Biofuels: Let’s look before we leap

Un campesino cosecha mandioca Copyright: CGIAR/IITA

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A commitment to biofuels should be based on a careful assessment of their prospective benefits and costs, not a blind leap of faith.

Several years ago, faced with growing food shortages, the government of Burma — now Myanmar — ordered farmers throughout the country to start growing rice, whatever type of land they owned. But rice proved to be totally unsuitable for many of the regions in the country, with the result that many farmers were forced even further into poverty, from which they have yet to recover.

The example is an extreme one, but it illustrates the dangers of seeking a quick technological solution to pressing social needs — particularly when the technology in question may not be suited to the conditions in which it is intended to operate.

Biofuels are no different. There are many good reasons for promoting new technologies that can extract energy from plant tissue.

Initially, in countries such as Brazil, the main incentive came from the escalating price of other energy sources, and the need to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers. More recently, additional impetus has been given to using biofuels to address concerns over the contribution of conventional fuels to climate change.

But there are also reasons to be cautious of any attempt to impose a technical fix on complex social, economic and ecological problems.

Recent months have seen escalating calls for massive investment in the development of biofuels. But they have also witnessed growing concern that, unless carefully and sensitively handled, such investments could — for example, by increasing food prices or limiting the land available for food production — end up causing as many problems as they create.

Better knowledge, better decisions

For some, the potential threats are so large as to demand immediate action. Last month, for example, Jean Ziegler, special rapporteur to the UN on the Right to Food, attracted wide attention when he called for a five-year moratorium on biofuel production. He labelled the use of agriculturally productive soil for energy crops as "a crime against humanity".

Proponents of biofuels, such as the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization were quick to criticise the remarks. They said that not only was a moratorium unnecessary, but it would also be impossible to implement, given the momentum that the biofuels movement has already acquired.

Yet we should still proceed with caution. There is much to be learnt about optimal approaches to the development of biofuels: what are the most cost-effective conversion technologies, how can land-use policies be made compatible with social need and avoid damaging ecological consequences, and so on.

Getting the answers to these questions wrong could have disastrous consequences. Even if a moratorium is not the best way to go, at the very least the research that is able to answer such questions should be a high priority.

And since — as with climate change — developing countries will be in the front-line if disaster strikes, they have a particular interest in ensuring that as much as possible is known in order to make sensible decisions.

Research at all levels

Research needs to exist at every level. One of the most obvious is research into improving the productivity of potential biomass crops, whether it is sugarcane in Brazil, jatropha in South Asia, or more novel sources of biofuels, such as cassava, currently being closely studied in several parts of Africa.

Studies are needed to link investigations of the technical aspects of particular crops to the conditions under which they are likely to be grown — as well as who is likely to benefit from their growth. An example of this is the work that the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is currently carrying out into ways of ensuring that jatropha production benefits small-scale farmers.

As William Dar, the director-general of ICRISAT, points out, large-scale planting of jatropha is a risky proposition, since few scientific details are known about the plant. "This appears to be a major unrealised opportunity for new research," Dar writes in an opinion article for SciDev.Net, part of our spotlight on biofuels launched this week (6 December).

It is also clear that more research is urgently needed into the potential environmental impact of large-scale biomass production. This is particularly true for countries in Africa, where the risk is high such that the commercial incentives for rushing into biofuels — particularly with a potentially lucrative market beckoning in the industrial world — could lead to corners being cut when it comes to environmental considerations, as has happened too often in the past.

The Brazil example

Brazil has already shown how successful biofuel research programmes can be. Although the country had been carrying out research into the use of sugarcane to produce fuel as far back as the 1930s, it was only in the 1970s — when the Arab oil crisis sent petrol prices through the roof — that the Brazilian government embarked on large-scale investment in ethanol research (see Sugarcane ethanol: Brazil’s biofuel success).

The result has been dramatic. The country’s ethanol programme has not only contributed significantly to its energy security, but has also become a major source of income, with Brazil now supplying around 30 per cent of the world’s total supply of biofuels.

Equally important, is the fact that Brazil developed its own research programme rather than depending on licensing technology developed elsewhere. This has put the country in a strong position to set its own terms when negotiating supply contracts with other nations, particularly in the developing world.

It is therefore clear that, for a variety of reasons, investment in biofuels research should now be rising to the top of the research agenda across the developing world.

Such research will not necessarily produce immediate answers to the energy supply challenges these countries increasingly face. But it will produce the information on which evidence-based answers to these challenges can be confidently built.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

This article is part of a Spotlight on The biofuels revolution.