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Study: Bioenergy crops do not harm food production

Scientists from ten institutions worldwide are challenging the notion that growing bioenergy crops hinders food production, which they see as harmful to new projects

Traditionally in the “food v. fuel” debate, bioenergy crops have been blamed for food shortages as the land used for growing them could have been instead harnessed for food production.

But a new report, titled Reconciling Food Security and Bioenergy: Priorities for Action, states that the underlying assumptions of previous studies have led to inaccurate conclusions.

The researchers say that the causes of local food shortages have been oversimplified and bioenergy’s possibilities for offering solutions have been overlooked.

Furthermore, these misconceptions are often reproduced in media reports covering the issue.

"Reliable information about the actual local effects is essential, but has been lacking in food-biofuel-climate debates," said lead author Keith Kline of the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Climate Change Science Institute.

Jeremy Woods, a co-author from Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy, noted that properly designed biofuel schemes invest in infrastructure and know-how that help protect against sudden changes in environment or markets.

"Integrated systems with diversified market options mitigate inevitable shocks caused by weather or unforeseen crises," he said.

The study calls for more flex-crop plantations, which grow crops that can be used for both food and fuel – such as sugarcane – and which can swap between these markets as the current situation demands.

"A significant share of a country's energy can be provided by biomass while also enhancing food production," said Glaucia Souza of the University of Sao Paulo.

"Brazil's sugarcane ethanol programme has demonstrated through a 40-year process of continuous monitoring, learning, and adaptation that it is possible to couple increased incentives for land restoration and ecosystem services with enhanced food security and poverty reduction," Souza continued.

The researchers also recommend that decision-makers introduce new flex-crop schemes that can withstand economic and environmental changes through cultivating diverse species of crops, varying how land is managed by farmers, and selling products across a range of markets.

They also encourage governments to engage with local communities to ensure that new programmes are to their benefit, and conduct ongoing programmes of education, analysis and capacity building in the face of climate change.

"Access to clean and reliable energy is integral to the United Nations' sustainable development goals, along with the alleviation of poverty and eradication of hunger," said Siwa Msangi of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

"Social, cultural and economic differences require that solutions to food and energy security be locally defined," he said.