Rural women could suffer due to increased biofuel production, warns UN agency

Sugar cane used in the production of the biofuel, ethanol

21 April 2008 – The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned today that the increasing demand for liquid biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel, the conversion of agricultural land for their production and the increased use of natural resources could be detrimental to women in rural areas.

In a new study, the agency urges countries to adopt measures to ensure that women have the same opportunities as men to benefit from the increased production of biofuels.

“Unless policies are adopted in developing countries to strengthen the participation of small farmers, especially women in biofuel production by increasing their access to land, capital and technology – gender inequalities are likely to become more marked and women’s vulnerability to hunger and poverty further exacerbated,” said Yianna Lambrou, co-author of the paper entitled Gender and Equity Issues in Liquid Biofuels Production – Minimizing the Risks to Maximize the Opportunities.

“Biofuel production certainly offers opportunities for farmers – but they will only trickle down to the farm level, especially to women, if pro-poor policies are put in place that also empower women,” Ms. Lambrou added.

Converting agricultural lands for biofuel production could force women out of the lands used for farming, and harm their ability to provide food, the report states. In addition, the increased use of natural resources such as water and firewood for biofuel production means less of those resources will be available for use by women, who already have to travel long distances for collecting such materials.

Therefore, FAO calls for further examining the socio-economic effects of liquid biofuel production on men and women. It also urges biofuel development strategy that is both environmentally sustainable and pro-poor, and which will protect the agricultural activities of small farmers, especially women.

Last year the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food called for a five-year moratorium on biofuels, after warning that converting crops such as maize, wheat and sugar into fuels was driving up the prices of food, land and water.

Jean Ziegler noted that while the argument for biofuels is legitimate in terms of energy efficiency and combating climate change, the effect of transforming food crops such as wheat and maize into agricultural fuel is “absolutely catastrophic” for hungry people and will negatively impact the realization of the right to food.

More recently, the increased production of biofuels has been cited as one of the reasons for the global surge in food prices, which has led to protests and riots in different parts of the world.

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