Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 May 2008
Issue No. 897
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Food for fuel, or not

Nader Noureddin* ponders the environmental merits of replacing fossil fuels with biofuels, despite the latter's aggravation of the world food crisis

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The Arab-Israeli struggle and the battle over oil resources could continue to destabilise the region for decades to come

Next month's high-level conference on World Food Security in Rome will discuss the effects of climate change and bioenergy on world food security. President Hosni Mubarak, along with most world leaders, plans to share and discuss the future of global food security. But already, biofuel production has drawn negative reviews because it cuts into the global community's nutritional needs.

The United Nation's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Jean Ziegler described biofuel production as a "criminal path" leading to the global food crisis. Ziegler asserted that biofuel policies pursued by the EU and US are some of the main causes behind the current world food crisis, adding that the production of biofuel is a "crime against humanity".

The UN Food Programme reports that biofuel production makes worse food shortages worldwide, and can be considered the main culprit behind the global food crisis.

Across the globe, researchers have begun testing a variety of bio products, such as soya, palm oil, algae, organic matters, crop and plant residues, as well as agriculture residues, for their potential as raw materials to produce biofuels. On the other hand, environmentalists fear that large-scale production of biofuels in Asia, such as palm oil plantations in New Guinea, will cause serious environmental challenges for the entire planet, starting with the clearance of forested land for plantations.

An increased focus on biofuel production across Asia and Latin America has spurred a "tropical agricultural revolution", with intense competition for land to grow food and fuel crops. The resulting forest clearance has led to loss of biodiversity, health problems in Southeast Asia due to smoke from forest fires, and contributes to global warming.

Biofuel production will also increase demand for agricultural land at the expense of natural ecosystems. Perhaps more critically, it will also require large quantities of water -- already a major constraint to agriculture in many parts of the world. Hence, pursuing biofuel production in water-short countries will turn green energy into a major threat to resources.

It will be especially challenging for Arab states to become involved in biofuel production due to several factors. Primarily, Arab states have severe food shortages, causing them to import 50-70 per cent of their food needs. These include wheat, cereal grains, sugar, oil and butter, beef, poultry, eggs, maize, milk, milk products and milk powder. Egypt, for example, imports seven million metric tonnes of wheat annually, 93 per cent of its food oil needs, some 5.5 million metric tonnes of maize every year and about 35 per cent of its sugar needs, since local production only fulfils 1.8 million tonnes of the needed 2.4 million tonnes each year.

Since Egypt imports biofuel crops, it is highly unlikely that it will elect to produce biofuel from these imports; nor is it likely to have sufficient local production of these ingredients. Secondly, all Arab states -- except Iraq -- are at water scarcity levels which make it difficult to grow biofuel crops. Nonetheless, biofuel from agriculture residues or from micro- organisms remain an option.

A success story in biofuels, however, is Brazil. It began exploring ethanol production from sugarcane after the first oil crisis of 1973-74, as a way to reduce the country's reliance on oil imports. It now produces 15 per cent of the 25 billion litres of ethanol used worldwide for energy. Brazil has also developed a long- term research programme for sugarcane ethanol, which has led to a domestic market for ethanol- powered cars and "flux-fuel" cars running on either petrol, ethanol or both.

The long-standing focus on sugarcane ethanol production has also given the country a competitive edge on the technology. In Brazil, ethanol production is twice as cheap as in the United States, which primarily uses corn, and three times as cheap as European production from sugarbeet. Brazil's Secretary of the Environment Jose Glodemberg claims his country's biofuel programme has helped mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, suggesting that it could be replicated as a future sustainable energy source elsewhere.

US President George Bush, in particular, has expressed an interest in learning from the Brazilian model, making it a key point of discussion in his recent visit to Latin America. In fact, the US is investing about $1.6 billion on research into ethanol production over the next five years -- a sum that almost matches Brazil's entire annual science and technology budget of $2 billion.

But experts warn that planting crops solely for biofuels may cause catastrophic damage to the planet. Denmark's Environment Minister Connie Hedegaard, speaking at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) meeting in Nairobi, Kenya in February 2007, emphasised that environmental standards were vital if the international trade in biofuels was to begin on a massive scale. "We should be careful on biofuels," she cautioned, "not everything that is biofuel is good for the environment; we should focus on second-hand generation biofuels, not first generation."

Second-hand generation biofuels are produced from the by-products of food crops, such as sugarcane, rather than crops grown purely for biofuel production. The recently completed Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 1.2 billion people live in areas affected by water scarcity which also suffer an inability to meet growing water needs. In many of them, people rely on irrigation for agriculture. In India, for example, more than 60 per cent of the cereal crops grown for food are irrigated; in China, this figure is more than 70 per cent.

Research at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has shown that at a global average, the biomass needed to produce one litre of biofuel evaporates between 1,000 and 4,000 litres of water -- depending on the type of feedstock and conversion techniques used. Sugarcane in Brazil evaporates around 2,200 litres for every litre of ethanol, but in this water-rich region the demand is easily met by abundant rainfall. In more arid countries, irrigation must make up for the shortfall. In India, for example, a litre of sugarcane ethanol requires 3,500 litres of irrigation water.

As populations grow over the next four decades, demand for food and thus water will continue to rise across the world. This is especially true for rapidly developing nations like China and India, where people's improved standards of living will cause diets to shift towards more sugar, oil, vegetable, meat and dairy products. All typically require more water to produce.

Globally, biofuel crops currently consume only one per cent of the total water used for food cultivation. However, if biofuel usage rises as projected, it could use 80 per cent more water by 2030. Hence, the next two decades will need to address the most serious issue of whether water scarcity will take precedence over energy scarcity.

* The writer is a professor at the Faculty of Agriculture, Cairo University.

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