'If fuel fights food, who wins?'

An interview with Mirjam Roeder, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

Dr Mirjam Roeder is a Research Associate at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. She is currently working within the EPSRC-funded SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub, looking at environmental and socio-economic impacts of bioenergy and agricultural systems. Her research interests focus on climate change impacts and adaptation and mitigation strategies for agriculture, food systems and bioenergy and implications of land use change, as well as food security, and sustainability issues.

Blog: If fuel fights food, who wins?

If we’re talking big fights, you can forget the Rumble in the Jungle, the Thriller in Manila, or even the Fight of the Century.

This is a heavyweight clash that will reverberate across many different geographies and affect hundreds of millions of people across the world.

In one corner, there’s mitigation against the rapidly escalating threat of climate change through the increased use of renewable and low-carbon technologies - and bioenergy in particular - to meet our energy needs.

In the other, there’s the demand for a safe and secure supply of food for a global population that is growing at around 80m people every year and is set to reach 9bn by 2050.

The issue of whether to use land for food crops or for purpose-grown biomass is one that is already the cause of much heated debate, particularly in the areas of the world where food security and land availability is a major concern.

Bioenergy is currently the most used renewable energy source on the planet, but if we are to avoid the sort of global temperature rises that the scientific consensus believe will lead to “dangerous” climate change, its use needs to become even more widespread.

Biomass - essentially any organic matter, whether trees and seaweed or food waste and manure - is generally regarded as far less carbon intensive than fossil fuels and, in many cases, requires a less complex and expensive infrastructure than other renewable alternatives.

But for the 805m people in the world who face a daily battle to secure sufficient food for themselves and their families, giving up precious arable land to grow bioenergy feedstocks is rarely seen as an attractive option.

Against the backdrop of these two competing challenges, my research has attempted to identify opportunities for land use to be more efficient and more sustainable from both environmental and food security points of view.

Those studies have unearthed a range of potential solutions, including getting more out of the crops themselves (an ongoing trial in the Philippines is looking at how the residue straw following rice harvests can be anaerobically digested and turned into energy) and being smarter about where we grow those crops (one of the conclusions of a project led by the Sustainable Consumption Institute was that we needed greater cooperation to grow global food or energy supplies in northern hemisphere regions where yields are highest and where less emissions-intensive inputs are required than in the south).

As the home of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and SUPERGEN, Manchester is at the forefront of research in these critically important areas and we will continue to strive to find pathways to more secure and more sustainable food and fuel supplies for more people around the world.

And we can only do that with collaboration and compromise, not conflict and confrontation.

Because the truth is, no one wins if food and fuel go head to head.

3 minute video Q&A

What is your specific area of research?

My main focus at the moment is looking at different calculations for greenhouse gas emissions related to bioenergy supply chains. By training I’m an agricultural scientist and my specific interest in food security began with my PhD at Humboldt University when I examined the interactions between people, society and the environment of food security in Central Sudan. It’s a fascinating topic.

Why is Manchester the right place for your research?

I’ve been here for about four years. It was the right job, at the right time. Climate change research fitted perfectly with what I had been researching in Germany and as an interdisciplinary institution, the Tyndall Centre is an incredibly interesting place to work. It’s great that we have the capacity to tackle issues from so many different perspectives. And that range of expertise isn’t just confined to the Tyndall Centre, there are so many researchers right across the University of Manchester working on areas related to food and the environment. I’m proud to be part of that work!

Why is food such an important issue at this point in time?

I’ve always found food security fascinating as a researcher because food supply chains are dependent on so many factors. Natural conditions and geographies already impart a great degree of variability, which has itself increased even further in recent years with the early impacts of climate change. Then you’ve got a whole range of other components to factor in, including social, economic, political and cultural considerations, that affect food security and eating habits. There are so many facets to understand and fit together.

How does your research help meet this challenge?

We’ve got a dilemma right now where demand for food has never been greater and is continuing to grow and at the same time there’s a need to respond to a changing climate and to prevent catastrophic change by living more sustainably and reducing our carbon emissions. Our research is looking at the use of land and other resources and inputs for food and for fuel and how those two needs interact - we need to be able to find more efficient and more sustainable uses of land and resources. It’s a big challenge. Food security isn’t an issue in the UK for as many people as it is elsewhere in the world, but even here people are concerned about the use of farmland for energy rather than for food. One of the areas we’re looking at is energy feedstock supply chains from biomass byproducts, such as forest residues. Here in the UK, there isn’t a lot of forest, so we have to import these residues from overseas creating indirect effects somewhere else where levels of food insecurity might be higher. So even when our research isn’t directly food-related, that food vs fuel dilemma is still an issue for us.

How important is collaboration?

It’s absolutely essential. Without it, I simply couldn’t do my research. SUPERGEN has very strong links with a whole host of national and international academic, industrial and political partners, whether it’s our project looking at using rice straw as energy in the Philippines or our work with the Helmholtz Association in Germany developing policy issues on bioenergy.

Looking ahead, what are you most excited about?

There are so many things that we still don’t fully understand and a lot we can learn which might lead to the creation of new pathways to tackle the major developmental problems the world faces. I have hope that the people in the decision making positions around the world will realise that things need to be done differently if we’re going to continue to survive and thrive as a species. Laying out the possible options for those decision makers is our job. Providing high quality knowledge and scientifically proven evidence for this I do see as one of my main tasks as a researcher.

And most concerned about?

As hopeful as I am, it’s hard to deny that we’re not doing a great job tackling issues like food security and climate change. The numbers of people in the world without a secure food supply haven’t really changed despite all the promises and pronouncements on progress made. The situation is likely to get much worse because a lot of those affected by food insecurity are living in the areas that will be hit hardest by climate change. Access to food should be a basic human right and as long as there are people denied that right, we will have a problem that needs fixing.