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FAO and GBEP: Biofuels an Opportunity—Not a Threat—for Developing Nations

May 25, 2011

           

Since its very inception, the global biofuels industry has unfairly been portrayed by some ardent detractors as a sector that creates an unavoidable "food vs. fuel" choice. Luddites and Malthusians have suggested that crop-based biofuels simply can't provide significant volumes of energy for transportation without starving the world's poor. Some have gone so far as to hyperbolically suggest the use of biofuels by affluent societies is literally taking food out of the mouths of hungry children in the developing world. Unfortunately, these extreme views of biofuels have sometimes been fortified by alarmist rhetoric and doomsday sound bites from leaders of major international organizations, quasi-governmental groups, and NGOs. Of course, these ridiculous charges have been disproven time and time again, and the world's farmers have repeatedly shown that they are more than capable of meeting the planet's growing demands for food, feed, fuel, and fiber. Further, biofuels have proven themselves around the globe as essential conduits for rural development and technology transfer—not rural oppression. Still, the "biofuels-causes-starvation" myth lives on in the annals of junk science and the editorial pages of elitist newspapers. Against this backdrop, it was quite refreshing to see two reports in the last week that highlight the extraordinary potential of biofuels to serve as agents of rural development and enhancers of food security in developing nations. The sources of these reports—the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP)—are as notable as the messages that are contained within them. That's because FAO and several of the groups participating in GBEP have not always had kind things to say about biofuels and bioenergy. The FAO released information about its new "Bioenergy and Food Security (BEFS) Analytical Framework," which was created to help governments evaluate the potential of bioenergy as well as assess its possible food security impacts. According to the FAO press release promoting the tool:           ...investment in bioenergy could spark much-needed investment in agricultural and transport infrastructure in rural areas and, by creating jobs and boosting household incomes, could alleviate poverty and food security.           "FAO has been saying for years that under-investment in agriculture is a problem that seriously handicaps food production in the developing world, and that this, coupled with rural poverty, is a key driver of world hunger," says [BEFS project leader Heiner] Thofern. "Done properly and when appropriate, bioenergy development offers a chance to drive investment and jobs into areas that are literally starving for them." And:           FAO studies have also shown that small-scale bioenergy projects not targeting export markets can improve food security and help boost rural economies. FAO points out that, as with development of any energy source, there are potential environmental, social, and economic considerations that must be contemplated when evaluating the benefits of a bioenergy project for a particular community or region. FAO says bioenergy likely isn't a universal "silver bullet" solution that will be appropriate for every community in every case. "That being said, we can't turn our back on the fact that in other cases, bioenergy production holds great potential to revitalize rural economies, reduce poverty, and improve household food security," Thofern says. The second major international statement about the rural development and food security benefits of biofuels came yesterday as the Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP) announced it has agreed on a voluntary framework intended to help countries assess and develop sustainable production and use of bioenergy. GBEP is a group of government officials, organizations and institutions from around the world that was established to implement the commitments made by the G8 in 2005 to support biomass and biofuels deployment, "particularly in developing countries where biomass use is prevalent." While we are still reviewing the particulars of (and reserving judgment on) the GBEP voluntary indicators for assessing sustainable production and use of bioenergy, the government officials involved clearly had an eye on the vast potential of bioenergy to improve the quality of life in developing nations. In a GBEP statement yesterday, Daniel Clune of the U.S. Department of State said:           Modern bioenergy encompasses many technologies that have the potential to not only promote sustainable development, but also help meet two important needs in the developing world by enhancing food and energy security.           The latest research shows that when done rationally and thoughtfully, sustainable modern bioenergy creates a virtuous cycle that improves agricultural productivity and draws investments in to expand associated infrastructures and promote economic and social development. Indeed, one needs look no further than the American heartland to witness first-hand the tremendous rural economic development benefits of biofuels. What reason do we have to believe the U.S. biofuels model can't be successfully replicated in developing nations around the globe? It's encouraging to see influential international organizations and world leaders recognizing that bioenergy is a solution—not a threat—to economic development and food security in developing nations.