Feed people or feed cars?
Monday, March 03, 2008
Biofuel: compounding global food insecurity and climate change
Biofuel is widely tipped to be the viable alternative to fossil fuel. But any large scale commercial production of fuel crops to meet increasing global energy demand could have far-reaching repercussions for food security and the environment.
A recent UN report warns that food security, local communities and biodiversity will all be threatened if Biofuel is to be the long sought alternative to fossil fuel. The warning casts doubt on Biofuel proponents' assumption that it will mitigate the phenomenon of climate change. "We are struggling to feed people and suddenly we want to start feeding cars on crops," Friends of the Earth campaigner, Ed Matthew warns. He said such a thing could cause dramatic social and environmental problems.
The search for alternative energy is largely underpinned by climate change concerns, declining global oil reserves and insecurity of oil supplies. These concerns are uppermost in the minds of politicians and the politics of oil has taken centre stage in foreign policy conduct.
The world economy is ostensibly held to ransom by oil, and global oil shocks in recent history underscore this point. The exponential rise in global oil demand over the past several decades will almost certainly be sustained over the long term. There is a sustained momentum of energy intensive global economic activity and the massive economic transformations being spearheaded by China and India continues to heighten anxiety.
These concerns are forcing a major policy rethink as global powers alert themselves to expert warnings of an impending doom if current trends in climate change are not reversed. But, the options so far do not seem to have the magic solution and the prospects do not seem to inspire hope either.
Global warming, a phenomenon blamed on greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere is a major issue of global concern. Fossil fuel is the biggest culprit, according to experts. A one percent rise in temperature, according to experts, is enough to cause disasters, and global temperature has risen about half a percentage point over the past hundred years.
Sea levels have risen between 0.1 and 0.2 metres, polar glaciers are retreating significantly and in Africa and Asia, droughts have become more frequent. The UN's Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, predicts a minimum rise of 2.5 degrees Celsius in temperature in Africa by 2030. As a result, dry lands bordering the deserts will be drier, wetlands bordering the rainforests will be wetter, and crop yield will be in danger of collapse.
About 600,000 square kilometres of arable land may be ruined and up to 250 million Sub-Saharan Africans may be short of water. At the same time, rising sea levels may threaten coastal infrastructure of northern Egypt, the Gambia, the gulf of Guinea and Senegal, just to name a few.
For example, in the Gambia, the capital, Banjul, and indeed the entire Atlantic coastline are seriously threatened by erosion. The country's sandy beaches have largely been washed away and tourism, its second most important economic activity is under threat.
As a matter of urgency, the Gambia government initiated and completed the first phase of a major coastal protection programme to reclaim the beaches, protect coastal infrastructure and stem the tide of erosion. However, these measures cannot be the lasting solution and therefore underline the need for urgent and concerted global action in the face of a raging climate.
According to Andrew Haines of the London school of Medicine and Tropical Hygiene, climate change may already be causing the deaths of about 160 thousand people a year, mostly in developing countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia. The deaths are caused by malnutrition, diarrhoea and malaria, resulting form warmer temperatures, drought, and floods, all of which are associated with climate change. Climate change is already taking its toll and the least contributors to the phenomenon are paying the highest price for it.
Another important factor at the heart of the frantic search for alternative energy is the declining global oil reserves. There is evidence that proven global oil reserves may be running out in the near future at the present rate of consumption. Annual consumption stands at 30 billion barrels or 68 million barrels a day. Proven global oil reserves stand 1.1 trillion barrels and more than 50 oil producing countries have already peaked production, including the United States in 1970 and the United Kingdom in 1999.
Following the two major oil shocks of the 1970s, exploration activity was high in the first half of the 1980s, but fell sharply thereafter, declining throughout the 1990s. Discoveries of new reserves have fallen sharply over the same period.
Even advances in technology seem to do little to help. The US and the UK have some of the most advance oil industries in the world, yet production in both countries, is still in inexorable decline. The prospects of global oil reserves running out in the near future is a looming threat that politicians of the developed world are not taking lightly.
Insecurity in the Middle East, the Gulf and Nigeria, among other major sources of global oil supplies has further heightened the state of global anxiety. Nearly 60% of the world's proven oil reserves are in the Middle East, a region wracked by conflicts. In Nigeria's delta, militant attacks on oil facilities and workers have cut production by a third. The state of insecurity in these regions cannot guarantee a safe and uninterrupted supply of oil.
These factors outlined above, underline the urgent need for a more secure and adequate global energy base, less harmful to the environment and renewable. Biofuels, widely tipped to be the alternative, are derived from plants or their by-products.
Biodiesel is derived form plant oils and ethanol from fermented starchy or sugary plants. Proponents of Biofuel believe it is renewable and far less harmful to the environment than fossil fuel because of its low carbon emission. Bioethanol made from grain produces 65% fewer greenhouse gas than petrol. But concern is growing over its viability in terms of food security and environmental protection.
Its large scale commercial production to meet increasing global demand will have far-reaching consequences for food security. It would lead to a decrease in agricultural land for food production. According to professor Dieter Helm, senior adviser to the British government, meeting 10% of Biofuels for cars would require 9% percent of agricultural land. Large scale production of energy crops would aggravate hunger in regions already afflicted by food shortage.
Global food prices will escalate as a result of dwindling production or diversion of food crops to feed cars, a UN report has warned. Britain's first Bioethanol plant to be built in Wessex will convert up to 340,000 tones of locally grown wheat into 131 million litres of ethanol. The UK needs ten such plants just to meet government's target of 5% of vehicles running on renewable energy by 2010. Feeding just 5% of British cars on Biofuel will require 3.4 million tones of wheat each year. This is food that could go to feed the hungry in poorer parts of the world.
President Bush's highly-subsidised drive to get fuel from the Prairies of South America has triggered food riots in Mexico because it has pushed up the price of corn. "Rapid growth in liquid Biofuel production will make substantial demand on the world's land and water resources at a time when demand for both food and forest products is also rising rapidly", a recent UN report warns.
The negative impact on the environmental will also be far-reaching, as deforestation will be an inevitable consequence. Large chunks of the forest cover in many countries and regions of the world will be cleared to create space for fuel crop cultivation. Soaring demand for palm oil, an ingredient in Biodiesel, has already led to tropical forest being cleared in South-East Asia. Deforestation, experts say, is one of the major causes of climate change. Instead of mitigating climate change, large scale production of Biofuel crops will inevitably compound the phenomenon.
However, oil giants have promised they would obtain their palm oil from sustainable sources through the use of existing plantations. But this hardly makes any sense because it will increase the overall demand for palm oil and existing plantations cannot simply cope. For example, in Indonesia, where the natural forests have been cleared to make way for plantations to produce vegetable oil, soap, shampoos and other industrial substances, more land is being made available to cater for motor vehicle fuel or Biodiesel.
The argument that the Biofuel industry will provide additional source of income for farmers and provide employment for thousands of people at the various processing plants is also untenable. What ever benefits to be accrued form Biofuels, will be undone by the damage it will cause to the environment and the inevitable food shortage it will bring about.
Biofuel, after all, may not be the viable alternative to fossil fuel. The large scale commercial cultivation of Biofuel energy crops would certainly aggravate the global food shortage as cars and human compete for scarce food. It will reduce the amount of land for food crop cultivation and divert agricultural production form food crops and consequently increase food prices.
It will lead to deforestation and environmental degradation because tropical forests will be cleared to make way for energy crop plantations.
The world is perhaps far from a secure and environmentally friendly source of energy. Biofuel is by no means the viable alternative to fossil fuel. The search for alternative energy must therefore continue in earnest but the long term impact of the various options must be weighed objectively. Taking food away from hungry mouths to feed cars is morally wrong, politically repugnant and socially unacceptable.
Author: By Kebba Dibba