Prof. Hassan Vatanparast, researcher at USask’s College of Pharmacy and Nutrition and School of Public Health
Prof. Hassan Vatanparast, researcher at USask’s College of Pharmacy and Nutrition and School of Public Health (Photo: Submitted)

Mitigating rural poverty through sustainable biomass production: USask research

A recently published paper by University of Saskatchewan (USask) researchers explores the nexus between climate change, biomass production, and rural poverty, and outlines a hopeful path to a future where environmentally sustainable practices advance the economic and social well-being of vulnerable people around the globe.

By Sarath Peiris for Research Profile and Impact

The paper, featured on the Biofuel Research Journal’s December cover, is the first of its kind to delve into the critical interconnections between biofuel innovations and sustainable development, environmental impacts of climate dynamics and biomass, and rural poverty and energy challenges.

“When I learned that 1.2 billion people could be displaced by climate-related issues by 2050, and that the reason has changed from war, civil unrest and those kinds of issues to climate change, it opened my eyes to what is happening,” said Dr. Hassan Vatanparast (PhD), professor at USask’s College of Pharmacy and Nutrition and School of Public Health, an author of the study.

“It was a warning for me and my team to look into the nexus of how climate change, biomass production (the cultivation of organic matter such as crops, forests and livestock) and rural poverty issues are interconnected,” he said.

“Usually you only hear negative things about climate change, biomass production, biofuels and so on, but we took a look at the holistic picture including positive aspects on how to adapt with climate change. That’s the uniqueness of this paper.”

For the study, researchers conducted a thorough search of peer-reviewed English language journal articles on the intersections of biomass production and climate change, climate change and rural poverty, and biomass production and rural poverty, and conducted a bibliometric analysis of the results.

The paper synthesizes the conclusions of the journal articles—which separately cover one of the three bi-directional relationships, such as between biomass production and rural poverty—into a holistic new look at the issue.

Team members who contributed to the paper, which drew international attention during the recent COP28 meeting, were: Mojtaba Shafiee, PhD candidate in Nutrition, Zoe Longworth, project manager at Vatanparast’s Nutritional Epidemiology Lab, and Dr. Zemichael Gizaw (PhD), a USask post-doctoral researcher from Ethiopia.

Vatanparast, known for research projects that focus on food security, poverty, and the challenges faced by immigrants, refugees, and marginalized populations, collaborates with communities across Canada, Central America, and Asia. He has witnessed first-hand the significant changes brought about by climate change, observing their impact from one year to the next in impoverished communities.

“In Guatemala, I have seen how the landscape is changing, how agricultural production is going down, how people need to cope and adapt to new situations and food insecurity, and how they move to the cities, where they are further marginalized,” he said.

But climate change doesn’t affect only the rural economies in developing countries, Vatanparast noted. Even in Canada, climate change-related hazards such as wildfires displace northerners, especially susceptible Indigenous communities, to flee for safety. Such impacts are felt rurally around the globe.

For rural communities, biomass production provides sustenance, fuel, and income, and is key to the well-being of millions of people. Such communities are highly vulnerable to changes in temperature and precipitation patterns that come with climate change.

Vatanparast said it’s important to look beyond the negatives associated with climate change and its impacts on biomass production to also consider the opportunities that it provides.

Sound forest management practices, such as standardized and evidence-based approaches in harvesting trees for energy production and other commercial uses can reduce biomass density and mitigate fire risks.

As a renewable energy source, biomass is a primary energy source in many rural areas of developing countries for cooking, lighting and heating. New technologies, such as those being developed at USask, are paving the way to transform biomass into advanced bioenergy such as biodiesel, bioethanol, biogas, and hold the potential to provide heating sources with prices that don’t fluctuate with world markets, boosting impoverished local rural economies and reducing poverty.

Vatanparast also notes how rural women and girls in developing countries would benefit from the transition to modern bioenergy solutions such as cooking stoves, relieving their burden of collecting wood for cooking fires and the health impacts of inhaling indoor smoke, opening the way for education opportunities, accessing health services, or income-generating activities.

The paper is a call for international financial backing and capacity building in rural communities to alleviate poverty while addressing the need to combat climate change through sustainable biomass production.

“This is human life, this is our planet, these are our people,” said Vatanparast. Through empowerment and transdisciplinary and multi-sectoral partnership to have local people come up with solutions that work for them, we can use the opportunities that exist to tackle the concerning trend of migration out of rural communities to urban areas and to poverty.”

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