A short extract of some of the main points raised during the course “Examining Issues around Global Food Security” by Dr Julie Flood from CABI at the Department of Continuing Education’s program of the University of Oxford on March 7th, 2014. The course aimed to highlight the issues of food security/insecurity, and particularly around growing of biofuels.
Current situation about global food security
Currently, an estimated 1 billion people are going hungry and by 2050, the total population is projected to increase from 7 billion to 9 billion. This change is mostly projected in developing countries which may impact the challenge of reducing global poverty and hunger. Food prices may be affected by increased demand, disruption of supply by extreme weather, rising oil prices and changes in land use (biofuels).
What are biofuels?
Biofuels are crops that are high in sugar, starch, or oil and can be used to replace some fossil fuels. Biofuels of first-generation are made from starch, sugar, vegetable oil or animal fats. Second-generation biofuels are produced from non-food crops such as agricultural biomass and third-generation biofuels are made from extracting oil from algae.
Biofuel policies aim to address climate change and declining fossil fuel reserves. The use of biofuels has been proposed as a renewable energy solution but some questions have been raised including how biofuels will affect food insecurity, global warming, land rights, foreign investments, invasiveness and threats on biodiversity.
- Food security
The major concern raised about biofuels is the use of feedstock to produce biofuels that can be used as food in a world where one billion people are still food-insecure. First-generation biofuels are directly in conflict with food security and strongly impact many developing countries that rely on one or two staple crops such as maize, cassava or wheat. Using these crops as biofuels may increase demand and lead to higher global food prices.
- Global warming
Biofuels aim to be carbon neutral or even carbon negative (CO2 released during biofuel combustion is offset by carbon fixation during plant growth) and generate a reduction of 60-80% in carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels. However, several studies argue that it takes more energy (in the form of pesticides, fertilizers, mechanisation, extraction, manufacture, transport) to produce ethanol than is received in outputs. Additionally, second-generation biofuels may remove agricultural residues that could otherwise be retained in soil to maintain soil organic carbon, minimize erosion, and protect soil quality and production.
- Biodiversity and invasiveness
As forests are converted into agricultural lands, a drastic loss in biodiversity is observed as those ecosystems cannot support species of conservation importance. Moreover, some biofuel plant species may become invasive in non-native ecosystems.
- Land rights
Land rights of an estimated 60 million indigenous people worldwide may be at risk from large-scale agro-fuel expansion (e.g. community’s displacement). Linked to this issue, foreign investment in some countries, known as “land grabs” (the purchase or lease of vast tracts of lands by wealthier, food-insecure nations and private investors from poor, developing countries) to produce crops for export might also impact local food security. Local people may not have legal knowledge about land rights, and deals may not be made on equal terms.
In the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries, where an increasing domestic food supply is an urgent issue considering the growing number of hungry people every year, the use of land for biofuels could be in direct competition with local food production. As demand for biofuels increases, strong policies should be in place focusing on land use management and promoting best agricultural practices (e.g. no-till farming and phasing-out pre-harvest field burning) to protect local communities, food security, environment and biodiversity. Investment in research and development is also needed for alternating biofuel feedstock such as third-generation biofuels. Those alternatives might be more promising and sustainable as they could be grown on waste land, using waste carbon dioxide and waste water.
I would like to acknowledge the Knowledge Bank team for their advice on the topic and Emily Palmer to help for the redaction.