Thursday, March 13, 2008

[PBN] Food vs Fuel debate in Philippines


Biofuels not cause of food price hike, PNOC-AFC says

Tacloban City (March 9) -- The Philippines' biofuels program will not
affect food production, much less cause food price hike, Dr. Renato S.
Velasco, Chairman of the PNOC-Alternative Fuels Corporation, told the
media in a press conference upon his arrival at the Tacloban Airport VIP
Lounge Saturday morning.

While it is true that the worldwide biofuels program has generated a
food versus fuel debate because of the setting aside of more land for
planting biofuel crops that has affected food production, the scenario
in the Philippines is completely different.

"The country is promoting jathropa as a biodiesel feedstock, it is
non-edible, in fact many people believe it is poisonous, so the
promotion of biofuels in the country will not compete with producers of
rice, corn, fruits, vegetable and livestock, nor will it affect food
production," Chairman Velasco said.

Dr. Velasco added, "Jatropha isn't food. The issue over diverting food
to fuel does not apply in this instance. That is the biggest advantage
of jatropha. It is unlike other feedstocks which are also vegetable oils
and cosmetics bases such as rapeseed, palm, sunflower, soy and linseed.
And this is why PNOC-AFC is betting on this miracle seed, first and
foremost for our country's energy independence. Food and fuel security
can go hand in hand."

"We do not entice land-owners and farmers to shift from food production
to jathropa farming since jathropa can grow on idle lands or denuded
hills" Secretary Velasco continued.

The use of alternative fuel sources like Jathropa is being promoted as
solution to three problems of the country, Chairman Velasco enthused.
First, it is seen as a solution to the ever increasing energy fuel which
is being imported abroad. The economists foresee that the price of
energy fuels will no longer go back to the price in the 90's, he said.

The second reason is global warming which is the result of not
protecting the environment from pollutants from smoke emitted by diesel
fed vehicles. The use of biodiesel will eliminate these pollutants in
the air.

Thirdly, the use of jathropa and other alternative fuels will provide
the people an alternative livelihood opportunity. Jathropa farming,
Chairman Velasco said, is labor intensive and will provide employment to
a great number of Filipinos.

Dr. Velasco calls on the local government units and farmers in Region 8
to utilize their idle land in planting jathropa and help solve the
country's problems on high prices of fuels, global warming and poverty
and unemployment.

Dr. Velasco together with Professor Rodolfo Visco and Mr. Dennis Ting of
the PNOC-AFC went to Basey, Samar to observe the jathropa production
initiatives in that part of the Region. (PIA 8) [top]


Food versus fuel in the Philippines

By Imelda V Abano

The government wants farmers to plant crops for biofuels on a vast
scale. But could the quest for green energy create food shortages?

Growing world energy demand, the insecurity of long-term supply and the
consequences of fossil fuel use for climate change are driving
governments to look for alternatives. To meet rising energy needs, many
countries are promoting the production and use of biofuels - energy
extracted as a gas, liquid or oil from plants.

Derived from food crops such as corn, sugarcane, soybean, oil palm and
sugarbeet, biofuel production has been on the rise in recent years. It
is seen by many as a clean form of energy in an era of soaring oil
prices and concerns over carbon emissions.

Jatropha, a plant originating in Central America that grows wild in many
developing countries, including South Africa, India, Thailand, Malaysia,
Indonesia, China and the Philippines, has suddenly found itself at the
centre of a new phase in the world's alternative energy boom.

In the Philippines, there is currently much hype surrounding its
production as a source of renewable fuel. Philippine President Gloria
Macapagal-Arroyo has signed into law the Biofuels Act which mandates a
minimum one per cent biodiesel blend and five per cent bioethanol blend
in all diesel and gasoline fuels. To meet demand, the government is
aggressively pushing for the cultivation of jatropha, believing it to be
one of the best candidates for future biofuel production.

The government, through the Philippine National Oil Co.-Alternative
Fuels Corp, is now looking at some 1.2 million hectares for jatropha
production in the southern island of Mindanao. It is also busy
identifying more than 400,000 hectares of land for private sector

Jatropha curcas is a drought-tolerant non-edible shrub. It produces
fruits the size of golf balls which contain oil that can be converted
into biodiesel, a substitute for fossil fuel.

According to Rhandy Tubal, research specialist at the Department of
Environment and Natural Resources in Cordillera, farmers who have
received training to grow jatropha are enthusiastic about the crop. He
says the cultivation of the plant could provide the first step out of
poverty for Filipino farmers and claims that, depending on the density
of the plants, each hectare can yield jatropha oil worth nearly US$2,000
a year.

"We are in the initial stage of planting jatropha and we are very
optimistic that it is indeed one of the best candidates for biofuel.
Farmers are very excited about its production," Tubal says, adding that
only idle land would be used for jatropha planting to avoid competition
with other crops.

However, research from Australia suggests the plant will need more
intensive inputs to produce the oil used for biofuels and it can take
several years to develop optimum yields. Furthermore, some experts warn
the move may use up precious land that could be used to grow food and
may eventually hurt subsistence farmers. Concerns over possible future
food shortages have generated a 'food versus fuel' debate in the country.

Rachel Smolker, a biofuels specialist and research biologist for the
US-based environmental group the Global Justice Ecology Project, fears
the global rush to switch from oil to energy derived from plants will
drive deforestation, push small farmers off the land and lead to serious
food shortages and increased poverty unless carefully managed.

"If food sources become biofuels, that may lead to shortages and raise
prices. The promotion of biofuels will have an impact on local food
security as some fuel crops are also food crops," Smolker says.

Her view is echoed by Philippine Senator Miriam Santiago, author of the
2007 Biofuels Act, who has sought more governmental oversight of
biofuels development, saying that backing biofuels could adversely
affect the country's ability to produce its own food.

"Biofuel is land-based and will eventually compete with food. Because
the Philippines has a small land area, biofuel production will tend to
encroach on food production. Corporations are already searching for
millions of hectares for jatropha alone. We have to step on the brakes
and decelerate," she says.
Santiago thinks the Philippines "will not prosper by betting only on the
biofuels option". She says the government should explore other
alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal
and biomass.

But the Philippines' Environment Secretary Lito Atienza has defended the
government's massive jatropha cultivation for the biofuels programme,
saying it will not imperil the country's food supply.

"Jatropha is a non-food crop. So the issue over food versus fuel is not
a debate about this crop. Jatropha grows on idle lands, particularly
denuded mountains and forests, unfit for food crop cultivation, so it
will not compete with land used for the production of food," Atienza says.

Widespread jatropha cultivation is fairly new in the Philippines. It is
only recently, with the news that jatropha can be a source of biodiesel,
that people have started planting larger areas of the crop.

All the more reason, according to Dr Emil Javier, president of the
National Academy of Science and Technology, to check out its
credentials. "The Philippines should do its homework and conduct
thorough research on jatropha and see its viability compared with other
alternative crops," he says.

The challenge, believes Achim Dobermann, a scientist from the
Philippine-based International Rice Research Institute, is to ensure a
balance between food and biofuel production. "There is an urgent need to
strengthen policy research in order to avoid decisions that may lead to
competition between food and bioenergy."

Check for earlier Pacific Biofuel posts:

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