Thursday, 25 August 2011

Helping smallholder farmers join the sustainable biofuel industry

Renewable energy sources have been getting increasing attention over the past several years, since these alternatives to petroleum are supposed to allow us to develop more Earth-friendly, sustainable practices of energy use. Options such as solar, wind, geothermal, and biofuel energy are expected to increase in popularity from 5% of the market in 2010 to 18% by 2030; in that time, production of biofuel is projected to rocket from 1.8 to 6.7 million barrels a day.

Biofuel in particular is a bit of a sticky issue because, while it does provide an alternative to gasoline, growth of biofuel crops has been related to deforestation, excessive use of freshwater resources, greenhouse gas emissions, and overuse of fertilizer. Despite these drawbacks, governments at many levels have passed initiatives to increase biofuel use and set goals for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
In many of the developing countries where these policies are particularly common, there is not enough domestic production capacity to generate the raw materials needed to create biofuels. As a result, growth and production are outsourced to developing countries, where other environmental and social concerns become a problem. One particular issue is the need for farmers and manufacturers to obtain certification proving that their biofuels are sustainably produced. Unfortunately, current standards and schemes are biased toward large-scale production, forcing small-scale farmers either to turn their backs on the potentially lucrative biofuel market, or sacrifice their freedom by seeking partnerships with larger organizations.
In a new article published in Biological Conservation, collaborators from Switzerland's Universitätstrasse, Sweden's Umeå University, and Indonesia's Center for International Forestry Research consider the hurdles that must be jumped by smallholders looking to join the biofuel revolution. Further, they suggest a 6-point plan for balancing the conflicts that are inherent in the current system:

1. Rather than being required to adopt sustainable practices overnight, farmers should be allowed to incorporate these standards on a step-by-step basis at a pace suited to local conditions. This would prevent farmers from being penalized for environmental, educational, social, and economic variations among regions.

2. Small-scale farmers should receive rewards and compensations to ensure that their prolonged involvement in biofuel production is worthwhile. This is particularly important in poorer communities, where asking farmers to trade off short-term benefits in the interests of long-term environmental goals can sometimes be equivalent to suggesting that they skip dinners this week so they can eat better next year.

3. Instead of setting a single goal that all individuals can strive for, use a continuous system of improvement. By looking forward to incentives at each stage of improvement, farmers would be encouraged to steadily improve rather than reaching a plateau. Perhaps more importantly, those already at the top of their game would be encouraged to innovate further instead of maintaining the status quo.

4. Governments should be encouraged to provide assistance to smallholders within their boundaries. For instance, they can improve infrastructure and develop financial incentives. In addition to helping individual farmers, these schemes would also likely have broader positive impacts on the economy at the local, regional, and national levels.

5. Those who are already in the biofuel industry should make it easier for smallholders to develop biofuel businesses. For example, existing biofuel institutions could share the financial burdens of sustainability certification schemes. Rather than being altruistic, this tactic would benefit existing entities by increasing the number of providers available to contribute raw products, thus growing the sector as a whole and allowing it to become an increasingly important player in the renewable energy industry.

6. Develop innovations along the way in order to continually improve the industry. For instance, find ways to link sustainability and developmental benefits such as health and education services, or employ extension officers who can provide education and training for farmers looking to make the transition into the biofuel industry.

The length of the list may seem daunting, but the authors emphasize that it merely reflects the real-world complexities inherent in a system where large-scale industrial entities and small-scale farmers must work together to achieve a common goal.

In many places, consumers may also have a say in how things are done; after all, we vote for the officials who draft biofuel and sustainability laws, and we buy the biofuels that are produced at the end of the day. We should educate ourselves about which companies and countries are making the fairest and most biologically sound decisions. That way, the next time we're in a position to make a choice--at the polls or at checkout--we can choose wisely.
Lee, J.S.H., Rist, L., Obidzinski, K., Ghazoul, J., and Koh, L.P. 2011. No farmer left behind in sustainable biofuel production. Biological Conservation 144:2512-2516.

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