Smallholders constitute more than three quarters of the world’s farmers, and despite their numbers, they commonly lack opportunities to advance their development status. Bioenergy production and consumption can help sustain smallholders’ energy needs and generate employment and income, but it also raises concerns over social justice and equity, especially where crops used for bioenergy could also be used for food. This perspective paper is grounded in a literature review related to three different crops in Brazil: sugarcane, landrace maize and sweet potato. It seeks to determine if these crops offer the potential to support smallholder farmers’ development in a more equitable way, focusing on opportunities for their use in bioenergy. We review the literature to identify policies shaping the smallholder development context in relation to these crops, assessing whose knowledge informs policy and institutional decision making, and highlighting the policy attention afforded to the different crops from different sectors. We further evaluate the literature on each crop in relation to water use and calorific value (i.e., food and energy). Our review indicates that while sugarcane has received the most policy and institutional attention, its development is largely anchored in research and development investments that support large-scale commercial farms and agri-businesses. Smallholders have not benefited or had the opportunity to engage in relevant policy decision making for sugarcane cultivation. At the same time, smallholders hold valuable untapped knowledge on the cultivation of sweet potato and landrace maize, both of which have the potential to generate development opportunities for smallholders. Our review suggests that the environmental impact of landrace maize and sweet potato in terms of water use is significantly lower than sugarcane, while they can generate more calories for energy or food consumption and offer diversification opportunities. Despite that these alternative crops offer considerable untapped potential to support rural development, more research is still needed to harness these benefits. Changes are needed to address inequities in policies, institutions and the types of knowledge informing decision making. Such changes need to afford smallholder farmers greater recognition and participation in decision making, so that the distribution of benefits from the three study crops can reach them to support their development better.
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