Biomass, food & sustainability: is there a dilemma?

Oct 2007

In January 2007, thousands of demonstrators marched through Mexico City in protest at a rise in the price of the maize flour used for tortillas. Many believed the higher price was caused by American demand for ethanol which had pushed up the price of maize on which Mexicans depend for their basic food. Similarly, consumers in Italy went on strike to protest against the increasing price of pasta, upon which most Italian meals are based.
The tortilla crisis is one example of the many recent concerns about the impact of biomass production on food production, the stability of food and feed prices and the availability of food for the poor. Other concerns include the possible adverse effects on nature and biodiversity and the net energy savings and CO2 emission reductions that can be realised with bioenergy compared to conventional, fossil energy.
Combined with high subsidies paid for making transport biofuels competitive, consumer confidence as to whether bio-energy is the right thing to do is declining. Moreover, governments now face divergent pressures from environmental groups, some of them hailing bio-energy as a solution to climate issues, other denouncing it as a future cause of inequality and hunger.
But are these concerns justified? Is the tortilla crisis the direct effect of US policy on transport biofuels? Will bio-energy improve energy security and mitigate CO2 emissions, or will it simply lead to new problems in other areas, such as food security, biodiversity and even air pollution?
These and other issues have been addressed in this study.

By: L. O. Fresco (University of Amsterdam)

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