By Niu Shuping, Nao Nakanishi - Analysis
BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Beijing is putting the brakes to China's
ethanol production drive after increases in corn prices worldwide
rekindled worries over inflation and food security.
A shortage of raw materials -- because of dwindling arable land,
difficulties in importing and a rush enmasse by state firms into the
once Beijing-sanctioned arena -- is pushing up grain prices and could
throw a spanner in the works of one of the world's largest ethanol
A recent climb in pork prices -- blamed partly on swelling corn feed
costs -- served as a wake-up call to Beijing, which had promoted
biofuels as a means to wean the country off imported oil and secure
income for hundreds of millions of farmers.
Now, industry officials and traders say the National Development and
Reform Commission (NDRC), the country's top economic planning body,
was revising downwards China's 2010 target for fuel ethanol output to
2 million tonnes from 5 million tonnes.
And the government has put on ice a plan to expand a list of cities
and provinces where it mandates the blending of ethanol into car
petrol from 11 at present, they said.
The new, substantially lowered target would jeopardize a number of
projects in the pipeline, including many by the state-owned grains
trader COFCO, which has embarked on an aggressive expansion with plans
to invest more than $1 billion on fuel ethanol over 3-5 years.
"They have reduced the 2010 target from 5 million tonnes to 2 million
tonnes. They want to cool down the expansion," said a trader of
ethanol, known also as ethyl alcohol.
"Maybe there's a conflict between energy and food."
No comment was immediately available from the NDRC. But Beijing has so
far failed to release a blueprint for the country's policy on
biofuels, including biodiesel, for the next five years. It was due
early in 2007.
Ethanol, a form of biofuel touted as an alternative to rapidly
depleting or polluting hydrocarbons, can be produced from a broad
swathe of organic material, from grains to potatoes.
China is now the world's number-three ethanol producer, after the
United States and Brazil. Its four authorized plants manufacture 1.2
million tonnes a year from corn and wheat.
"The rapid and blind expansion of the corn processing industry will
have a series of negative impacts on the country's grain security,
which is a worry for government leaders," an NDRC official told a
grain conference this week.
"We have far more population than farmland. We cannot reverse the
trend of declining water and land resources, which means China's grain
supply will stay tight in future."
The official said China would not be able to buy enough corn from the
world market either, with the United States, the world's largest corn
exporter, hoarding more grain for its own ethanol program.
A COFCO official said on Monday that Beijing had stopped approving new
fuel ethanol projects regardless of the raw material used, freezing
its plan to build a sweet-potato-based ethanol plant in the northern
province of Hebei.
He would not comment on others. Yet, his remark cast doubt on similar
projects proposed by China Agri-Industries Holdings Ltd. (0606.HK:
Quote, Profile, Research), COFCO's listed arm in charge of biofuels.
Asked about the projects, including one in Jiangsu, a spokesman at
China Agri said: "We will follow what we have planned ... unless we
receive a formal notice from the government. We have not received any
Still, the spokesman believed Beijing had yet to approve the company's
plan to build a 300,000 tonne per year, sweet sorghum-based plant in
northeastern Liaoning, and another 100,000 tonne per year, sweet
potato-based plant in central Hubei.
Beijing has yet to give the green light also to its sweet potato
project in Jiangsu, which China Agri had agreed with the Xuzhou
municipal government. (ID:nHKG144626: Quote, Profile, Research).
Officials at a biofuel conference last week warned that China would
face raw material shortages for an increasing number of ethanol plants
-- at least until the technology matured enough to enable the
conversion of agricultural waste.
China would not be short of just corn, but also of other farm
products, such as sweet potatoes, because investors like PetroChina
(0857.HK: Quote, Profile, Research) (PTR.N: Quote, Profile, Research)
planned to shift away from food grains for manufacturing fuel ethanol,
Among China Agri's new ethanol projects, the only one to have earned
Beijing's blessing at present is one in the southern region of
Guangxi, expected to start producing 200,000 tonnes of the fuel from
cassava in December.
Some officials were skeptical even on that project, with cassava
supply tightening due to demand from the starch and feed industry.
Thai cassava chips prices were up by nearly 50 percent in a year to
about $150 a tonne, delivered to China.
Meanwhile, Beijing has begun clamping down on small, polluting corn
processors, including food-grade ethanol producers. The NDRC said on
its Web site (www.ndrc.gov.cn) it would phase out outdated capacity
totaling 1.6 million tonnes in ethanol in the next five years.
For a package of stories on the intensifying conflict between food and
biofuel needs, please click on (ID:nL1686493: Quote, Profile,