The Impact of Biofuels on Food Security: From Global to Local

by Stephen Thornhill

Biofuel production rose sharply in the early years of the new millennium as governments promoted their use in petrol and diesel fuels as a way of reducing fossil fuel use and encouraging rural development. However, in recent years biofuels have been criticized for causing increased hunger by reducing food availability and driving up global food prices.

Biofuels are made from various feedstocks, including maize, sugar cane, oilseeds and by-products such as molasses, and they also produce large volumes of co-products in their production processes, particularly protein meals for animal feed. A number of biofuel feedstock operations have been established in developing countries to either supply local needs or for export to processors in developed economies.

In contrast to much of the media coverage and public perception surrounding the food versus fuel debate, Stephen’s thesis finds that biofuel operations can, under the right conditions, help improve food security in rural areas of low-income countries where poverty and hunger is most rife. It also finds little evidence that biofuels have significantly reduced global food availability or have been responsible for rising food prices over the past decade.

The results of household surveys in Mozambique and Tanzania showed that those households with employees of biofuel operations were likely to be significantly more food-secure than other households in the same locality. His analysis, which controlled for key influences on food security, such as household size and crop area, confirmed “biofuel involvement” as a significant factor behind a better food security status. Most households involved in biofuel operations attributed their improved food security to better and more stable income from salaried employment.

Stephen’s analysis of the global biofuel sector found that the rise in the biofuel feedstock area over the past decade represented little more than 1 per cent of the world’s arable and permanent crop acreage. It also found little evidence that US biofuel production (the world’s largest producer), had accounted for any substantial proportion of maize price changes over the past decade. Moreover, there appeared to be limited transmission between US maize prices, used as the global benchmark, and local maize prices in Mozambique and Tanzania.

Stephen also developed a novel food security indicator during the study – the Household Nutrient Deficit Score. The new metric and its methodology can help measure the impact of agri-based and other interventions on food and nutrition security, assisting policymakers, private sector operations and organisations involved in such projects, as well as those involved in sustainable certification systems. Stephen is currently seeking funding to improve the metric and methodology further and develop an app-based tool for use on ipads and phones.

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