As India looks to utilise damaged cereals and high sugar-content farm produce to manufacture biofuels that can be blended with petrol and diesel, there are concerns on why the focus has shifted from the traditional priorities of better food management, including storage and handling. This is relevant in the light of thousands of people going hungry and high levels of mal-nourishment in the country. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation gives Outlook its viewpoint on this crucial issue in an email response.
What is the FAO’s stance on use of food-crops for use as biofuel?
This dichotomy— biofuels or food—oversimplifies a very complex issue. First of all, biofuels are very context- and country-specific. We need to look at the country context to see if a specific biofuel production being considered is viable in that specific agricultural landscape. A key issue is that such a policy should be based on evidence that stems from robust analysis which can map out its social, environmental and economic impact. This is the approach the FAO has taken and will continue to take.
On the basis of the FAO’s country-level work, our conclusion is that biofuels are not good or bad per se, it depends on how they are managed. A key challenge, however, is to reconcile food and fuel production. That is not easy, and should be done in a way that manages risks and harness opportunities for biofuel development, while safeguarding vulnerable groups. FAO bioenergy and food security (BEFS) approach supports countries in designing and implementing sustainable bioenergy policies and strategies. The approach promotes food and energy security and contributes to agricultural and rural development. It consists of tools and guidance to support countries through the main stages of the bioenergy policy development and implementation process. Countries may decide to use specific components of the BEFS Approach depending on the level of bioenergy development, and the status of bioenergy policy formulation and implementation.
Currently, what is the quantum of global food produce that is being diverted for production of biofuel?
Exact statistics are hard to come by, but there are estimates. The OECD Agriculture outlook estimates that, at the global level, about 7 per cent of cereals, 12 per cent of vegetable oils and 18 per cent of sugarcane are used for biofuels.
Is it right that such diversions not only cut into the food security but also pose inflationary pressure on food prices?
In terms of food security, the key is how the agriculture supply side is handled. If agriculture production intended for biofuel production is additional to the current production, stimulates supply response and is inclusive of small holders, then it could further stimulate agriculture productivity and be a source of additional jobs. On the other hand, if it competes with current production and food supply, or is sourced under particular agriculture set-ups that could be more cost-competitive, the impacts could be null or negative.
In terms of contribution to food prices, this topic was heavily researched and there has been no final agreement on the route causes. Overall, the understanding is that a number of factors contributed to the prices variations and volatility and that biofuels what one of many sources of the price spikes. An interesting reference that discussed the large number of contributing factors at the time is http://www.ifpri.org/publication/reflections-global-food-crisis.
In the case of countries like India, is such a move justified considering that millions are still live without access to food while malnutrition levels remain alarming?
In India, the new biofuel policy has expanded the potential material for ethanol production by allowing use of sugarcane juice, sugar containing materials like sugar beet, sweet sorghum, starch containing materials like corn, cassava and damaged foodgrains such as of wheat, broken rice and rotten potatoes that are unfit for human consumption, for ethanol production. A detailed assessment of the viability of these options should underpin the policy. Furthermore, the policy should be paired with adequate monitoring to ensure that it does not impact food availability or prices. Additionally, given that the use of damaged and rotten food stuff is envisaged to be used for biofuel production, an indirect, passive impact of this may be a reduced focus on ensuring that such food wastage should be minimised in the first place.