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Biofuels and the globalization of risk: The biggest change in North-South relationships since colonialism?

Biofuels and the globalisation of risk

By James Smith
Published by Zed Books
Website: www.zedbooks.co.uk
2010, 150pp, ISBN 978 1 84813 572 7(Pb) £17.99

Biofuels appear simple and seductive, a sustainable alternative to oil. But they are complex in their technology, economics and social repercussions. In James Smith's succinct and lucid explanation of this contentious topic, he writes, "Biofuels represent both a promise of a technologically driven future and the spectre of a web of known unknowns and unknown unknowns. [They] are driving and transforming the increasingly entangled relationship between energy, food security and climate change." He questions whether biofuel production represents "the biggest change in North-South relationships since colonialism" because "the production of biofuels risks reprioritizing land use across the globe, and as yet we know little about the implications of this."

The author, Professor of African and Development Studies at the Centre of African Studies, and having worked with DFID, IDRC, CGIAR and Oxfam, brings an authoritative eye to his study. He warns that we cannot ignore the statistics that reflect the speed of growth, the extent of biofuel production and their impact on food prices: "Figures from the US Department of Agriculture for 2009 show that the grain grown to produce fuel was enough to feed 350 million people for a year at average consumption levels. This represents a third of all those who constantly go without food." One third of all US maize is now used for ethanol and globally, "between 2002 and 2006, the amount of land used to grow biofuels quadrupled and production tripled."

The opportunity costs of substituting fuel crops for food crops is disputed; while the US claims biofuels contributed only 2-3 per cent of food price increases in recent years, the World Bank Mitchell Report estimated that biofuel production was responsible for 75 per cent of the 140 per cent increase in staple food prices occurring between 2002 and 2008. The price of maize, the main feedstock for ethanol in the US, doubled from US$117 to US$233 in the two years 2006/2007.

The outstanding success of Brazil's biofuel production is described, together with the reasons why the Brazilian scenario is not replicable for agronomic and other reasons. The Indian government's huge investment in jatropha plantations is questioned for the crop's unproven performance under anything but ideal conditions and also because the so called 'marginal land', on which it is planned to plant jatropha orchards, already supports the grazing and gathering needs of millions of the very poor.

Several African countries have been attracted by the lure of saving foreign exchange on fuel imports and even earning income, despite inadequate national food security. Tanzania, for example, which spends 25 per cent of foreign exchange on oil imports, "foreign companies are growing sugar cane for bioethanol so that European countries can meet their biofuel blending targets."

Second- and third-generation biofuels that do not compete directly with crop land, are reviewed, including the production of algae as a source of vegetable oil, biodiesel, bioethanol and other biofuels. The author concedes, "Particularly attractive characteristics of algal fuels include the obvious fact that they do not exacerbate competition for land, and their far greater potential to yield energy. Algal fuels may yield up to thirty times more energy per unit area than first-and second-generation biofuel crops, although this is somewhat offset by their greater production cost per unit area."

That biofuels will allow us to maintain current standards of living and modes of transport is a vain hope, Professor Smith believes, and concludes, "The risks biofuels pose are multidimensional; they threaten the environment, equity, development, responsibility and ultimately society…To achieve sustainability, we need to give things up; giving things up is the only way to move towards a sustainable future." These are the unequivocal conclusions and sentiments of someone with a global grasp of economics, social issues and food security and they deserve to be read and discussed by agronomists and policymakers. And by the public too, addicted as we all are to oil.

Date published: March 2011

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