Experts at UN meeting agree bioenergy can be force for good in rural areas

23 April 2007

Governments can use bioenergy as a positive force for rural development, so long as environmental and food security concerns are taken into account, a meeting of international experts hosted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has agreed.

Governments can use bioenergy as a positive force for rural development, so long as environmental and food security concerns are taken into account, a meeting of international experts hosted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has agreed.

The three-day meeting at FAO’s headquarters in Rome, which concluded on Wednesday, acknowledged that there are legitimate concerns among some groups about the potential dangers from harnessing bioenergy.

Biofuels are currently made from such materials as sugar cane, palm oil and maize and, given they can substitute for fossil fuels, hold the potential to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They could also boost employment and infrastructure in rural areas.

But there have been warnings that large tracts of land are being cleared for monocultures, causing environmental damage and a loss of biodiversity. The merit of using food crops to make fuel for vehicles rather than for consumption by humans or animals is also being questioned.

Alexander Müller, Head of FAO’s Natural Resources Management and Environment Department, said the specialists attending the meeting agreed that, despite those concerns, biofuels can be “an important tool for improving the well-being of rural people,” provided potential pitfalls are taken into account.

“In food security terms, bioenergy only makes sense if we know where the food-insecure populations are located and what they need to improve their livelihoods,” he said.

“Environmentally, we must make sure that both large- and small-scale producers of bioenergy fully take into account both the negative and positive impacts. There is a key role for governments to play in setting standards of performance.”

The meeting’s participants also concurred that FAO’s International Bioenergy Platform should soon draw up a set of guidelines for governments and potential investors to use in dealing with the biofuels industry.

Better data is also required for analyzing the environmental and food security impact of bioenergy production, they said.

 

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