Food versus fuel

20 July 2009 | News story

Biofuels are undoubtedly a hot topic when it comes to the recent rise in food prices. Here, Nadine McCormick, of IUCN's Energy Initiative, examines the good, the bad and the ugly sides of biofuel production and looks at the relationship between food security and biofuels.

Is biofuel production to blame for the rise in food prices?

Biofuel production is not solely responsible for the peak in food prices of 2008. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization calculated that biofuels were responsible for 30 percent of the price spike. Biofuel policies and investments exacerbated an already difficult food supply situation.

What other factors are contributing to food insecurity?

Food security is not just linked to availability of food, but also access to that food, stability of markets and the use of the food. Food prices have historically been very low, with farmers not receiving full value for their crops. Likewise, investment in agriculture has decreased massively since the "green revolution" of the 1980s. In the meantime, stocks of food have declined as eating habits have changed and yields have stagnated. These factors, coupled with droughts and higher energy costs, drove up the price of food.

Are second generation biofuels a good solution as they don’t compete with crops?

The situation here is very complex. While advanced biofuels that are based on non-food feedstock may not appear to compete with crops, they still require the same resources, such as land, machinery and water. Furthermore, farmers who can supply their crops to only one market, in this case biofuels, are more at risk than those farmers who cultivate soy, for example, which can be eaten by humans or cattle, or be converted to fuel.

How can we improve agricultural policies and practices to improve food security?

Unsustainable agricultural policies and technologies, inequitable trade rules, agricultural subsidies that distort the markets, and the systematic marginalization of small producers lie at the heart of the current food crisis. In addition, chronic underinvestment in agriculture in developing countries continues as does a real neglect of the basic premise that ecosystems have to be in good shape in order to provide good food.

Can you give an example of where biofuel production has been detrimental to local people and one where it has helped them?

The rapid expansion of industrial oil palm plantations in Indonesia has forced smallholders off their land and converted massive swathes of diverse and rich rainforest into vast monocultures.

But in other cases, biofuels have improved the lives of local people and helped conserve natural habitats. In the Western Ghats region of India, for example, the Applied Environmental Research Foundation has helped locals to harvest oil for biofuels from a native species of climbing shrub, Caesalpinia crista. Not only did biofuel production here help local people make money, it also protected the natural ecosystem.