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Protecting the World’s Food Supply

As bioenergy investments grow, certification schemes should include food security

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Each month the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world.

April 2016 winner (free access)
Food security criteria for voluntary biomass sustainability standards and certifications
Anna Mohr, Tina Beuchelt, Rafaël Schneider, Detlef Virchow
Biomass and Bioenergy, Available online 2 March 2016

Read the story about the award-winning research

In the quest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, many countries are looking to replace fossil fuels with more sustainable bioenergy. But the growing demand for electricity, heat, and fuel derived from biomass resources runs the risk of threatening global food security.

“The problem of this growing demand for bioenergy is that this trend may have adverse impact on food security through direct competition between biomass and food production when it comes to available resources such as land and water,” said Anna Mohr, formerly of the University of Bonn in Germany and currently working at Puro Verde Paraíso Forestal SA, a company in Costa Rica dedicated to reforestation and agroforestry. “This might lead to lowered food supplies and also to rising food prices at the local or international level.”

While standards have been developed to encourage the sustainable production of bioenergy, those standards haven’t considered issues related to food security. To address this gap, the Elsevier Atlas-award winning paper by Mohr and her colleagues sought to develop criteria to incorporate the Human Right to adequate Food (RtaF) in existing voluntary biomass sustainability standards.

In their work published in the journal Biomass and Bioenergy, Mohr and her colleagues began with scrutinizing 19 guidelines issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in 2004 to support the progressive realization ˗ of the right to adequate food ˗ in the context of national food security. The researchers translated those 19 guidelines into 45 criteria designed to ensure that food security isn’t adversely affected by certified biomass production.

Those criteria include a wide range of considerations, from land rights to living wages to disaster preparedness. For instance, the land used for bioenergy production should be free from land disputes with local people, Mohr explained. If companies are making use of land to produce bioenergy instead of food, then they must also pay local people a living wage to ensure they have the ability to purchase healthy food they can no longer grow for themselves.

“The rights-based food security principle is a best-practice set which provides guidance for regional and national standard settings as well as for private certification schemes,” Mohr and her colleagues said. “It is hence an important tool to avoid negative effects on local food security, induce positive changes and monitor the local food security situation.”

While there is evidence to suggest voluntary standards work well to ensure sustainable biomass production, it’s less clear whether such standards can also be used to adequately address the more complex issue of food security. The researchers say that, as these new standards are implemented, it will be necessary to monitor changes in food security related to growing bioenergy investments, particularly in regions where many people live in poverty, to ensure the new criteria work as intended.

A Conversation with Anna Mohr

PodcastIn this podcast, we speak with Anna Mohr about food security criteria for voluntary biomass sustainability standards and certifications. Listen now.

Atlas: How is the growing demand for bioenergy putting food security at risk? How serious is this problem already?

ANNA MOHR: We have seen in past years that more and more industrialized countries are starting to use bioenergy. More large-scale land investments are being taken in countries where national laws are not really enforced so that this land investment might lead to local food insecurity. The land may be taken from local peasant farmers and (the situation) may be aggravated because people can’t find jobs to secure access to food.

You can read it everywhere. There are a lot of NGOs who are publishing on these kinds of bad land deals. There is also a big Land Matrix project, a global project with different partners trying to find out what kind of land deals we have and what happens with them. There are different examples and it’s not really only about bioenergy. It’s about biomass production in a more general sense. For example, flower production may have bad impacts on local food security because peasant farmers are pushed from land where food production was taking place before and then farmers don’t really find jobs to pay for food. There is an example of a U.K. company that lost its certificate because they were purchasing sugar from a Cambodian company that was involved in a land dispute with local peasant farmers. So finally the certificate was taken off of the local company due to those land disputes.

Atlas: How did you get interested in these issues?

ANNA MOHR: I started investigating for my doctoral work the issue of effectiveness of biomass certification schemes. Food security is just one part in a larger certification scheme. There’s also deforestation and labor issues, and more. We had conversations with the German NGO Welthungerhilfe, which is engaged in food security aspects. They asked us to see if food security could be incorporated into certification schemes. We realized it’s not so easy to just define a few security criteria and address them in the standards, so we got funding for a larger effort.

Atlas: How did you begin to think through these issues?

ANNA MOHR: We started first by thinking of how food security could be measured. We noticed that for a sugar cane producing company, for example, we couldn’t just go and measure the impact. So we said, ok, we want to find out how certification can secure the human right to adequate food and not violate it. The FAO published voluntary guidelines in 2004. So we took these guidelines created to fulfill the human right to adequate food as guidance to develop our criteria. We translated these guidelines into criteria, which could be then used by private companies.

Atlas: Are you hopeful that standards like this can be put into place to allow the expansion of biomass-based economies without threatening food security?

ANNA MOHR: First of all, we created the framework—using the 19 guidelines to develop 45 criteria. Out of these guidelines, we’ve created a criteria catalog that might be used by existing certification standards. If these are incorporated into certification schemes, then food security could be addressed.

Now, if that will happen, we will see. We just published the criteria and now this list goes to discussion. Governments could also demand the assurance of food security in biomass investments or imports, which could be certified by private standards incorporating the 45 criteria. There’s always an important interplay between private certifications standards and government regulations.


About Biomass and Bioenergy

Biomass and Bioenergy is an international journal publishing original research papers and short communications, review articles and case studies on biological resources, chemical and biological processes, and biomass products for new renewable sources of energy and materials. The scope of the journal extends to the environmental, management and economic aspects of biomass and bioenergy.

Further Reading:

VOLUNTARY GUIDELINES to support the progressive realization ˗ of the right to adequate food ˗ in the context of national food security (United Nations)

Land Matrix – The Online Public Database on Land Deals

The European Commission on Bioenergy

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