Stop ignoring farmer’s know-how on biofuels

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The end of 2013 is approaching and, once again, we are facing a political biofuels showdown. Instead of relying on data from incomplete food market models, stakeholders and most notably farmers should be involved, Hans Langeveld writes.

Hans Langeveld is the director of Biomass Research. He wrote this opinion piece on 11 December.

This time it is the EU Presidency which now needs to decide how to deal with biofuels and update the Renewable Energy Directive of 2008. The European policy makers are trying to incorporate the alleged indirect land use change (ILUC) caused by EU biofuels into the EU legislation; while the current models and science are struggling to deliver necessary data.

NGO’s and biofuel companies are campaigning to assure that their point of view is getting enough attention. NGOs call to stop a policy that is affecting the use of food crops and food prices. Biofuels producers call for stable policies and security for investments and jobs.

The way the expansion of biofuel feedstock production affects existing land use is key in the on-going debate and this is extremely difficult to assess.

Land use change is determined by at least three forces: food harvests meeting consumer demand via a series of specialised, highly fluid commodity markets; land resources availability is regulated in local land markets which tend to be influenced by local administrations and, consequently, is one of the most regulated elements of food/biofuel production; finally, decision making in crop production has to face much of uncertainty such as future weather patterns, prices, as well as economic hardship.

One might expect, therefore, that stakeholders involved in the land use debate would base themselves on a solid knowledge of farming practices, land use systems as well as agronomic and micro-economic decision making. Instead, as will be highlighted below, the data used thus far comes from incomplete food market models which generate incorrect outcomes.

Most models used to assess biofuels were originally developed to evaluate agriculture or climate policies and were later adopted to incorporate biofuels production. This has direct consequences on the way they are implemented and more importantly, key aspects, like the generation of co-products and second generation biofuels, are not considered. These models seem to have therefore an incorrect representation of co-products generated in the biofuel production process and of the impact of biofuels on food and land. The European Commission used this kind of model for its current proposal to address ILUC caused by EU biofuels.

Most of these models have limited ability to incorporate changes in land use, notably cropping intensity, as well as the impacts of trade policies or agro-ecological conditions in crop production areas. Furthermore, ILUC calculations fail to address the impacts of increased double cropping, which should be considered as it is currently a way by which farmers adapt to increased demand.

Analysis of the crop and land statistics of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has shown that farmers have been able to increase cropping intensity in the EU as well as elsewhere: in 2010, on the harvested area for biofuels more than 90 million tons of co-products have been generated. The result is an increase of food and feed availability rather than a decline.

In this light, the food versus fuel debate needs to be enriched. As existing ILUC models do not consider cropping intensity and the factors reported above, they provide an insufficient and non-scientific solid base to use for biofuel policy making. Integration of changes in farming practices could provide essential and crucial information as to how they are expecting to adjust to prevailing new conditions of enhanced biofuel, food and feed requirements.

To conclude, it is high time we incorporated farmers and primary’s processors knowledge into biofuels policies.