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Booming biofuels - who will benefit?

Deforestation has been blamed on increased production of biofuel crops (© FAO)
Deforestation has been blamed on increased production of biofuel crops

With rising world food prices and concerns over the environment, growing food crops for biofuel production is being met with increasing criticism. A new report published by the UK's Royal Society argues that some biofuels could help to curb climate change - but may also result in other environmental problems unless policies are implemented with care.

In developing countries, although biofuel production could provide some benefits for the agricultural sector, the impact on poverty and food security is less clear. So, do biofuels mean big business for Africa and other regions, and are smallscale farmers likely to benefit? In this edition of Points of view, we provide a variety of opinions from academics, researchers and scientists - several of whom comment on the rise of one particular fuel crop, jatropha.

A path out of poverty?

The current policy on biofuel is simply replacing one problem with another. It's passing the middle class burden onto the poor. The fuel needs of the middle class with their consumerism - and rising demand for energy - is going to be met by further marginalising the poor people.
Jagdeesh Rao, Executive Director, Foundation for Ecological Security, India

I don't see that biofuels are going to become a crop for the poor. It will be a capital intensive business to put in irrigation systems during periods of drought and flood control measures during periods of heavy rain. Climate change will require that agriculture becomes even more capital intensive.
Dr Eli Mtetwa, National University of Science, Zimbabwe

Agro-fuels are not a magic bullet out of poverty. This is definitely an industrial call to the farmer, to start producing these crops because they think they are going to make money out of it. Here in Zambia, we have had the well-supported tobacco industry and cotton industry. How many years have our farmers been growing these products? And how many of those farmers involved in that have made their way out of poverty?
Munshimbwe Chitalu, Chief Executive Officer, Organic Producers and Processors Association of Zambia

Jatropha - cure or curse?

One thing that we need to stress is that this biofuel crop, jatropha, must be grown by peasant and smallscale farmers. We must encourage the availability of funds available for the masses to grow this crop: funding for seedlings; funding for extension service and training and awareness.
Tyson Bruno, Chisambo, Managing Director, Biofuels Association, Zambia

A worker tends his jatropha crop at a plantation in India (WRENmedia)
A worker tends his jatropha crop at a plantation in India

In India, biofuel production has provided employment to the landless people. It has provided social capital and more money in the bank. With soil and water conservation on these degraded lands, we have found that jatropha has survived very well without any supplementary irrigation. And that has proved that jatropha can be established. It may not give very high yields, but it will give some yield which will be an additional source of income to the poor or landless people.
Dr Suhas Wani, Principle Scientist, ICRISAT, India

African farmers can benefit from this crop by utilising the wasteland where they do not plant anything else. They can integrate with jatropha. Jatropha is generally spotted everywhere so it is not like we are introducing a new crop. It can be used to produce a completely clean fuel. With Jatropha we are looking at usingbarren lands in which nothing is happening.
Lorna Omuodo, Vanilla Jatropha Development Foundation, Kenya

Government policy is encouraging farmers to plant jatropha but I don't think this is going to have an adverse effect on price or availability of food. Most of these farmers who are beginning to plant jatropha are not going to give up food production. There is the possibility of intercropping jatropha with other crops so I do not see this biofuel as a threat to food supply.
Charles Ampong, Kumasi Institute of Technology and Environment, Ghana

Threats to food, fodder and the environment

If food prices are going up in order to keep the West and North running its vehicles - its aeroplane industry - at the expense of people going hungry in other parts of the world, that does not seem like a very good system to me.
Martin Wolfe, Organic Research Centre, Wakelyns Agroforestry, UK

Animal husbandry, especially in states like Rajasthan, depends on so-called 'waste' lands, particularly in the dry months April-June. If these 'waste' lands are given over to jatropha production that will reduce the number of varieties of grasses and other fodder plants available and that will affect animal husbandry.
Jagdeesh Rao

If we are not careful we might end up losing a lot of land to agro-fuels if the benefits are going to be so great. And if that happens, many people may actually move away from arable crop production and venture into those activities at the expense of food crops such as maize. It is smallscale farmers who feed this country.
Munshimbwe Chitalu

I think it is a question of trying to weigh the advantages and the disadvantages of the whole concept. If we say we want to promote sugarcane, once you put aside pieces of land - the monoculture - this has consequences on biodiversity loss. Once you look at it from the biodiversity side, it reduces biodiversity: it reduces other species from growing on the same spot and therefore contributes to biodiversity loss.
Mary Mbantenkhu, Vice President for the Convention on biodiversity and biosafety, Cameroon

The biofuel boom has meant more crops are being grown for fuel, rather than food (©FAO/Giuseppe Bizzarri)
The biofuel boom has meant more crops are being grown for fuel, rather than food
©FAO/Giuseppe Bizzarri

The future of fuel

I think we have to ask a much larger question: how much will biofuels like jatropha substitute regular consumption of energy? Why is it that jatropha has to provide the answer? What we should be looking at is clean burn technology, better public transport systems and greener building design before we convert precious agricultural land to jatropha crops.
Jagdeesh Rao

Most African countries shall continue to rely on wood fuel for many decades to come. The main reason is that poverty levels are high and people cannot easily afford alternatives. So the best thing for us to do is to ensure that the wood fuel is used efficiently and that it is also produced in a sustainable way.
Dr Evans Kituyi, National Technical Officer, Renewable Energy Technology Assistance Program (RETAP), Kenya

We have to get our priorities in the right order. The best way of saving energy around the world in terms of climate change, is not to use it. If you look at the amount of energy that's wasted, it's absolutely mind-boggling and we wouldn't suffer at all by taking a 50-60 per cent hit in reduction of energy use.
Martin Wolfe

A greater push in production of these agro-fuels will actually cause a lot of problems for the environment. There may be a desire for large-scale deforestation, as has happened in some countries in Africa and that is not good enough. Actually, the environmentalists are calling on governments to be careful.
Munshimbwe Chitalu

Date published: March 2008


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