Current biofuels threaten food security

 19.03.2009 | PR14/2009

14/2009 March 19, 2009 Vienna, Austria

A study commissioned by the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID) and prepared by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) was released on March 18 at the 4th International OPEC Seminar. The study report entitled “Biofuels and Food Security -- Implications of an Accelerated Biofuels Production," concludes that the use of first-generation biofuels will increase food insecurity in the world’s poorest countries and is unlikely to deliver any significant greenhouse gas mitigation benefit for at least 30 years.

According to Suleiman Jasir Al-Herbish, the Director-General of OFID, “the study provides further evidence that current biofuels may have serious unintended consequences, particularly for developing nations, and could work against the Millennium Development Goal of reducing world hunger.”

IIASA’s Dr Mahendra Shah, one of the principal authors of the report, notes that biofuels are being promoted as a potential solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing energy security and fostering rural development. He warns, however, that “current biofuels development is being pursued without a thorough assessment of the potential consequences on issues such as food security and deforestation, or the stated potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.”

The study reviews the global status of biofuels development, policy regimes and support measures and quantifies the agro-ecological potential of first-and second-generation biofuels crops. It presents a comprehensive evaluation of the social, environmental and economic implications of biofuels development on transport fuel security, greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural prices, food security, land use change and sustainable agricultural development.

“If the current biofuels targets imposed by developed and developing countries are achieved, net greenhouse gas savings in the period to 2050 may amount to 15 to 27 Giga tons carbon dioxide equivalent (Gt CO2e) in comparison to 6 Gt CO2e annual emissions from transport fuels”, says Shah “Equally concerning is that current biofuels targets will result in an additional 140 million people being put at risk of hunger by 2020. Also climate change itself if unabated will result in food production losses, further increasing the vulnerability of the poor.”

Al-Herbish says that the study does not support the notion that the development of biofuels will result in increased rural development. “On the contrary, it indicates only a modest increase in income for farmers in developing countries, and when this is balanced against the increasing cost of food, it is not the anticipated win-win situation,” he states.

On food prices, the study highlights that “the increased demand for first-generation biofuels, which are largely based on cereal, sugarcane and vegetable oil crops, is driving the price of food up, due to the competing demand for food, feed and fuel. It is estimated, for example, that achieving a 6 percent use of biofuels in the transport sector would lead to a 34 percent increase in world cereal prices. Such an increase will cause a serious deterioration in food security in developing countries.”

According to Guenther Fischer, another principal author of the report, “achieving the 2020 biofuels targets using first-generation biofuels will require an additional 150-240 million tons per annum of cereal crops, which in turn would require an additional 30 million hectares of land for production. The results also highlight deforestation of some 15 million hectares by 2020, with the inherent risks of biodiversity loss. Deforestation on this scale also releases substantial carbon and removes a critical carbon sink.”

The study emphasizes that there is substantial potential for the commercial production of second-generation biofuels feedstocks in tropical grasslands and woodlands. This offers opportunities to develop innovative and mutually beneficial private sector and local community partnerships that would combine biofuels production for the market with food production by and for the local community. Such partnerships would need to be well designed, monitored and legally binding to minimize social and economic risks of exploitation.

“Food security and energy security are co-dependent, and if biofuels are to be seen as part of the fuel security, or climate change mitigation, an early transition to second-generation biofuels technologies and a shift away from the use of food staples is needed urgently to avert a growth in world hunger and unsustainable agricultural practices,” adds Fischer.

The study notes that Brazil has successfully implemented a biofuels strategy based on ethanol from sugarcane grown under rainfed conditions in former pastoral and grasslands areas. This program was privatized in the late 1990s, after being strategically developed with public funding from the early 1970s.

Shah points out that, for more than thirty years, there have been countless debates on the concerns of feeding cereals to livestock in a world where over one-sixth of the population lives with chronic hunger and debilitating poverty. “There is a risk that we might spend the next thirty years debating the merits of feeding cereals to cars,” he says. “This time the situation though is different, as the entire world’s population will be affected if we fail to deal with the challenges of climate change mitigation, providing clean energy and ensuring food security, all of which are interrelated and need to be tackled together.”

Al-Herbish describes the study as “a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussions about climate change mitigation, and in particular, OFID’s concern to ensure the interests of developing nations are considered, as nations work together to address the co-dependent issues of food security, energy security, rural development and climate change.”

Link to the summary document: Biofuels and food security: Implications of an accelerated biofuels production

The full report will be made available in due course.

OFID Contacts

Mr. Faris Hasan +43 1 51564 293

Mr. Rachid Bencherif + 43 1 51564 230

IIASA Contacts

Mr. Guenther Fischer +43 2236 807 292 or +43 664 224 7233

Dr. Mahendra Shah +43 2236 807 508 or +43 676 471 8731

About OFID:

OFID is the development finance institution established in January 1976 by Member States of OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) to promote South-South cooperation by extending development assistance to other, non-OPEC developing countries. In keeping with its mandate, OFID focuses its resources on projects designed to help the poorest nations and the most vulnerable members of their societies.

About IIASA:

IIASA is an international scientific institute that conducts research into the critical issues of global environmental, economic, technological, and social change that we face in the 21st century. Its findings provide valuable options to policy makers to shape the future of our changing world. IIASA is independent and funded by scientific institutions in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe.