You are here: Home Knowledge Base Towards Sustainable Consumption Proposals Securing food, feed and bioenergy through integrated resource planning for land, water and biomass
Symposium 2013

Proposal - Securing food, feed and bioenergy through integrated resource planning for land, water and biomass

The Challenge

A growing world population and increasing living standards imply large and accelerating resource use for individual consumption. The world’s population already consumes many of the planet’s resour ...

A growing world population and increasing living standards imply large and accelerating resource use for individual consumption. The world’s population already consumes many of the planet’s resources in unsustainable ways. It seems that economic progress in developing countries will also follow this pattern. A remedy may lie in more conscious behavior by consumers: sustainable consumption.

Replacing non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, ores or minerals with renewable resources seems like a good idea. But ‘renewable’ is not synonymous with ‘sustainable’ and ‘environmentally benign’. Often, renewable resources come with a hefty price tag in terms of social or ecological impacts. Resettlement schemes, negative impacts on ecosystems, even violent conflicts related to some hydropower plants are well-known cases in point.

Just ten years ago, experts, policy-makers and the general public commonly were confident that biomass would be a sustainable substitute for fossil fuels: a large, greenhouse-gas neutral, renewable source of energy that could replace a substantial fraction of global fossil fuels, thereby simultaneously solving problems such as resource scarcity and global warming.

The confidence has vanished. Bioenergy may still be part of a solution, but few would claim it were a silver bullet. In particular, bioenergy is not a limitless resource that would allow continuation of an unabated growth trajectory when fossil fuels become scarce or environmentally intolerable. Even worse, many scenarios for keeping the earth system within a two-degree Celsius warming goal – a target agreed widely in expert and policy circles – assume large-scale production of greenhouse-gas negative energy. This carbon-negative energy from bioenergy coupled with carbon-capture and storage seems difficult to achieve. So how could a solution look like?

Resources: equitable distribution and waste reduction

Evidence is mounting that unabated growth of material and energy use cannot be part of sustainable solutions based on renewables. It is not possible to switch from the fossil-fuel based growth engine to renewables and continue along past trajectories. No renewable resource is without problems. Examples include the social and ecological impacts of hydropower, the need for critical, perhaps scarce resources for photovoltaics, and negative impacts of wind power on habitation and recreation value of landscapes. Careful policies are indispensible for harnessing these resources sustainably, at acceptable levels of negative impacts.

The demand-side will hence come into focus for energy, food, fibre, minerals, metals, the whole lot. This need not be a disaster. For example, in many parts of the world, eating less, in particular less animal products, will not only spare lots of land, water and other critical resources, it will also contribute to improving public health. Of course this is no solution for poor and undernourished people. Reducing food losses and wastes in the food supply chain, which are substantial, and a more equitable distribution will be other indispensible elements of solutions aiming to reduce environmental burdens from food production while increasing food security. Demand-side options for critical resources such as food may seem outrageous, but sustainable low GHG trajectories cannot be achieved without changes in demand. No doubt, barriers are substantial, but they need to be tackled.

Integrated resource management and cascade utilization

In addition to changes of demand, integrated optimization of supply can help to increase efficiency of resource use, also for biomass, the example discussed here. Biomass denotes all materials derived from living, or recently living organisms. Humans need biomass for food, feed, fibre, and energy. At present, the energy equivalent of all biomass harvested and used by humans amounts to a bit less than half of global primary energy supply. To produce that biomass, humans currently use almost three quarters of the entire planet’s ice-free land. Most of the remaining quarter is very unproductive. There are no large unused fertile lands to be discovered, except tropical rainforests where it is imperative to tread cautiously. Increases in purpose-grown biomass for energy will therefore come from lands currently already in use, i.e. from an intensification of land use.

The current debate is focused on food-energy competition. Many experts claim that this issue will vanish with a switch to “second generation” technologies to produce biofuels from lignocellulosic materials. This may indeed help, but it is no panacea because competition for land and water persists as long as energy crops need water and land to grow.

One strategy that may help is the “cascade utilization” of biomass, i.e. a strategy of using by-products and recycling biogenic products after their lifetime. This happens already. A substantial part of global bioenergy currently stems from wastes and by-products. But there are significant potentials to gain more biomass through cascade utilization. Perhaps that strategy could double global bioenergy supply, without land use competition. This sounds much less glamourous than the enormous bioenergy potentials projected 5-10 years ago, but it is a lot more realistic.

