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Symposium 2009

Proposal - How to prevent conflicts between energetic use of biomass and food security?

The Challenge

Food security and promoting modern uses of biomass as a source of energy are two key goals in developing countries. Are these conflicting interests impossible to reconcile or two ends of a common st ...

Food security and promoting modern uses of biomass as a source of energy are two key goals in developing countries. Are these conflicting interests impossible to reconcile or two ends of a common strategy?

Biomass is the most important source of energy in many developing countries, most notably in sub-Saharan Africa.

  1. Use land sustainably and raise the productivity of agriculture. Agricultural intensification is a sine qua non for improved food security at all levels in a world in which (i) yield growth for basic grains has been declining for at least 20 years now and (ii) the need to protect land has become more urgent – for reasons ranging from the requirements of nature and biodiversity conservancy to environmental, quality-of-life, and climate considerations.
  2. Grow more with less in each of the 4 functions of agriculture (food, feed, fibre, fuel), raising in particular the efficiency and sustainability of land and water use. Productivity improvements in all functions of agriculture could mitigate and potentially diffuse the food security-biofuels conflict where it exists. The application of existing technology alone could raise grain yields several-fold in some populous developing countries and regions. This is what should be propagated, with a particular focus on lagging world regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia: Step up agricultural R&D; pay attention to the ‘D’ dimension (product development and introduction) that often suffers from relative neglect in (public) national and international agricultural research; and upgrade efforts to extend solutions to resource-poor small farmers (‘agricultural extension’).
  3. Recognize that improvements in agricultural productivity call for action on multiple fronts, i.e.: ‘technology’ (including improved crop varieties and seed, fertilizer, tools and machinery, seed treatment and crop protection); physical infrastructure and connectivity; institutions that serve the farming community; credit and insurance products for farmers, particularly smallholders in developing countries; access to markets at remunerative prices; trade, price and subsidy reform; and governance for an agriculture-for-development agenda. The DOHA Round should be completed, with significant reforms on products that matter to the poorest countries.
  4. Recognize that technology coupled with adequate incentives and knowledge transfer can bring about agricultural intensification sustainably, on existing agricultural and rehabilitated degraded land, without encroachment into forests, while positively conserving water, managing soil fertility and controlling erosion. Rich importing countries practicing extensive agriculture (or growing biofuels) should take note of the implications of their stance, which may include land use change (LUC) elsewhere in the world.
  5. Build awareness of land use and LUC as critical issues deserving attention. (Note that LUC is much more pertinent to the biofuels discussion in tropical countries than the supposed food security linkages, which are invariably weak.) Climate change and, to a degree, deforestation (a form of LUC) have surfaced as global issues of concern. Land use and the need to protect land and the quality of soils (by avoiding deforestation, process disturbance, material loss of land and environmental pollution) have not. In addition, there is limited awareness of the increasing pressure on land resulting from changing food consumption patterns. To build awareness of LUC as an issue, one needs data. Global data sets on land and soil degradation are out of date, and comprehensive and regularly updated high-resolution information does not exist. The 1991 Global Assessment of Soil Deterioration (GLASOD) is based on data from the 1980s and has not been updated so far.
  6. Create incentives for the rehabilitation of degraded land for eventual agricultural use. There are many forms and sources of land degradation ranging from the reversible at some levels of investment to the irreversible. In general, research has found that farmers’ willingness to invest in soil and land improvement is closely linked to the income perspectives tied to that land. A matter, therefore, of prioritizing agriculture where it is taxed or undervalued and giving it a fair break.
  7. Avoid simplistic calls for moratoria on bioenergy and biofuels. Bioenergy strategies should be closely linked with agriculture, forestry, climate change mitigation, poverty reduction and rural development strategies. They should not undermine food security or the goals of biodiversity conservation and net GHG emissions reductions. The cultivation of energy crops on lands not newly reclaimed from forests or wetlands should instead (and in principle can) seek to harness agricultural growth for broader rural development, the creation of business opportunities and jobs, and the generation of foreign exchange, all of which could help enhance food security.

What is the potential contribution of biomass energy to the future development of developing countries?

  1. The contribution of biomass energy is fairly significant. But we must develop the science and data needed to estimate the quantities of biogenic waste and residues that could be available on a sustainable basis, subject to soil protection standards and the demand on residues for animal feed. Operationally speaking, a number of opportunities present themselves:
  2. In the first place, do more to overcome energy poverty in developing countries by modernizing the use of traditional biomass as the main form of energy available to the poorest third of mankind. This requires a focus on rural areas to control the health hazards associated with this type of energy while raising fuel efficiency (for example, by improving cooking stoves). Small-scale installations to harness energy from biogenic waste at the household and community level could lead to significant improvements in comfort, the freeing up of productive time, and land quality by reducing the need to gather wood.
  3. Furthermore, exploit the potential of biogenic waste and residues as sources of fuel in the generation of electricity (in co-generation or gasification plants) and use municipal waste (much of which is organic in developing countries) to feed biogas reactors to address decentralized household- and neighborhood level energy needs.
  4. As an option with some potential, develop biochar from renewable forestry resources or biogenic waste streams. Biochar deserves attention in developing and industrialized countries alike as a form of bioenergy that could be carbon-negative, not only carbon-neutral, while possessing significant soil enrichment properties – within the limits of the quantity of biomass that is sustainably available and usable, without encroaching on unmanaged forests.
  5. Manage risk: The risks from uncontrolled expansion of bioenergy are four-fold: the potential threat to food security (but, as implied earlier, there could also be complementarity over different time horizons), the threat to biodiversity, the threat to soils and water, and the climate risk associated with LUC for the purpose of growing energy crops.

How to prevent the adverse effects from changing land with high carbon storage value to agricultural land?

  1. Accept that there is no free lunch. The goal of reducing atmospheric carbon concentrations requires us to address carbon emissions from fossil fuels, industrial practices, and also terrestrial systems. Research shows that the full integration of terrestrial systems and the use of fossil fuels in a comprehensive model to limit atmospheric carbon concentration lowers the cost of meeting environmental goals, but has implications for agriculture, causing food prices to rise through competition for land, unless technology contributes sufficiently to raising per hectare food and agricultural yields.
  2. Create incentives to limit the conversion of land with high carbon storage value to agricultural land. Agree, therefore, in Copenhagen (in December 2009) on architecture for financing, technology transfer and emissions reduction targets. Stress the possibilities of, and the need for adequate funding for, Payment for Environmental Services schemes, including REDD, the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation mechanism. Mobilize new resources for pioneering projects that sequester or conserve carbon in ecosystems and agriculture, thereby mitigating climate change and promoting sustainable development. The BioCarbon Fund (administered by the World Bank) is one of the very few buyers of GHG emission reductions from this class of projects.

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