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Biofuel’s winners and losers

The global rush to energy crops threatens to bring food shortages and increase poverty, according to a UN study. While oil prices may stabilise, small farmers will be at risk. John Vidal reports.

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The global rush to switch from oil to energy derived from plants will drive deforestation, push small farmers off the land and lead to serious food shortages and increased poverty unless carefully managed, says the most comprehensive survey yet completed of energy crops.

The United Nations report, compiled by all 30 of the world organisation’s agencies, points to crops like palm oil, maize, sugar cane, soya and jatropha. Rich countries want to see these extensively grown for fuel as a way to reduce their own climate-changing emissions. Their production could help stabilise the price of oil, open up new markets and lead to higher commodity prices for the poor.

But the UN urges governments to beware their human and environmental impacts, some of which could have irreversible consequences.

Released on May 8, 2007, the report, which predicts winners and losers, will be studied carefully by the emerging multi-billion-dollar-a-year biofuel industry, which wants to provide as much as 25% of the world’s energy within 20 years.

Global production of energy crops is doubling every few years, and 17 countries have so far committed themselves to growing the crops on a large scale.

Last year more than a third of the entire maize crop in the United States went to ethanol for fuel, a 48% increase on 2005, and Brazil and China grew the crops on nearly 50 million acres of land. The European Union has said that 10% of all fuel must come from biofuels by 2020. Biofuels can be used in place of petrol (gasoline) and diesel fuel and can play a part in reducing emissions from transport.

On the positive side, the UN says that the crops have the potential to reduce and stabilise the price of oil, which could be very beneficial to poor countries. But it acknowledges that forests are already being felled to provide the land to grow vast plantations of palm oil trees. Environment groups argue strongly that this is catastrophic for the climate, and potentially devastating for forest animals like orang-utans in Indonesia.

The UN warns: “Where crops are grown for energy purposes, the use of large-scale cropping could lead to significant biodiversity loss, soil erosion and nutrient leaching. Even varied crops could have negative impacts if they replace wild forests or grasslands.”

But the survey’s findings are mixed on whether the crops will benefit or penalise poor countries, where most of the crops are expected to be grown in future. One school of thought argues that they will take the best land, which will increase global food prices. This could benefit some farmers but penalise others and also increase the cost of emergency food aid.

“Expanded production [of biofuel crops] adds uncertainty. It could also increase the volatility of food prices with negative food security implications”, says the report, which was complied by UN-Energy.

“The benefits to farmers are not assured, and may come with increased costs. [Growing biofuel crops] can be especially harmful to farmers who do not own their own land, and to the rural and urban poor who are net buyers of food, as they could suffer from even greater pressure on already limited financial resources.

“At their worst, biofuel programmes can also result in a concentration of ownership that could drive the world’s poorest farmers off their land and into deeper poverty,” it says.

According to the report, the crops could transform the rural economy of rich and poor countries, attracting major new players and capital, but potentially leading to problems. “Large investments are already signalling the emergence of a new bio-economy, pointing to the possibility that still larger companies will enter the rural economy, putting the squeeze on farmers by controlling the price paid to producers and owning the rest of the value train,” it says.

The report also says the crops are not guaranteed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Producing and using biofuels results in some reductions in emissions compared to petroleum fuels, it says, but this is provided there is no clearing of forest or peat that store centuries of carbon.

“More and more people are realising that there are serious environmental and food security issues involved in biofuels. Climate change is the most serious issue, but you cannot fight climate change by large-scale deforestation,” said Jan van Aken, of Greenpeace International in Amsterdam.

Bioenergy provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to address climate change, energy security and rural development. [But] investments need to be planned carefully to avoid generating new environmental and social problems,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Plant power

Biomass energy can be obtained from just about any plant or tree, but is most commonly obtained from maize, soya beans, oil palms, sugar cane, sunflowers and trees. The carbohydrates in the biomass, which are comprised of oxygen, carbon and hydrogen, can be broken down into a variety of chemicals, some of which are useful fuels. At its simplest, plant matter is simply burned, but much of the energy is wasted and it can cause pollution. So, the plant is either heated and refined to break down into gases, fermented and turned into grain alcohol or ethanol, or chemically converted to make into biodiesel.
 

Homepage photo by IRRI

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007

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匿名 | Anonymous

生物燃料不尽相同

生物燃料热的危险之处在于特殊利益将得到保护,并以环境为代价。所以,议会实力强大的美国玉米农就占据了赚取现金的有利地位;而玉米并不是最有效的生物燃料。我们都读到过破坏森林种植生物燃料带来的危害,只要这还是饥不择食的淘金热就必将弊大于益。另一方面,诸如麻风树这类可以在非常贫瘠的土地上种植的作物也许会对贫困地区带来实质性的帮助。例如,在阿富汗,农民们种植罂粟,因为违法的毒品交易是唯一的有可能给他们带来实实在在现金收入的途径。这里有发展生物燃料的潜力,特别是麻风树,作为一种有益的替代品。

abdul

not all bio fuels are equal

The danger in the rush to biofuels is that special interests will be protected at the expense of the environment. So the US maize farmers, who are a powerful lobby, are well placed to cash in; but maize is not the most efficient biofuel. We have all read of the devastation cause by deforestation to plant biofuels and as long as this is an indiscriminate gold rush it will do more harm than good On the other hand, crops such as jatropha, which can be grown on very poor land, might be a real help to poor communities. In Afghanistan, for instance, where farmers grow opium poppies because the illegal drugs trade offers them the only possibility of a real cash income, there is potential for biofuels, especially jatropha, to be a benign substitute.
abdul

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

为造就乙醇的玉米辩护

实际上,如果将每年的收成由一年单种改为双季,美国的玉米总产量可增加150%. 因此,食品价格狂飙的完整理由是投机,是投机商炒高了食品价格。这是个经济问题。我凭什么要考虑阿富汗的问题?我不关心。难道你以为真有人在关心?天真啊。让我关心的,是明智策略,而非你的对比。

本评论由Ming Li翻译

Defense for ethanol form maize

Actually, the total maize amount of the US could increase by 150% when changing the one harvest per year to two harvests per year. So, the whole reason of food price soaring is spectulation. Speculators lead to the soaring price of food.

it's a economic issue. Why should I consider problems of Afghanistan? I do not care.

And do you think there is anybody actually caring about that? Naive. It's politic, NOT your compasion which I respect.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

Compassion

compassion 同情心

同情

同情