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Balance the blend of food and fuel

Biofuels from non-food sources (lignocellulose, for example) are seen as a superior alternative to those from crops such as grain and sugar — fuels mistakenly assumed to have caused the 2008 spike in food prices. Competition for farmland continues to stoke the food-versus-biofuel debate, but a more inclusive and less simplistic framework is needed.

In a world where 33% of the population is overweight, 17% is undernourished and 40% of the food in developed countries is wasted, other aspects of food security should be considered. These include access to food (through governance, cost and distribution), nutritional adequacy and consumer behaviour.

Farmers already respond to policy and economic signals such as subsidies and renewable-energy mandates by diversifying their production systems. Integrating food crops, bioenergy feedstock and carbon farming could be an important strategy to counter economic and environmental variability.

Increasing global demand for food and energy means that discussions of land use should include the whole energy sector, not just the minor biofuel component. Other energy industries such as coal-bed methane producers, as well as urbanization, are also competing for arable land and potable water.

Expanding the debate in this way will help to integrate agricultural, energy and natural-resource policies to meet the needs of governments, producers and consumers in achieving food and fuel security, sustainable management of natural resources and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions.

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Correspondence to Deborah O'Connell.

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Rodriguez, L., O'Connell, D. Balance the blend of food and fuel. Nature 476, 283 (2011).

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