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May 08, 2008

Biofuels are no threat to African food security

Senegalese experts said Thursday that biofuel production in Africa is not a threat to their country's food security, echoing a call for more jatropha tree production from Nigeria.

"At the moment, the production of biofuels in Africa does not pose a threat (to) our country's food security," the director of Senegal's agricultural research institute ISRA, Macoumba Diouf, told a biofuels conference.

A day earlier the Energy Commission of Nigeria (ECN) also backed the jatropha, a short and hardy tree that Africans have used for centuries to demarcate farmland, as the way forward for biofuels.

According to the Senegalese experts, Africa has enough land to cultivate biofuel crops "without competing with food crops."

"Currently in Senegal only 50 percent of arable farmland is cultivated," Samba Ndiaye, the national coordinator of the biofuel programme here said.

Ndiaye said that farmers would want to raise both food and biofuel crops in order to "protect their income."

The Nigerian energy advisory body insisted the jatropha tree -- central to a vast biofuel plantation development programme set up by Senegal president Abdoulaye Wade 12 months ago -- was a good biofuel alternative.

"Jatropha is a cheap and abundant alternative raw material for biofuel production that poses no risk to global food security," ECN head Abubakar Sambo told AFP in Kano on the sidelines of a two-day UN-sponsored biofuels seminar.

"The global food crisis is directly linked to maize, sugarcane, cassava and to some extent sorghum conversion to ethanol for biofuel because these are direct food items to a large number of the world population," Sambo said.

Jatropha is a short, succulent round-stemmed tree that African farmers have used for the past four centuries to demarcate their farms.

It bears peanut-sized black seeds which provide 40 percent oil that can be used as biodiesel while the sludge is used as glycerine for industrial use.

It can grow in areas of both low and high rainfall and on poor soils and has a life span of between 30 and 50 years.

In Nigeria, experts insist jathropha does not endanger food crops. Kabiru Yammama, a UN rural energy consultant, told the Nigerian seminar jatropha can be grown on Nigeria's vast swathes of land degraded either by desert encroachment or mining and erosion. That means it does not have to compete with food crops for arable land.

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