The nations of Asia and the Pacific are being urged to study the issue of biofuels with greater care before deciding on how they will use their agricultural products to generate energy.
Scientists say there is an urgent need to support the current rush toward major decisions on biofuel policies in Asia and the Pacific with solid research and unbiased information about their potential benefits, impact, and risks.
This appeal was issued at the end of a recent Expert Consultation on Biofuels organized by the Asia Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI) together with the Philippine-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in India, the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico. The consultation was held at IRRI's headquarters in Los Baños, Philippines, on August 27-29.
"There's no doubt biofuels will have an impact on agriculture in Asia and the Pacific and present some very interesting new opportunities," APAARI's executive secretary, R.S. Paroda, said. "But we need to be absolutely sure this will not affect the region's food security and its continuing efforts to alleviate poverty."
In the Asian region, both China and India are gearing up for substantial investments in biofuels. Malaysia and Indonesia are investing heavily in oil palm plantations for biodiesel production. The Philippines has mandated the blending of gasoline with 5 percent biofuel.
However, at the same time, countries such as China have currently banned the use of maize -- a vital food crop for national food and feed security -- as biofuel.
The consultation focused on important issues such as:
- how bioenergy production may have an impact on global and regional food security,
- understanding bioenergy options for key crops and cropping systems in Asia,
- identifying research priorities for designing and evaluating integrated food-bioenergy production systems, and
- developing a framework for research on biofuels in key agricultural systems of Asia.
Conclusions of the expert consultations
1. The Bioenergy Revolution is fast approaching. Biofuels will play a major role in the global economy of the future. Many countries are exploring different strategies and policies on alternative energy sources, and the Asia-Pacific region, in particular, is expected to play a significant role in the development and promotion of biofuels.
2. Poverty is still widespread in Asia. It is not clear to what extent poor farmers will benefit from the Bioenergy Revolution. What is clear is that the introduction and/or expansion of biofuel crops will cause major land-use changes, and that many feedstocks (although originally targeted at marginal lands) will compete with food crops in productive eco-regions. The challenge is to ensure a balance between food and biofuel production.
3. Policymakers need to protect the poor from rising commodity prices likely to be triggered by the diversion of crop produce or area expansion of biofuel crops. Therefore, there is an urgent need to strengthen policy research in order to avoid decisions that may lead to competition between food and bioenergy, and identify a complementary approach that benefits both sectors.
4. International organizations and the international agricultural research centers (IARCs) must accelerate their biofuel-related research in order to generate much-needed international public goods (IPGs) that will benefit resource-poor farmers. They also need to enhance regional coordination of R&D efforts on bioenergy in the Asia-Pacific region, encourage regional information sharing, and facilitate research networking and capacity building of NARES.
5. Public-sector research needs to ensure that technology advances made in the private sector ultimately benefit the poor in the developing world. This is particularly important for many second-generation biofuel technologies, which, for want of proper policies and IPR regime, may not be accessible to poor farmers in Asia. Public-private partnerships, being the key factor, will have to be established and promoted.
6. It is critical that scientists examine and share unbiased information on the life cycle performance and economics of bioenergy technologies, and their impact on food security and poverty. The social and environmental impacts of these technologies will also have to be assessed. This requires a standardized typology of food-feed-fiber-energy--producing agricultural systems as well as standardized methodologies for their integrated assessment.
7. Asian countries should consider the use of crop residues, especially rice and wheat straw, which are largely being burned in most countries. This is a priority area for R&D, particularly with regard to thermal conversion technologies for different scales and the level of residue retention, which may be needed for sustainable land use under different cropping systems.
8. Potential biofuel-producing countries in Asia should conduct their own national assessments critically and devise appropriate strategies to meet long-term bioenergy goals. APAARI and other regional/global organizations should devise strategies for the Bioenergy Revolution, and sensitize policymakers so that Asia-Pacific countries can reap the expected benefits.
9. The donor community should fund new R&D efforts on bioenergy, since the long-run benefits will lead to both poverty alleviation and protection of the environment -- thus meeting two of the major Millennium Development Goals.
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