Friday, July 27, 2007

[PBN] Eagle's Eye: Biofuel: Power from the poor


On one hand the rising population of millions of people in the world is
creating a surge in demand for food and on the other, is the use of food
crops as a source of energy in place of oil, the so-called bio-fuels
boom- Dr SS Verma

Access to cheap and abundannce of energy is a linchpin of modern
industry and civilisation. Worldwide every day, we devour the energy
equivalent of about 200 million barrels of oil, but much of this energy
comes from conventioal fossil fuels. Starting in the 1800s till now, we
have plundered our fossil fuel riches to drive development. New oil
sources are dwindling, pollution and greenhouse gases threaten the Earth
- yet energy demands will rise by 50% to 60% by 2030. Thus, an energy
crisis looms. We need to rapidly develop sustainable solutions to fuel
our future. Less-polluting renewable energy sources offer a more
practical long-term energy solution.


Every oil depended country in general and developed nation in particular
are looking towards biofuels to reduce the spiraling foreign oil import
costs, and to mitigate pollution and global warming associated with the
use of fossil fuels. Biofuel production is becoming price-competitive
with fuels in use at present due to many reasons like recently
skyrocketing petrol prices of conventional fuels, technological
development and growing consciousness about environmental degradation.
Many significant benefits like easing poverty, reducing air pollution,
gain greater self-sufficiency in energy production, mitigating global
warming, and rehabilitating degraded wastelands are assigned to the
production and use of biofuel crops. Now, the constraint towards biofuel
revolution is not the technology or cost of production; it is the supply
of raw materials.

Crops used for the production of biofuels are called biofuel crops and
presently, crops like maize, rapeseed, sugarcane, canola, jatropha,
karanj, sunflower, kassava, sweet sorghum, switchgrass, sugar beat and
soybeans are in use and in near future crops like wheat, rice and
cereals may also come under the expanding umbrella of biofuel crops.
Biofuels are a major emerging trend that can have a large impact on the
livehood of a major section of the society all over the world in general
and in developing and poor nations in particular. The term invokes a
life-giving image of renewability and abundance-a clean, green,
sustainable assurance in technology and the power of progress. This
image allows industry, politicians, the World Bank, the United Nations,
and even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to present fuels
made from biofuel crops as the next step in a smooth transition from
peak oil to a yet-to-be-defined renewable fuel economy. Drawing its
power from a cluster of simple cornucopian myths, "biofuels" directs our
attention away from the powerful economic interests that benefit from
this transition but it avoids discussion of the growing food imbalance.

Consequences of Biofuel production:

On one hand the rising population of millions of people in the world is
creating a surge in demand for food and on the other, is the use of food
crops as a source of energy in place of oil, the so-called bio-fuels
boom. As these two forces combine they are setting off warning bells
around the world. The stage is now set for direct competition for grain
between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the world's 2
billion poorest people who need food for survival. For some, this
(biofuel) could mean a change of lifestyle but for many it could cost
lives. As interest increases in the use of biofuels to offset dependence
on fossil fuels, there are challenges on many fronts. Biofuel production
is going to require a significant land base to meet future production
expectations. More fundamentally, it obscures the political-economic
relationships between land, people, resources and food. By showing us
only one side, "biofuels" fails to help us understand the profound
consequences of the industrial transformation of our food and fuel
systems-The Agro-fuels Transition.

The rapid capitalization and concentration of power within the
agro-fuels industry is breathtaking. Over the last few years venture
capital investment in agro-fuels has increased manyfold. Private
investment is swamping public research institutions. Behind the
scenes-and under the noses of most national anti-trust laws-giant oil,
grain, auto and genetic engineering corporations are forming powerful
partnerships. These corporations are consolidating the research,
production, processing, and distribution chains of our food and fuel
systems under one colossal, industrial roof. Agro-fuel champions assure
that because fuel crops are renewable, they are
environmentally-friendly, can reduce global warming, and will foster
rural development. But the tremendous market power of agro-fuel
corporations, coupled with the poor political will on the part of
governments to regulate their activities, leads to doubt these happy
scenarios. Before jumping on the bandwagon, the mythic baggage of the
agro-fuels transition needs to be publicly unpacked.

Biofuel crops will compete for land with food crops, driving up food
prices and making their availability to poor further difficult.
Increases in area sown to biofuel crops (exagrated by proxy farming)
would take the most valuable, fertile lands out of food production. Poor
people do need opportunities for economic growth but first they need
food to eat. The world's poorest people already spend 50-80% of their
total household income on food. They suffer when high fuel prices push
up food prices. Now, because food and fuel crops are competing over land
and resources, high food prices may actually push up fuel prices. Both
increase the prices of land and water. This perverse, inflationary
spiral puts food and productive resources out of reach for the poor. The
International Food Policy Research Institute has estimated that the
price of basic food staples will increase 20-33 percent by the year 2010
and 26-135 percent by the year 2020. If current trends continue, some
1.2 billion people could be chronically hungry by 2025. Instead of
converting land to fuel production, what are urgently needed are massive
transfers of food-producing resources to the rural poor.

Proponents of agro-fuels like to reassure "food versus fuel" skeptics by
asserting that present agro-fuels made from food crops will soon be
replaced with environmentally-friendly crops like fast-growing trees and
switchgrass. The issue of which crops are converted to fuel is
irrelevant. Even wild plants cultivated as fuel crops won't have a
smaller "environmental footprint" because commercialization will
transform their ecology. They will rapidly migrate from hedgerows and
woodlots onto arable lands to be intensively cultivated like any other
industrial crop-with all the associated environmental externalities.
Further, by genetically engineering plants with less lignin and
cellulose, the industry aims to produce cellulosic agro-fuel crops that
break down easily to liberate sugars, especially fast-growing trees.
But, given the demonstrated promiscuity of genetically-engineered crops,
we can expect massive genetic contamination. Agro-fuels will serve as
the genetic Trojan horse, allowing to fully colonize both fuel and food

Viability of Biofuels:

It's a massive opportunity to be actually able to produce something so
important i.e. biofuel from the land which will allow farmers to make a
reasonable living. The challenge-and opportunity-is to ensure that the
biofuel production should not turn to be a power from the poor of the
society. Even, if the biofuel is produced from the left over of any
process, it has to be uncertained that whether this left over was used
by the poor people for their livelihood. Use of marginal lands or sites
not preferable for food crops is a good idea. Plants, grass and
non-edible crops sown particularly on the drylands/wasteland/on
contaminated fields, often neglected compared to agricultural land, can
contribute importantly to a bio-fueled future if with the collaboration
of local communities.

Even if the Agro-fuels Transition is inevitable, there is no reason to
sacrifice the possibility of sustainable, equitable food and fuel
systems to an industrial strategy that compromises both. There is a need
for making bio-fuel cultivation economically viable for farmers as an
alternative crop. Crop researchers are looking at which crops and crop
varieties possess the best qualities for this use, and farmers are
contemplating new marketing options. At the same time, engineers are
exploring more efficient and effective biofuel production systems. Many
successful, locally-focused, energy-efficient and people-centered
alternatives are presently producing food and fuel in ways that do not
threaten food systems, the environment, or livelihoods. With a
combination of all precautions and incentives let us hope that the idea
of biofuel production will not become a transformation of food for the
poor into fuel for the rich.

Check for earlier Pacific Biofuel posts:

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