Wednesday, November 21, 2007

How to learn to love biofuels and win this war

The argument exists: The production of eco-friendly biofuels could inadvertently create food security issues as farmers will rush off to plant sugar beets while ignoring growing maize or wheat or other crops humans consume.

However, the Government of Mozambique is pushing ahead with its first convertible biofuels plant. The plant, located just an hour north of Maputu, will be able to produce more than 5,000 litres of biodiesel an hour from plant oils, reports IRIN.

The facility remains idle because the quality of the organic crops are not up to standards, but the government remains committed to the idea.

The production of biofuels will reduce the country’s dependence on the expensive and volatile petroleum market, said the country’s Minister of Energy.

“They are labour intensive, and can generate agricultural and agro-industrial employment, self-employment and income, particularly in rural areas, where the incidence of poverty is highest," he told an international conference on biofuels in Brussels.

Tough talk on biofuels
Last month, Jean Ziegler, a UN consultant on food rights, called for a five-year ban on the production of food to fuel because the conversion of maize, wheat and corn to fuel was driving up food prices worldwide.

Ziegler used incendiary language to denounce the practice. "It is a crime against humanity to convert agriculturally productive soil into soil which produces foodstuffs that will be burned into [as] biofuel,” he said at a press conference.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization recently referred to his comments as regrettable.

In other news, his much too-nuanced talk got him a rebuke from Africa Flak.

IRIN quoted Jeff Tschirley, head of the FAO's Environment Assessment and Management Unit: "FAO strongly feels that food security and environmental considerations must be fully addressed before making investments or policy decisions, and we are actively working to ensure this happens.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch
However, at least two development consultants claim that small farmers will not be able to participate in marketing biofuels because of markets of scale: These farmers grow crops like sorghum on small plots, but biofuel plants like the one waiting completion near Maputu will rely on large plantations with large labor forces.

Another problem facing these farmers is poor infrastructure – which coincidentally is a major contributor to food security – where farmers’ crops are stuck in rural areas, far away from food markets and biofuel plants.

Marcos Freire, a project coordinator at the the Mozambique Institute of Agrarian Investigation, said urban dwellers will feel the effect of higher food prices. This won’t be so bad, he said, because farmers will be paid more for their work.

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