Gates Foundation gives $3.8 Million to Stanford University for biofuels, food security research

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Agricultural Development Program has awarded Stanford University’s Program on Food Security and the Environment (FSE) and a team of collaborators $3.8 million over three years to conduct a quantitative assessment of the effect of biofuels expansion on food security in the developing world. This work will determine how different scenarios of expanded biofuels production in rich and poor countries will affect global and regional food prices, farmer incomes, and food consumption of the poor. In three case-study countries (India, Mozambique, Senegal), it will make a more detailed assessment of the opportunities and pitfalls associated with an array of possible biofuels development scenarios (e.g., using different crops for biofuels production, using marginal land versus highly productive land, etc.). We expect the work will represent the first systematic, detailed effort to address the effects of biofuels expansion on welfare in poor countries and the first available analytic tool for assessing possible biofuels investments in individual developing countries. Project collaborators include FSE, the International Food Policy Research Institute, the Center on Chinese Agricultural Policy, and the University of Nebraska.

Through this grant, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aims to assess how biofuels may affect smallholder farmers in the developing world. This includes assessing both the risks, such as increasing food prices, and the potential opportunities for smallholder farmers to leverage biofuels to boost their productivity, increase their incomes, and build better lives for themselves and their families. The foundation and Stanford University will disseminate the findings widely to inform a broad audience, including policymakers.

FSE is also very pleased to announce a private gift from Lawrence Kemp for further work in the biofuels area. The Kemp gift will be devoted to building a team of faculty and students on campus who will analyze the transmission of global price effects to local markets, provide policy advice and communication on biofuels, and expand the field-level coverage of Stanford’s biofuels work.

In the November 2007 issue of Environment, project collaborators Rosamond L. Naylor (FSE), Adam Liska, Marshall Burke (FSE), Walter P. Falcon (FSE), Joanne Gaskell, Scott Rozelle (FSE), and Kenneth Cassman demonstrate how high energy prices and biofuelspromoting agricultural policy result in higher food prices generally and then examine in detail the potential global effects of biofuels expansion in four countries for four crops—corn in the United States, cassava in China, sugarcane and soy in Brazil, and palm oil in Indonesia. They argue that in each case, the threats to global food security from biofuels expansion likely outweigh the benefits, especially in the short run. This is because in many poor countries these crops play an important role in the diets of the poor and because the poorest in the world typically spend more money on food than they earn in income through farming. They also note that “second generation” technologies such as cellulosic biofuels will likely not play a significant role in biofuels production over the next decade or longer—and thus in the near-term are very unlikely to be the win-win that their proponents suggest. “The ripple effect: biofuels, food security, and the environment” excerpted from Environment, November 2007

The integration of the agricultural and energy sectors caused by rapid growth in the biofuels market signals a new era in food policy and sustainable development. For the first time in decades, agricultural commodity markets could experience a sustained increase in prices, breaking the long-term price decline that has benefited food consumers worldwide. Whether this transition occurs—and how it will affect global hunger and poverty—remain to be seen. Will food markets begin to track the volatile energy market in terms of price and availability? Will changes in agricultural commodity markets benefit net food producers and raise farm income in poor countries? How will biofuels-induced changes in agricultural commodity markets affect net consumers of food? At risk are more than 800 million food-insecure people—mostly in rural areas and dependent to some extent on agriculture for incomes— who live on less than $1 per day and spend the majority of their incomes on food. An additional 2–2.5 billion people living on $1 to $2 per day are also at risk, as rising commodity prices could pull them swiftly into a food-insecure state.

The potential impact of a large global expansion of biofuels production capacity on net food producers and consumers in low-income countries presents challenges for food policy planners and raises the question of whether sustainable development targets at a more general level can be reached. Achieving the 2015 Millennium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000, which include halving the world’s undernourished and impoverished, lies at the core of global initiatives to improve human well-being and equity, yet today virtually no progress has been made toward achieving the dual goals of alleviating global hunger and poverty. The record varies on a regional basis: Gains have been made in many Asia-Pacific and Latin American-Caribbean countries, but progress has been mixed in South Asia and setbacks have occurred in numerous sub-Saharan African countries. Whether the biofuels boom will move extremely poor countries closer to or further from the Millennium Development Goals remains uncertain.

Biofuels growth also will influence efforts to meet two sets of longer-run development targets. The first encompasses the goals of a “sustainability transition,” articulated by the Board on Sustainable Development of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which seeks to provide energy, materials, and information to meet the needs of a global population of 8–10 billion by 2050, while reducing hunger and poverty and preserving the planet’s environmental life-support systems. The second is the Great Transition of the Global Scenario Group, convened by the Stockholm Environment Institute, which focuses specifically on reductions in hunger and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions beyond 2050. As additional demands are placed on the agricultural resource base for fuel production, will ecosystem services (such as hydrologic balances, biodiversity, and soil quality) that support agricultural activities be eroded? Will biofuels development require a large expansion of crop area, which would involve conversion of marginal land, rainforest, and wetlands to arable land? And what will be the net effect of biofuels expansion on global climate change?

Although the questions outnumber the answers at this stage, two trends seem clear: Total energy use will continue to escalate as incomes rise in both industrial and developing countries, and biofuels will remain a critical energy development target in many parts of the world if petroleum prices exceed $55–$60 per barrel. Even if petroleum prices dip, policy support for biofuels as a means of boosting rural incomes in several key countries will likely generate continued expansion of biofuels production capacity. These trends will have widespread ripple effects on food security—defined here as the ability of all people at all times to have access to affordable food and nutrition for a healthy lifestyle—and on the environment at local, regional, and global scales. The ripple effects will be either positive or negative depending on the country in question and the policies in play.