Bio-fuel and the Food Crisis

Article No 26

Hemantha Withanage Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice

Sri Lanka is planning to run train engines with bio-fuel by 2010. Big corporations are eyeing to cultivate 65,000 hectares of sugar cane in Sri Lanka to produce ethanol. However, the so called green solution to climate change and increasing fossil fuel prices seem much more disastrous to the human society and the environment.

The most recent worry of human society is the growing food crisis. Rising food prices have ignited riots in some countries. Some think that this is the first real economic crisis of globalization. About 850 million of people go to bed in hunger every night. About 1.1 billion people are still living below the one dollar poverty line. According to reports the new food crisis pushed 100 million more people back below the poverty line.

It was told that world has adequate food but the issue is that there is no proper distribution. However, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) “the era of cheap food for Asia is over as surging demand, supply problems and the growing production of bio-fuels will keep food prices high.” The Bank refers to the growing demand for food in Asia. However, as reported by the Guardian in early July 2008, the leaked World Bank study disputes that: “Rapid income growth in developing countries has not led to large increases in global grain consumption and was not a major factor responsible for the large price increases.”

The US government claims that plant- derived fuels contribute less than 3% to food-price rises. Meanwhile, as the Guardian reported, an unpublished report of the World Bank state that Bio-fuels have forced global food prices up by 75% – far more than previously estimated. The other factors, such as high energy prizes, and fertilizer prices, have contributed only 15% according to the report.

Bio-fuel is the controversial alternative fuel to reduce emission of greenhouse gases and reduce dependence on imported fuel. Bio-fuel is any fuel that is derived from biomass i.e. present living organisms or their metabolic byproducts. Therefore, it is a renewable energy source, unlike other natural resources such as petroleum, coal, gas and nuclear energy. Since so-called bio-fuel is mostly based on agricultural plants, activists consider bio-fuel as agro-fuel.

The plants whose oils are popularly considered for bio-fuel are soybeans, rapeseed, sunflower, safflower and palm, which are mostly food sources. Agricultural products specifically grown for use as bio-fuels include corn and soybeans, mostly in the United States, and flaxseed and rapeseed, mostly in Europe. The recent G8 summit however called for promotion of bio-fuel derived from non food sources.

The most famous agro-fuel is ethanol derived from molasses a byproduct of the sugar industry. Brazil’s transport sector uses ethanol upto 30%. The World Bank report points out that agro-fuels derived from sugarcane, which Brazil specializes in, have not had such a dramatic impact. However, cultivation of sugar cane has increased tremendously which has resulted in loosing fertile land for food production and increased water pollution. The most controversial agro-fuel is ethanol derived from corn in the United States which is only about 2% of the transport energy requirement.

Bio-diesel refers to any diesel equivalent bio-fuel made from renewable biological materials such as vegetable oils, castor oil or animal fats etc. Bio-diesel can be used in diesel engines either as a standalone in modified diesel engines or blended with petro diesel for unmodified diesel engines. Fuel containing 20 % bio-diesel is labeled B20 and pure bio-diesel is referred to as B100.

Bio-diesel is mostly produced in Europe. It needs large amounts of land. Millions of hectares of agricultural and forest lands have been converted to oil palm, sugar cane, and other cultivations that produce bio-fuel in India, Colombia, Indonesia, Brazil etc, which creates many other social and environmental issues. Other than land, water is a limiting factor for cultivation of such plants.

Political leaders of the developed countries seem to be ignoring the strong evidence that agro-fuels are a major factor in recent food price increase. They concentrate more in keeping industry going and learning poor people live in hunger. Yet, there is no clear policy on the use of agro-fuel. Some countries have mandatory agro-fuel in addition to petrol and diesel. Since April 2008 Britain has had to include 2.5% from agro-fuels. The EU has been considering raising that target to 10% by 2020. Philippines also use 10% addition to fossil fuel.

Both bio-fuel and bio-diesel prices are higher than the conventional petrol and diesel, unless subsidized by the governments. According to sources it can replace only about 15% of the world fuel requirements, while it will be responsible for releasing 17- 450 times green house gas emission due to conversion of Forest for cultivation of such plants as Conservation International forecasts.

It is too early for Sri Lanka to learn from other countries the pros and cons of using agro-fuel. While it can be a solution to the use of fossil fuel in the transport sector, the transport sector is only responsible for 20% of the total fossil fuel consumption. 80% of the fossil fuel is used for electricity generation. Sri Lanka is fast advancing towards high carbon economy. Sri Lanka will generate 3300 MW electricity using coal by 2015. However coal is not a cheap fossil fuel source anymore. It is highly polluted compared to other thermal options. Converting few train engines to run with bio-fuel is not a big relief then.

It is a shame that converting food to bio-fuel when 850 million people suffer and 25,000 people die each day from hunger. Although the situation in Sri Lanka is not bad as India, Bangladesh or Pakistan, Bio-fuel is not a green option for Sri Lanka too. As an island, Sri Lanka has limited land. It will perhaps destroy our remaining forests, and fertile agricultural land and water. Making ethanol will pollute the remaining water sources. This will worsen the food crisis. We already have enough social and environmental problems due to Pelwatta and other sugar cane cultivations. Perhaps Sri Lanka needs a scientific debate over this issue before politicians make another ad-hoc decision.

29 July, 2008

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