FAO Report Considers the Sustainability of Biofuel Crops

FAOFebruary 2013: A new report of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO), titled "Biofuels and the Sustainability Challenge," addresses the issue of biofuel sustainability based on a global assessment of major commodities and feedstocks. The report is guided by the need to understand the economic, environmental and social sustainability dimensions of biofuels, and how these elements can be used to address the challenges of land-use change, food security and climate change.

The report evaluates the role of biofuel certification schemes in promoting sustainability. It relies on a survey of a large number of country case studies, as well as analyses of trends in crop policies, production and markets. The report questions whether certification schemes are adequate to assure sustainability. It notes that sugar cane and palm oil are efficient feedstocks, though not always sustainable. It further labels soybean oil, as a moderately efficient feedstock, but one that has no assured economic viability. It identifies sweet sorghum, jatropha and cassava as promising feedstocks. The report notes that advanced biofuels that rely on cellulose are not economically viable at present.

On economic sustainability, the report stresses the large role of subsidies in biofuel investment and notes that many biofuels would not be economically viable without these interventions.  Highlighting the challenge of measuring impacts, the publication suggests that the broad variety of indicators at local and global scales for biofuel sustainability make it particularly difficult to develop a common understanding of their effects.

The report underscores the limited consideration of social sustainability in biofuel systems and the shortcomings of these considerations in the most prominent certification schemes. It calls for moving towards systems that are more inclusive of smallholder farmers. [Publication: Biofuels and the Sustainability Challenge: A Global Assessment of Sustainability Issues, Trends and Policies for Biofuels and Related Feedstocks] [UN Press Release]