What drives sustainable biofuels? A review of indicator assessments of biofuel production systems involving smallholder farmer

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The contribution of biofuel production to sustainable development in rural areas requires policy and practice that understands the opportunities and risks faced by smallholder farmers. Potential opportunities for smallholders include access to markets, access to employment, local infrastructure developments and spill over effects such as new agronomic knowledge. Potential threats include loss of land entitlements, social exclusion, environmental degradation, dependency upon the biofuel industry and diminished food security. Although a multitude of issues is acknowledged, many studies are focused on specific issues and knowledge remains fragmented. Further, much of the indicator-based literature does not acknowledge the importance of case-specificity nor the link between the processes and circumstances that drive indicator results. This article reviews indicator assessments of biofuel production involving smallholders and highlights the importance of holistically considering a range of social, economic and environmental criteria. Further this review stresses the need to link drivers with indicators. Drivers include decisions and circumstances of a biophysical, socio-economic and governance nature with relevance at field, farm and higher levels. The link between drivers and indicators is crucial to justify indicators and to identify the scope for policy to influence progress against indicators. A conceptual model is provided that summarises important processes determining sustainability of biofuel production involving smallholders. This model can also be used as a starting point for more detailed analysis capturing and quantifying relationships between specific drivers and indicators on a case-by-case basis. This type of analysis is particularly valuable in regions where biofuel policy and developments are unfolding and multiple stakeholders (e.g. smallholders, companies, NGOs and governments) are involved. We highlight that regulation and certification of biofuel production often needs to be complemented with improvements in governance structures and, that policy targeting smallholder involvement with biofuel production should account for a diversity of smallholder characteristics
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)142-157
JournalEnvironmental Science & Policy
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • soil fertility decline
  • land-use change
  • food security
  • jatropha plantations
  • developing-countries
  • rural livelihoods
  • farming systems
  • tamil-nadu
  • bio-energy
  • water-use


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