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September 19, 2010

Biofuels don't threaten food security - study

Production of biofuels does not necessarily constitute a threat to food security, a new study has concluded.

“Crops can be produced for bioenergy on a significant scale in West, East and Southern Africa without affecting food production or natural habitats,” said the joint report by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, Imperial College London, and Camco International.

The study was released at the 5th African Agriculture Science Week in Burkina Faso in August. “If approached with the proper policies and processes and with the inclusion of all the various stakeholders, bioenergy is not only compatible with food production; it can greatly benefit agriculture in Africa,” said Rocio Diaz-Chavez, the report’s lead author and research fellow at Imperial College, London.

“Bioenergy production can bring investments in land, infrastructure and human resources that could help unlock Africa’s idle potential and positively increase food production,” she added.

The conclusions of the report, “Mapping Food and Bioenergy in Africa,” were drawn from a review of existing research and case studies of biofuel production and policy in six countries: Senegal, Mali, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia and Mozambique.

Among the report’s findings is that there is enough land to significantly increase the cultivation of crops such as sugarcane, sorghum, and jatropha for biofuels without diminishing food production.

The case studies found that interest is growing across Africa in bioenergy to address both income and energy needs. For example, ethanol can be blended with fossil fuels to reduce dependence on expensive fuel imports.
Ethanol can also be used in cooking stoves, reducing dependence on unhealthy and environmentally destructive charcoal and wood.

In addition, using biodiesel to power electrical generators would a big boost to many areas in Africa, given the challenges facing the power grid.

But as global demand for biodiesel and ethanol escalates, a key concern has emerged that a rush to expand production in Africa, particularly for export, could usurp land and resources needed for food crops.

But Dr Diaz-Chavez says, “food versus bioenergy” should not be the choice, the more relevant discussion is how to properly integrate bioenergy into agriculture production systems.

For example, sugarcane for biofuels could be doubled in many areas “without reducing food production or destroying valuable habitats.”

Diaz-Chavez said many African countries are sensitive to potential conflicts with food production.
For instance, Mozambique designates only sugarcane and sweet sorghum for ethanol production and jatropha and coconut for biodiesel. In South Africa, parliament has decreed that maize can no longer be used for biofuel. Mali does not allow food crops to be used for biofuel production.

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