On January 29, the World Resources Institute (WRI), an environmental research organization with a global focus released a working paper, “Avoiding Bioenergy Competition for Food Crops and Land.” The authors, Dr. Searchinger, a Senior Fellow at WRI and scholar at Princeton University, and WRI consultant Ralph Heimlich posit that by 2050, there will be a world-wide ‘calorie gap,’ where existing food production is unable to meet projected demand. This calorie gap will be caused by a growing population, increased demand for natural resources and increased consumption of resource intensive meat and milk products. Therefore, according to the authors, any use of land to grow bioenergy crops that takes land away from the uses of food, feed or carbon storage, is not acceptable. The authors write, “bioenergy that entails the dedicated use of land to grow the energy feedstock will undercut efforts to combat climate change and to achieve a sustainable food future.”
The authors argue that working agricultural lands dedicated to biofuels crop production should instead be devoted to easing the growing worldwide calorie gap. Marginal lands should also not be used for biofuels production -- such as perennial grasses, but instead be devoted to storing carbon. Additionally, they state that the use of woody biomass crops (such as short rotation trees or the waste material from the timber industry) will encourage removing biomass from the land and therefore deplete soil of carbon. They argue that it’s an “either or” proposition in regard to crop production and carbon storage. According to this logic, all biomass crop growth on lands dedicated to this purpose will only exacerbate the problems of the calorie deficit and excess atmospheric greenhouse gases.
The report does find that waste-based feedstocks for bioenergy, such as those derived from manure, excess crop residues, sawdust, landfill methane and other waste resources should be tapped for bioenergy, but should be directed primarily towards decarbonizing the aviation sector. The authors call for a rollback of policies that support biofuels, such as the Renewable Fuel Standard, various state low-carbon fuel standards and other international policies that support the use and development of biofuels and bioenergy feedstocks -- other than those derived from waste materials.
EESI has long argued that integrated farms where food, fuel and fiber is produced in a sustainable manner can create multiple revenue streams for producers, help land owners keep working lands free from development and sequester carbon in soils. And while it’s true that global hunger is a growing crisis, the world already produces enough calories for 9 billion people – suggesting the global hunger problem is more a problem of farmer equity and food distribution than production capacity. Additionally, a growing body of peer reviewed research has found synergies between purpose-grown biomass crops and improved soil carbon. Given the wide ranging findings and assumptions the paper makes about the carbon cycle, forestry, food production and biofuels policies, EESI will be conducting a review of the findings and assumptions in the working paper, to be released in the next edition of SBFF.
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