Bioenergy and agro-biotechnology

May 2008

Global population is expected to increase from 6.1 billion in 2000 to 7.6 billion in 2020, reaching 9.1 billion in 2050. With this growth in human population, there will be greater pressure on agricultural production, land, fuel, and other primary services. One potential response to augment agricultural production is expanded application of biotechnology for crop improvement. However major food commodities like maize, wheat, soybean, among others, are now being utilized as sources of bioenergy. The debate on agro-biotechnology, specifically the use of GMOs in plant breeding, has gained renewed public interest with the emergence of crop based bioenergy. The prospect of yield increases and increased stress tolerance in plants could alleviate competition among different land uses. At the same time, biotechnology promises options for plants being specifically modified for the efficient production of fuels. This paper seeks to address the following questions in order to assess risks and opportunities of agro-biotechnology in the field of bioenergy.

  • How can agro-biotechnology influence global sustainable plant production?
  • To what extent can biotechnology (in particular the use of GMOs for food and non-food production) decrease the potential of land-use competition by increasing yields?
  • What is the range of expected yield improvements that can be found in existing assessments?
  • What may be the risks?
  • Can biotechnology increase the potential for competition between different land uses, i.e. due to crowding out effects or biosafety concerns?
This paper provides insights to these questions based on research studies and analysis of scenarios of food supply and demand. It is divided into two major sections, 1) bioenergy, land use and food security, and 2) the impact of biotechnology on crop use for bioenergy and economic development. The first section presents baseline and zero-GMO scenario development, followed by discussion of the application of biotechnology to biofuel crops, agro-biotechnology directions, and role of biotechnology in biofuel processing. The second section deals with research capacity for agro-biotechnology, risks of global use of agro-biotechnology and recommends policies to develop sustainable bioenergy development.

By: A. Cavalieri, M. Rosegrant. (German Advisory Council on Global Change -WBGU)

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