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Contradictions about biofuels

The cultivation of biofuels could be a golden opportunity for smallholder farmers. However biofuels must be cheap and that requires highly mechanised large-scale farming, something that does not give smallholder farmers much of a chance. International organisations contradict themselves, according to Magdalena Kuchler, postgraduate student at the Department of Water and Environmental Studies.


The increased world demand for biofuels is a unique opportunity for farmers to broaden their production to also include energy crops. These can be grown on marginal land that retains no other use. Smallholder farmers get a chance to increase their production and presence on the world market, more job opportunities, less vulnerability and a better financial situation.

This bright picture is set out in key policy documents issued by three international organisations that work with climate, energy and food production issues. The three are:

No sooner was this picture established than cracks began to appear. Kuchler, will demonstrate this when she defends her doctoral thesis in September at the WES and the Centre Climate Science and Policy Research (CSPR). An incontrovertible requirement is that any biofuels produced must be cheap. This means production must be on a large scale and mechanised, or preferably automated. Gene technology and other modern agricultural technology are required, as are monocultures. The smallholder farmers are ushered inconspicuously into the wings when the details of future biofuel production are worked out.

The organisations even recognise this themselves. The FAO, for example, writes:

“Developing biofuel systems that satisfy local needs and contribute to poverty reduction and food security is a complex issue which will take time.”

They are trying to keep their original vision alive through recommendations that the current path needs to be supplemented with poverty reduction measures, and that rights to food and land must be clarified. Everything revolves around this requirement for cheap energy, says Kuchler. It comes before every other requirement, for example ecological cultivation methods.

“The focus is on how biofuels might be produced in a cost efficient way, which results in them recommending large scale models. Alternative farming models don’t enter the discussion, at least not in the period I studied, which was 1990-2010.”

She also questions the way in which the organisations clearly assume that food and energy markets can meld together without influencing food prices, something that runs contradictory to the assessments of many others: that the increased demand for biofuels (mainly from rich countries) will push up food prices globally. This happened in 2008 and came as a shock to many.


“Crops that have traditionally been used for food are now called energy crops,” she says, citing maize as an example.

The need for biofuels, delivered by farmers, is accelerating a transformation of world agriculture into an industrial system”, she continues. It is also opening the door, or perhaps the back door, to genetically modified crops.

“Consumers are sceptical about genetically modified crops if they end up in their food, but they don’t feel the same about biofuels. How we think about things, how our ideas and perceptions are formed, is crucial for how we shape our future”, says Kuchler.

The three organisations she chose to study are representative of the debate about fuel and food production in the future.

“I may just about solve one or two problems, but I’m doing better at finding new ones,” she smiles.

Her analysis is set out in an article in the journal Food Policy. It is also included in her thesis:

Fields of Gold. The Bioenergy Debate in International Organizations

Challenging the food vs. fuel dilemma: Genealogical analysis of the biofuel discourse pursued by international organizations by M Kuchler, B Linnér B, in Food Policy vol. 37 iss. 5 October 2012.

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Anika Agebjörn Wed Sep 12 07:27:00 CEST 2012

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