Even larger potentials might be unleashed through joint optimization of food and energy production based on plant breeding and improved crop rotation schemes. Plant varieties that grow more straw might provide almost as much food per unit area and year as current varieties do, but much more by-products for energy. Integration of livestock systems and production of biogas from residues, wastes and manures – not from purpose-grown crops! – are key elements of such a strategy. Crop rotation schemes optimized for food and energy output, oriented towards closing nutrient cycles could help maintaining high food output along with much higher energy outputs. Intercrops could be grown and used for biogas, thereby delivering energy but returning carbon and nutrients back to the soil. More research is urgently needed to further develop such options which currently do not receive the attention they deserve.

Use of biophysical resources cannot grow sustainably forever

As it seems, proponents of renewable sources sometimes want to maximize ‘benign’ renewable options in order to reduce ‘bad’ non-renewable ones. This does not work, on the contrary: it risks unsustainable use of renewables; moreover, the use of non-renewable resources is not reduced because the problem underlying unsustainability, unlimited growth of physical resource use, is not tackled. For biomass it has become sufficiently clear that maximizing its use will exacerbate, not mitigate climate change and create a host of additional problems related to biodiversity, water, hunger and poverty. My hunch is that it is similar for most, if not all renewables: they can be used sustainably, if done right, but will not allow for unlimited growth of the biophysical resource use. Alleviating poverty and eradicating world hunger needs another foundation than a continuation of the current economic growth model if a transition towards sustainability is sought.

Author information
Dr. Helmut Haberl is associate professor of human ecology, director of the Institute of Social Ecology Vienna of the Alpen-Adria Unversität Klagenfurt, Wien, Graz and lead author of chapter 11 “Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use” in Working Group III for the 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This article represents his personal view. Contact details: Institute of Social Ecology Vienna, Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, Vienna, Graz, 1070 Vienna, Schottenfeldgasse 29, Austria, [Email protection active, please enable JavaScript.], phone +43-699-19130591, fax +43-1-5224000-477; press contact: [Email protection active, please enable JavaScript.].

    Related Proposals

    Proposal
    Symposium 2013

    Ways to achieve sustainable consumption

    The global consumption of natural resources is unsustainable. Rapid economic growth in emerging countries and a growing world population put an increasing strain on environmental conditions and natura ...

    The global consumption of natural resources is unsustainable. Rapid economic growth in emerging countries and a growing world population put an increasing strain on environmental conditions and natural resources. Future consumption patterns have to be markedly different to avoid catastrophic environmental and social consequences. Making consumption patterns sustainable is one of the greatest current challenges to humanity. It requires timely and concerted action of government, firms, and consumers. Its final goal has to be a world with a higher awareness of environmental and social impacts, in which the population’s needs for self-fulfillment is not met with ever higher levels of

    Polity, Academia, Business, Civil Society
    Proposal
    Symposium 2013

    The three dimensions of sustainable consumption

    Sustainability is a complex issue. It encompasses ecologic aspects of human activity – most looked at usually – but also social and economic aspects. Much has been said about the unsustainability ...

    Sustainability is a complex issue. It encompasses ecologic aspects of human activity – most looked at usually – but also social and economic aspects. Much has been said about the unsustainability of the use of non-renewable resources and some panelists have also stressed the fact that renewable resources can also be used in an unsustainable way. I want to stress the economic and social aspect of sustainable consumption. The lack of social sustainability of consumption easily comes to mind by recollecting some of the events in the recent past. The global market for textiles is a highly competitive one and

    Polity, Academia, Business, Civil Society
    Proposal
    Symposium 2013

    Sustainable Nutrition – a key element of Sustainable Consumption

    A critical challenge for our society is to find a path towards sustainable consumption. It’s even more challenging given the context of significant global demographic and social developments: Over t ...

    A critical challenge for our society is to find a path towards sustainable consumption. It’s even more challenging given the context of significant global demographic and social developments: Over the next 40 years, the world population will be well over 9 billion Globalization will inevitably expose the food system to further economic and political pressures Population growth, climate change and related potential political developments will lead to increased competition for food, water and energy Nestlé’s articles of association state that Nestlé shall, in pursuing its business purpose, aim for long-term, sustainable value creation. We strongly believe that for a company

    Polity, Business