Increasing the production of energy from biomass (bioenergy) needn't come at the expense of growing food crops — done right, it can enhance food security and prosperity in Africa, say Lee R. Lynd and Jeremy Woods.
Assessments of the impact of bioenergy on food security have focused too heavily on the drawbacks of competing for land, without considering the potential benefits for rural development. Most parts of Africa have plenty of land that could be productive, while under-development fuels hunger.
Food insecurity in Africa is not a result of limited agricultural capacity but of neglected agricultural development, as well as poverty, poor infrastructure, land degradation and armed conflict, say the authors.
They argue that the impact of bioenergy on food security depends on the crops grown, land used, technology employed, and how the energy supply is integrated into agricultural, social and economic systems — and this means that several policy options could be considered to boost bioenergy.
Bioenergy could be produced from inedible crops grown on low-quality, dry land, for example, which will not compete with food production needs. This would have multiple benefits, including the employment and training of rural Africans who would otherwise have few opportunities; regeneration of degraded land; availability of energy for agricultural use and equitable access to it.
The authors suggest that bioenergy projects in Africa should demonstrate improvements in food security at a local level. This would be followed by monitoring and evaluation using standards adapted to the African context; using public-private partnerships to capture the social benefits; using farmer cooperatives to represent smallholder farmers; and investing in research into ways of producing and maximising the benefits of biomass.
Africa might then follow Brazil's success in lifting ten per cent of its population out of poverty within a decade by increasing the production of both food and ethanol.
Nature doi:10.1038/474S020a (2011)