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Food vs Fuel – the truth about biofuels in Africa

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Whoever said the truth shall set you free forgot to mention that you first have to find out what the truth is and that’s dirty work. On the biofuel vs food security debate, it’s difficult to grasp hold of the truth amid the hyperbole, the passion, the barrage of facts and the evidence of environmental gain or of human loss.

In early May 2011, the NGO Action Aid published a report entitled Fuelling Evictions: community cost of EU biofuels boom. The tone the report sets is one of a David versus Goliath face-off. The underdogs being some 20,000 people living in the Dakatcha woodlands of Kenya, an area held in trust for the communities by Malindi County Council and earmarked by the Italian-owned biofuels company Nuoze Iniziative Industriali, (through its subsidiary Kenya Jatropha Energy) for the cultivation of 50,000 hectares of jatropha.

Jatropha, touted in 2007 by Scientific American as “green gold in a shrub” because it “seems to offer all the benefits of biofuels without the pitfalls,” by 2009 had lost some of its shine. Thought to be able to thrive on marginal lands, and therefore pose no competition to cultivation for human consumption, an early study by Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies found that while jatropha can indeed grow on lands with minimal water and poor nutrition, “if you plant trees in a marginal area, and all they do is just not die, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get a lot of oil from them.”

So back to present day and jatropha has been steadily replacing food crops in communities from Senegal to Kenya, with devastating effect.

Speakers brought together by Friends of the Earth, the RSPB and Action Aid, to examine the evidence of biofuel impacts in 2011, paint a fairly grim picture: In Senegal, a net importer of food, where 51% of the population already suffer from food insecurity, jatropha is increasingly being planted on arable land – and in the areas of highest rain fall. The former owners of the land are now its seasonal labourers and at the end of the rainy season, with no land and no employment prospects, food insecurity rises sharply.

But that in and of itself is not an indictment on biofuels. There are other options available under the biofuels label that can help plug the hole in the dwindling supply of fossil fuels. None receive unanimous support but many, such as algae and biomethane – fuel produced from food waste – would reduce CO2 emissions and pose no threat to food production.

Rather, the scramble for arable land in Africa, Asia and Latin America is a result of the seemingly arbitrary energy targets set by policy makers. Far removed from the simple reciprocal relationship man has with his environment in Dakatcha, policy makers in Brussels, are looking for ways to redress the effects of our own less harmonious relationship with the earth and her resources. Part of that solution is the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and within it, its targets to source 20% of the EU’s total energy needs and 10% of its fuel for the transport sector from renewable sources by 2020.

With statements such as: “there is an urgent need to ensure we meet the [biofuels] goal [in the transport sector]” coming from policy makers, the biofuels industry has responded with increasingly ambitious agricultural projects. But here’s the catch: it has been estimated that a land mass the size of Belgium would be needed to meet these targets and the EU doesn’t have that sort of land going spare. Neither do developing countries, unless of course, you are prepared to divert land away from food production or use land of ecological significance. Industry has shown itself ready to do so, unless, they are impeded by robust legislation, which – and this is the crux of the matter – they are not.

Governments in both Africa and Europe have failed to factor in the social costs of a biofuel-heavy agricultural development agenda in the former or sustainability strategy in the latter. No one is holding big business to account as it fills up marshes, cuts down trees and displaces people. According to a joint briefing paper released by the aforementioned charities, “The EU criteria potentially allow up to 50% of global forested areas to be eligible for conversion for biofuels.” As one British member of parliament, vehemently opposed to RED’s targets puts it: “there is a sustainability question about the sustainability policy.”

So here’s the truth, well at least through the prism of my understanding and experience: biofuels are not the enemy. Energy consumption in the developed world and among BRIC countries is undoubtedly leading to climate change, the impacts of which are felt hardest by the poorest, so something has got to give and in the aviation industry, for example, biofuels are the only viable alternative. In the same breathe, the seemingly arbitrary way in which the EU has set its targets for reducing emissions and increasing energy sources from biofuels is creating yet another market in which the few profit at the expense of the many. Industry is never altruistic. If profit is not to come at the expense of people then the rights of local communities must be spelt out in the law and protected to the letter.

The biofuels debate is complex. There are many stakeholders, all with vested interests, all trying to beat their drum the loudest. But to plough ahead with the policy regardless, would not only lead to the destruction of indigenous communities and fragile ecosystems but could also spell financial ruin for the European companies involved.

Let the Bioshape project in Tanzania serve as a cautionary tale to all: five years after leasing 80,000 hectares of land from the central government and an investment of 25 million Euros, the Dutch-backed Bioshape jatropha project was found to be in breech of the rules of land lease, lost the backing of a major investor and provided an environmental impact assessment that was unreliable at best and fraudulent at worst. This is how the IPS article on the matter concludes:

“Five years after its ambitious launch, Bioshape’s plantation has produced only a scar on the landscape. Jobs promised to villagers have not materialised, and they have seen only a fraction of the promised compensation for the land they were persuaded to give up.

