges and opportunities for developing countries in producing biofuels

Impact of bioenergy on food security  
Bioenergy and food security: Analytical framework
Bioenergy and global food security

Biofuels and food security: Implications of an accelerated production

Bioenergy, food security and sustainability: Towards an international framework

Will bioenergy development pose a threat to food security in developing countries?

Second FAO technical consultation on bioenergy & food security

The right to food and the impact of liquid biofuels

Price volatility in food and agricultural markets — Policy responses

PISCES food security scoping study

Call for scientific statement on bioenergy and food security

Bioenergy and food security: Analysis for Tanzania

Biofuels and the underlying causes of high food prices

Food Security in Brazil

Do biofuels mitigate GHG emissions?  
Accounting for ILUC in GHG balances of biofuels
Use of US croplands for biofuels increases GHGs through emissions from land use change  
Executive Summary — Understanding land use change and U.S. ethanol expansion  
Quantification of the effects on greenhouse gas emissions of policies and measures  
ILUC can overcome carbon savings from biofuels in Brazil  
Flying in the face of the facts: Greenwashing the aviation industry with biofuels  
Ethanol expansion and indirect land use change in Brazil  
Biofuels in 2011

Climate Change and Water, IPPC Tec Paper VI, 2008  
Corn ethanol and climate change

Land use change & indirect land use change  
Tackling Indirect Land Use
"Sustainable" palm oil driving deforestation

Supporting materials for use of U.S. croplands for biofuels increases greenhouse gases through emissions from land use change

Sugar cane and land use change in Brazil

Soy oil and indirect land use change

Indirect land use change from increased biofuels demand — Comparison of models
Indirect land use change for biofuels

GBEP workshop on idirect land use change - Status of and perspectives on science-based policies

Biofuels: Indirect land use change and climate impact 

Indirect effects of bioenergy
Indirect effects of bioenergy: Effects on landscapes and livelihoods

Bioenergy fuelling land grabs
Africa up for grabs — The scale and impact of land grabbing for agrofuels
Rising global interest in farmland: Can it yield sustainable and equitable benefits?

The socio-economic effects of GM-crops

Who benefits from GM crops - an industry built on myths

Second generation biofuels
Second-generation biofuels - Economics and policies
Role of lignocellulosic feedstocks