Global rise in biomass demand could fuel land acquisition in Africa, Southeast Asia, compete with food crops for land and undermine smallholder farming, report says

LOS ANGELES , August 30, 2011 () – Globally, demand for cleaner energy from biomass is rising and this could fuel the acquisition of land in poorer nations where there is weak food security and land rights, a report by the International Institute for Environment and Development said Aug. 30, Reuters reported the same day.

Livelihoods and food security in some of the poorest countries could be threatened as land access faces growing pressure, the report said, as it called for more public scrutiny into the expansion plans for global biomass.

Biomass energy accounts for 77% of renewable energy in the world, with trees and woody biomass comprising 87% of that biomass, according to the report.

Governments are increasingly turning to biomass in an attempt to reduce the use of power from fossil fuels, with technology allowing biomass to be competitively converted into electricity and liquid fuels.

Plans to expand biomass in Britain alone will push biomass demand up to as high as 60 million tonnes a year, versus 1 millon tonnes burned or co-fired in the nation’s power stations today, the IIED said.

Countries such as Germany, France and the U.S. favor local sourcing including the use of wood from forests close to power plants, according to the report.

Nevertheless, high demand for wood is set to exceed supply by as much as 600% in some countries, and the high growth rate for trees in tropical countries makes it likely that some developed nations could look at some non-traditional suppliers in the South to cover the gap for biomass, according to the IIED.

Brazilian operators are already increasing their interest in exporting wood chips to Europe, while Africa will also play a significant role in meeting demand in Europe.

While many people are focusing on food and biofuels, tree plantations for biomass energy may become and important motivator in the land rush globally, IIED senior researcher Lorenzo Cotula said.

The rise of fossil fuel prices and the falling costs of biomass production could make biomass plantations a more attractive investment in the coming yeas, the report said.

Investors could focus on Africa and Southeast Asia in the search for cheap land, proper climates, and lower transportation costs. These regions, however, tend to endure food insecurity and weak land rights.

Biomass plantations may compete with food crops for the best lands, which could affect local food security and undermine smallholder farming, the report said.

The primary source of this article is Reuters, London, England, on Aug. 30, 2011.

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