For the moment, they are able to resume farming within the concession, but they have signed away their title to it and remain vulnerable to the project’s resumption.”

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Written by Eliza

May 24, 2011 at 7:35 pm

5 Responses

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  1. […] See the original post:  Food vs Fuel – the truth about biofuels in Africa « product of my past […]

  2. Absolutely eye-opening. It’s scary how all the talks about sustainability are unsustainable.

    Alex Quest

    May 25, 2011 at 8:26 am

  3. Great post Eliza. A real Pandoras Box.

    My gut feelings the ‘goldrush’ period of biofuels is coming to an end with the realisation it isn’t the holy grail.

    I just hope as few innocents as possible get trodden on in the stampede.

    davidcoethica

    May 26, 2011 at 10:52 am

  4. Just because some people are willing to make imprudent, or illegal and deceitful decisions and actions doesn’t make everyone who want to promote biofuels a one-eye pirate from Barbuda. Intercropping, keeping biodiversity in perspective (which is only prudent) and cooperating with local populations in a fair and equitable way should be the priority of both local and national governments. Failure to protect the citizens from foreign carpetbaggers (perhaps in pursuit of personal gain?) is the nearly or actually criminally negligent action in this “so-called debate”. There are lots of other viable candidates for biofuels, and the “mistake” is to assume that cultivating crops that can be biofuels has to be mutually exclusive with food crops is the main error in logic that invalidates the whole discussion.
    Micro algae is the main candidate most likely to eventually succeed. It may take a short while to get algae cultivation established, yes, I have calculated the “land” it would take to grow enough to feed the entire world, substitute for all the transportation fuels on every country and continent and generate all the electricity we could possibly use for the next 100 years. The land REQUIRED is ZERO. NASA has already demonstrated a fresh water algae cultivation system that is fed sewage (the demo was in the San Francisco Bay area, but off the coast) in huge plastic bags. The unsalted water is lighter than the denser salt water of the oceans, so they float just below the surface, plenty of sunlight from above, and the bags are easily repaired according to the trial results.

    That does not mean it will all happen with that single method of cultivation, but it is possible to avoid land use altogether. Other calculations (arguments against establishing biofuels) about using petroleum based fuels to initially establish cultivation sites may be true, but before we get carried away with those calculation details, let’s look at another aspect – growth and propagation rate.

    Imagine if you will, for a moment, we re-direct a day’s supply of gasoline into producing polyethylene plastic in the form of 5 gallon buckets (more like pans in shape to let sunlight in), and we give 50 of these buckets to everyone in the world (about 6 billion people at the moment – assuming a really efficient distribution system that makes it happen overnight) (this is just a mental exercise at the moment, okay?)

    Now we start with ONE (1) kilo of (dry weight equivalent) growing algae, Chorella vulgaris will do nicely.

    We feed it lots of sunlight (well, the sun does with no help from us), and plenty of trace nutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sundry tiny amounts of other things commonly found in sewage, and ordinary city air, along with some oxygen and lots and lots of carbon dioxide, in fact, it would take about 2.4 kg of carbon dioxide from the air to double its size, but by the time 24 hours had passed, voila, 2 kilos of algae.

    In 20 days, doing nothing but distributing it to additional buckets as needed (and continuing the feeding regimen established so far) we get a little over 1 million kg. of algae. Fairly impressive so far?

    That converts to 1,000 metric tonnes of algae, right? So with that roaring success behind us (in only 20 days, remember) we do the same for another 20 days. No harvesting, just feed and split as needed.

    We now have a billion tons of algae. Admittedly only perhaps 30% of the algae is usable oil, but the rest is a highly nutritious cattle feed supplement, or a protein rich alternative kind of cooking flour, but let’s not start harvesting yet, let’s go another 50 days. Total cultivation time, 90 days from the start of our experiment. Unfortunately our 900 billion gallons worth of buckets were overflowing long before we got to 60 days, and the total amount at 90 days would have required that we import ingredients from Jupiter, (and most of the rest of our planets besides) because the total weight of algae at the 90 day mark would be some 550 billion times the weight of our planet.

    Now, I know you’d want to holler “whoa” before we got to 60 days, and you’d be correct, at that point if we took half of what was produced each new day, and processed it, it would do all those (incredible, fantastic, un-believable but TRUE!) things I mentioned above.

    With determination and the political will to make it happen, we can do this everywhere, and everywhere eliminate the “tribute” of over US$ 1 BILLION per DAY paid to OPEC nations.

    Sincerely,
    And ever hopefully,

    Stafford “Doc” Williamson


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