The primary question addressed in Joy Clancy's book Biofuels and Rural Poverty is this: Are biofuels inherently pro- or antipoor? In addressing this question, the book reveals the many dimensions of the links between biofuels and rural poverty, including food security, gender issues, energy poverty, time poverty, and ecosystem services, making its focus more on development economics with specific biofuels applications. In this sense, the book reflects the interests and background of the author, who is an associate professor of technology and development at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands. Clancy's extensive publication list includes many papers at the nexus of renewable energy and economic development, and Biofuels and Rural Poverty draws on several of her research projects in this area from different parts of the world.
One message to be taken from the book is that biofuel production, when it is done right, has the potential to be propoor, and to make that happen, governments have to ensure that certain policies are enacted to protect and promote the interests of rural inhabitants in developing countries. Clancy's approach is to explore the major development issues associated with potential or actual biofuel projects and to explain the conditions under which they can either benefit the poor or harm them. For example, in many developing countries, land tenure and property rights are major development issues. Farmers with insecure property rights are less likely to invest in productivity enhancement, and any development activity that takes land away from rural poor is likely to increase poverty. This principle also applies to large-scale biofuel projects.
Another important theme in Biofuels and Rural Poverty is the relationship between ecosystem services and environmental damage. The author discusses the conditions under which development can improve environmental quality and ecosystem services and those that are detrimental. Then, as in other areas of her analysis, she applies these principles to biofuel projects and biofuel production and use. Clancy takes a broad perspective on many of the issues found in her book, as she has in her prior work. She describes examples in which cooperative methods of production or consumption of biofuels have worked or not worked well. She provides many examples of the importance of stakeholder participation. She correctly points out that there are few universal truths and that the right approach will depend on each unique situation.
Clancy impressively maintains a balanced approach throughout the book by accurately describing both the pros and the cons regarding most of the major issues—for example, her objective analysis of the association of biofuels with food security and rural poverty. She successfully debunks the media claims that biofuels will be a catastrophe for the world's poor. At the same time, she describes what it will take to make a biofuels program that ensures food security for the poor. Her summary is taken from a United Nations document (UN-Energy 2007, p. 24): “At their best, liquid biofuels programmes can enrich farmers by helping to add value to their products. But at the worst, biofuel programmes can result in concentration of ownership that could drive the world's poorest farmers off their land and deeper into poverty.” Clancy then suggests that all efforts should be focused on making sure we get the former and not the latter outcome.
The biggest omission I see in the book is the lack of attention paid to one of the major issues raised in the food—fuel debate: the impact of biofuels on agricultural commodity prices. The popular argument is that an increase in biofuel production increases poverty in developing countries by increasing agricultural commodity prices. In rich countries, 10–20 percent of disposable income is spent on food, and most of that is on processed foods or food away from home. In developing countries, up to 70 percent of disposable income can be claimed by food, and much of that food is in the form of raw commodities such as wheat, rice, and maize. Clearly, to the extent that rich-country biofuel programs lead to increased food commodity prices, poor people can be harmed. However, as the author points out, 75 percent of the world's poor live in rural areas, and most derive their primary livelihood from agriculture. When food commodity prices surge, the attention is often on the urban poor—they can demonstrate in the streets, and they have political access and media attention— but what about the rural areas, where, in fact, most of the poor live? Higher commodity prices have the potential to increase incomes for rural farmers, and Clancy states that 50 percent of the rural poor are smallholder farmers. So, if rich-country biofuel projects cause the price that these farmers receive for their normal crop outputs to increase, poverty could be decreased. In my view, this opportunity for rural economic development through higher agricultural incomes is a key part of the biofuels picture that is often omitted (Tyner 2013), and this volume is no exception.
As Clancy suggests, the development economics issues raised in Biofuels and Rural Poverty are not particular to biofuels, because they apply to any kind of economic development activity. I can recommend the book to those who work in any area of development economics with links to renewable energy. I have worked in the fields of development economics and renewable energy economics, and my opinion is that this book applies well to both.