Friday, October 5, 2007

[PBN] Promises and pitfalls of biofuels


Like any innovation, increased production of energy crops has the
potential to exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities by concentrating
benefits on the well-off. It can lead to deforestation, a loss of
biodiversity, and excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, thereby
degrading the land and water that poor people depend on. Policymakers
must take care to ensure that biofuel production is managed and
regulated in a way that avoids these pitfalls. —Joachim von Braun,
director general, International Food Policy Research Institute,
International Conference on Biofuels, July 5 and 6, 2007, Brussels

THE other day former agriculture secretary and now director general of
the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics
(Icrisat) William Dar advised the government to consider the interest of
the rural poor in the drafting of plans for the local biofuels industry.

It's a timely reminder, obviously based on a valid concern. With the
rising prices of fossil fuels, biofuels might just emerge as a huge
industry here, and it might be tempting for huge agribusiness giants and
industrial processors to push aside the rural poor in the production of
feedstocks, such as corn, sugar cane and sweet sorghum, through
large-scale and mechanized plantation agriculture.

"It's simple to do it that way, but it ignores the social and
environmental consequences, which could be devastating," warned Dar,
himself a distinguished agricultural scientist. "Markets run on profits,
not on social consequences."

We couldn't agree more.

The Philippines actually doesn't run out of success stories in
agribusiness and industrial crops production. In the last 30 to 40
years, the Philippines—particularly Mindanao—has been one of the best
and most successful producers of pineapples, bananas, asparagus,
mangoes, rubber trees, oil palm and cut flowers, among many others, this
side of the Pacific.

The only problem is that most of these economic activities are done
mainly by large agribusiness firms, rich local entrepreneurs and
relatively well-off farmers, thus exacer-bating rural inequality. That
explains why poverty, especially rural poverty, continues to be a
serious problem in this country.

Certainly, producing biofuel feed- stocks is economically and socially
promising. These are labor-intensive activities that could help address
rural joblessness. It seems to be a picture-perfect business activity
that could provide extensive linkages between the farms and industry,
thereby benefiting a broader segment of society.

It's almost like a super sniper's bullet scoring several hits with just
one well-aimed shot: more jobs for farm and upland dwellers, higher
incomes for farmers, more jobs for workers in processing plants, reduced
reliance on imported fossil fuels, thus contributing to the improvement
in our balance of payments, and a cleaner environment.

But experts say there are pitfalls that we need to address before we
could even think about bringing down those plans to the ground. And the
first of them is stakeholder participation.

Are we going to do this like we did with other agribusiness endeavors?
If we go business-as-usual, if we don't factor in social-equity
considerations, it's likely that Dar's fears about the benefits of
biofuels feedstock production accruing largely to the well-off are going
to be repeated again.

This is because this new business is going to require extensive access
to innovative technologies and markets for producers to be successful.
These are factors that are always not available to upland dwellers and
marginal farmers, making them miss out on so many potential economic

And yes, we mentioned access to innovative and proven technologies
because our farmers might just end up planting all sorts of feedstocks,
only to find out the ones they have invested their sweat and blood in
are not needed by the processors.

The government has lately been trumpeting glorious hallelujahs about the
virtues of jatropha without even conducting serious research and
development efforts about this crop. No less than officials of the
Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources
Research and Development and Dar himself have lately been warning the
government about it, but it seems their wise voices are not getting across.

What sorts of feedstock provide the highest energy yield? What areas in
the Philippines are suited for what type of feedstock? What sorts of
agronomic practices are necessary to ensure sustainable and economical
yield? Are there opportunities for intercropping with existing perennial
crops like coconuts? Are there adequate rural infrastructures to support
and make such feedstock cost effective? Are there geographic factors to
be considered to ensure economic viability? These are some of the many
questions that our government planners need to consider before they
could even start talking to farmers and upland dwellers.

Failing to study these questions, the government might just end up
creating confusion and even more economic problems.

For instance, there's a danger that in the rush to produce feedstock, we
might end up encouraging farmers to shift away from food production. We
might end up having plantation-style agribusiness systems for feedstock
that would require massive doses of fertilizer and pesticides, thus
defeating the biofuels's supposed earth-friendly purposes.

The worst scenario could be the massive conversion of upland forests for
the production of feedstock to the detriment of biodiversity and the
watershed areas.
Check for earlier Pacific Biofuel posts:

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