Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Tequila, pork and orangutans: new victims of the biofuel boom

Source: http://www.alertnet.org/db/blogs/1264/2007/05/1-150749-1.htm

01 Jun 2007 15:07:00 GMT
Blogged by: Ruth Gidley
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Plantation worker chops up an agave plant to make tequila.
REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar
Plantation worker chops up an agave plant to make tequila.
REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar
A looming shortage of tequila wouldn't usually be an AlertNet crisis,
but in this case it could be a sign of hungry times ahead.

Mexican farmers are torching fields of blue agave, the cactus-like
plant used to make the fiery spirit, and resowing the land with maize
as soaring U.S. ethanol demand pushes up prices.

The spiky-leaved agave plant can take eight years to reach maturity,
so cutting them down and burning out the roots isn't something that
can be turned around easily.

Troubled farmers are hoping to cash in on the biofuels boom, but there
have been protests over rocketing food prices in Mexico, where maize
is the staple food.

In China, gas stations in some provinces already mix 10-percent
ethanol into the gasoline they sell. The problem is that the
increasing use of maize for industrial purposes in ethanol production
is driving up the cost of corn for agricultural use, mainly to feed
pigs. The knock-on effect is a dramatic rise in the price of pork, one
of China's most widely consumed food staples.

The Christian Science Monitor quotes Chinese political analysts who
say the government is afraid that rising food costs could affect
social stability. Inflation was an important factor in sparking the
pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square 18 years ago.

Authorities in Beijing are trying to impose limits on the production
of ethanol using traditional food crops, but they are hard-pressed to
keep a lid on the large and small ethanol factories which are
springing up in China's corn-producing regions and are starting to
compete with animal-feed manufacturers for raw materials.

Chinese projects are under way to make ethanol instead from cassava -
a starchy tuber common in Africa but not used as food in China - and
jatropha, also inedible and grown in wastelands.

African food prices are feeling the impact of the biofuel boom too,
with South African maize shooting from $85 a tonne in recent years to
$282 a tonne in March, U.N. news service IRIN reports.

In Asia, palm oil is the big biofuel focus. Used in toothpaste,
cookies, ice cream and breads, it's the world's second most popular
edible oil after soy, and Malaysia and Indonesia together produce 83
percent of it.

They've already come under attack for clearing forests to plant palms
for biofuel production. Apart from the environmental consequences of
huge fires and diminishing forests, campaigners say orangutans could
be extinct in 10 years because the animals' habitat is shrinking and
they're sometimes killed for straying into palm plantations.

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