ROME, ITALY — As interest in bioenergy production continues to grow, the United Nation’s (U.N.) Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) is promoting the use of a new methodology designed to help policymakers weigh the pros and cons of investing in the sector.

FAO's "Bioenergy and Food Security (BEFS) Analytical Framework" was created to help governments evaluate the potential of bioenergy as well as assess its possible food security impacts.

The framework was recently finalized following a three-year development and field test phase in which it was applied in Peru, Tanzania and Thailand.

It consists of a series of step-by-step evaluations that seek to answer critical questions regarding the feasibility of bioenergy development and the impacts on food availability and household food security. Social and environmental dimensions are also considered.

"Our goal is to help policy-makers take informed decisions regarding whether bioenergy development is a viable option and, if so, identify policies that will maximize benefits and minimize risks," said Heiner Thofern, who heads FAO's Bioenergy and Food Security (BEFS) project.

Because the framework looks at multiple issues and sectors, it also serves as a platform for bringing key ministries and institutions together so they are working on the same page, he said.

Spikes in oil prices and concerns related to energy security, coupled with worries over greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, have been key drivers behind the growth of the bioenergy sector.

Another important potential benefit: investment in bioenergy could spark much-needed investment in agricultural and transport infrastructure in rural areas and, by creating jobs and boosting household incomes, could alleviate poverty and food security.

"FAO has been saying for years that under-investment in agriculture is a problem that seriously handicaps food production in the developing world, and that this, coupled with rural poverty, is a key driver of world hunger," said Thofern. "Done properly and when appropriate, bioenergy development offers a chance to drive investment and jobs into areas that are literally starving for them."

Brazil is an often-cited example of how a country can use bioenergy to meet energy needs.

The world's second biggest producer of ethanol, Brazil runs an estimated one million vehicles on fuel made from sugar cane.

In the future, Europe is likely to emerge as an export market for bioenergy products. Trends like these present farmers in the developing world with new opportunities.

FAO studies have also shown that small-scale bioenergy projects not targeting export markets can improve food security and help boost rural economies.

But as interest in bioenergy has grown, so too have concerns over its potential negative impacts.

Chief among these is the risk that an expansion of bioenergy crops might come at the expense of food production, leading to reduced food availability and higher food prices. Deforestation due to the conversion of new lands to bioenergy crops and impacts on indigenous peoples are also areas of concern.

Potential risks and benefits need to be carefully weighed in light of country- and region-specific variables, said Thofern. Bioenergy production is not a panacea and will not always be appropriate or viable - in some cases it could even be harmful.

"That being said, we can't turn our back on the fact that in other cases, bioenergy production holds great potential to revitalize rural economies, reduce poverty, and improve household food security," he said.

Supporting the growth of a vibrant but sustainable and socially-responsible bioenergy sector in the developing world will also support research and development into new solutions such as crop residues, and farm wastes that can offer reduced risks of food-security and environmental impacts.

According to Thofern, ultimately whether or not bioenergy development contributes to food security, poverty alleviation and climate change mitigation will depend on how well the sector is managed.

"That is why FAO created this analytical framework," he said.

The U.N. agency is following up on the framework via its Bioenergy and Food Security Criteria and Indicators (BEFSCI) project, which aims to develop a risk prevention and management tool as well as an impact assessment and policy response tool, based on good practices.

FAO's BEFS project has been funded by Germany's Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection.