The debate currently raging about the global food crisis and whether biofuels are to blame for it is far more complex than it first appears.
Biofuels have been touted as the answer to climate change. Enthusiasts say that by replacing petroleum-based fuels, they can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But critics argue that they are diverting food crops away from the world’s hungry poor.
The argument, however, is not quite so black and white, according to IUCN experts. “The current media debate is simplistic,” says IUCN Deputy Director General Bill Jackson. “In reality, there are many factors affecting food prices and food security. What this debate should really be about is how the world produces food and how it is accessed by different groups of society.”
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, there is chronic underinvestment in agriculture in developing countries and a real neglect of the basic premise that ecosystems have to be in good shape in order to provide good food.
“Governments and aid agencies need to recognize that healthy ecosystems that provide reliable water, fertile soils, pest control and pollination, are critical to agriculture,” says Gonzalo Oviedo, Leader of IUCN’s Conservation and Poverty Reduction Initiative. “Maintaining these environmental services must be incorporated into national and regional poverty reduction and development plans.”
Food security not only relies on healthy ecosystems, it also depends on healthy people. In Southern Africa, for example, the long-term effects of HIV/AIDS on food production are devastating. Some countries risk losing up to 26 percent of their agricultural labour force within two decades.
Pointing the finger of blame for the current food crisis solely at biofuels is not the answer – the causes are far more complex.
In a similar way, the debate about whether biofuels are good or bad for the environment is not clear-cut. They are not the perfect or sole solution to climate change, but neither should they be written off.
“We cannot afford to reject the real opportunities biofuels provide to deal with climate change because of weak analysis,” says IUCN Deputy Director General Bill Jackson.
The impact of biofuel production depends on which part of the world it takes place in and how it is carried out. The rapid expansion of industrial oil palm plantations in Indonesia, for example, have forced smallholders off their land and converted massive swathes of diverse and rich rainforest into vast monocultures.
But in other cases, biofuels have actually 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.
“The point is not all biofuels are the same,” says Andrea Athanas, Coordinator of IUCN’s Energy Ecosystems and Livelihoods Initiative. “We need more informed discussion about the risks biofuels pose, but also the opportunities they present. IUCN is leading efforts to do this.”
Second generation biofuels offer substantial opportunities. They are produced from agricultural waste or algae, so reduce competition with food crops, and offer higher energy yields.
In short, there is no doubt that biofuels are part of the solution to coping with climate change. But when it comes to the debate on the global food crisis, they should not be the focus of discussion. It is time for the world’s agricultural systems and all the issues associated with food production to come under the spotlight instead.
IUCN is working to find long-term and sustainable solutions based on the best science available. It is pushing for governments to create policies that recognize how important healthy and diverse ecosystems are for food and energy security. IUCN believes that solutions can only be found if we carefully consider all the available options according to local and national contexts.