UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations unveiled guidelines on Tuesday to tackle the rapidly growing bioenergy industry, which it warned could threaten the availability of adequate food supplies.
As environment and development ministers from around the world prepare to meet on Wednesday for the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, UN-Energy released its report “Sustainable Energy: A Framework for Decision Makers.”
The report said the development of new biofuel industries could provide clean energy services to millions of people who currently lack them, while generating income and creating jobs in poorer areas of the world.
“But the rapid growth in first-generation liquid biofuels production will raise agricultural commodity prices and could have negative economic and social effects, particularly on the poor who spend a large share of income on food,” it said.
UN-Energy, which was created to promote consistency on energy developments throughout the United Nations system, said biofuel production had already appeared to have driven up the price of maize in 2006 and 2007.
“The availability of adequate food supplies could be threatened by biofuel production to the extent that land, water and other productive resources are diverted away from food production,” UN-Energy said.
But equally “modern bioenergy could make energy services more widely and cheaply available in remote rural areas, supporting productivity growth in agriculture or other sectors with positive implications for food availability and access.”
Biofuels — energy squeezed from all kinds of living matter, such as sugar, corn or rapeseed oil — burn cleaner and are fast gaining popularity around the world amid high oil prices and a battle against global warming.
Global production of biofuels has doubled in the past five years and was likely to double again in the next four years, UN-Energy said.
In March, the United States, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and the European Commission, announced the creation of the International Biofuels Forum, which aims to increase global production and use of biofuels.
Brazil is the top producer of ethanol from sugar cane, while the United States holds the same position for corn and together they make up 70 percent of the global market.
Gustavo Best, senior energy coordinator at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, told a news conference that the recommendations were needed because the industry “is so fast and so disorganized ... and so misinformed.”
Among the recommendations by UN-Energy was that crops that require high fossil energy inputs — such as conventional fertilizers — and valuable farm land should be avoided.
But it also warned that sustainable energy crops could have a negative impact if these replace primary forests, “resulting in large releases of carbon from the soil and forest biomass that negate any benefits of biofuels for decades.”
The report called for the creation of an international bioenergy certification scheme, including greenhouse gas certification, to ensure that products meet environmental standards “all the way from the fields to the fuel tanks.”