Jacques Diof, director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, feels the bioenergy sector has the potential to drastically reduce hunger and poverty.
If we get it right, bioenergy provides us with a historic chance to fast-forward growth in many of the world’s poorest countries, to bring about an agricultural renaissance and to supply modern energy to a third of the world’s population.
It’s a bold claim, but he’s got the background for us to take him seriously. In the article he sets out three things which need to be addressed for bioenergy to have the desired effect: lowering of trade barriers against ethanol imports, ensuring smallhold farmers can organise themselves to produce the biofuels on a large scale, and certification to ensure bioenergy products meet environmental standards.
I like the last point. One of the arguments against biofuels — particularly ethanol — is that it will result in more forestry clearance etc to allow more crops such as corn to be grown. As the soil in the Amazon rainforest is generally poor and quickly washed away once the trees are removed, ensuring the products meet environmental standards will have a beneficial effect on ecosystems.
I have also come across articles and news reports claiming ethanol isn’t as clean a fuel as commonly thought, largely because it takes more energy to produce a litre of ethanol than it does to produce a litre of oil. However, I would argue that this is because companies have had more time to refine oil production.
Diof says his three measures
would allow developing countries – which generally have ecosystems and climates more suited to biomass production than industrialised nations, and often have ample reserves of land and labour – to use their comparative advantage.
A fair and sound point in terms of economics, and the core of his argument that bioenergy can reduce poverty and hunger. Creating a valuable trade resource for less developed countries would not only foster economic self-sufficiency but generate wealth for better public and private services that a wider population base can afford.
To focus debate exclusively on biofuels for transport is therefore to miss much of the point about bioenergy’s potential for poverty reduction. This lies more in helping 2bn people to produce their own electricity and other energy needs than in keeping 800m cars and trucks on the road… Helping 2bn people living on less than two dollars a day switch to affordable, homegrown, environmentally sustainable bio-power would represent a quantum leap in their development.
He’s thinking on a grand scale, and for that I applaud him. However, I am not convinced his dream will become a reality. Diof has urged the formation of an international bioenergy market and unless this happens in a balanced and fair way it will be dominated by existing major trade powers.
If that happens the potential benefits for less developed countries will be hindered, though not necessarily eliminated. We may face into a situation similar to that regarding chocolate and coffee production, where small sums are paid to farmers in poorer countries and the refined goods sold on for significant profits.
I’m not advocating some sort of global socialist approach to bioenergy. What I would urge, though, is that the governments of developing countries ensure they have a major role to play in the formation of an international market. This could go a long way toward using bioenergy wealth for the good of people who need it rather than corporate enrichment — although I’m not naive enough to suggest such enrichment won’t happen.
While we’re on the subject of alternative fuels, take a look at these pictures from CNet. They show a system of wave-power buoys that’s being installed off the coast of Oregon, USA.
Meanwhile, Spiegel Online is reporting that the rise of biofuels is threatening the humble gummy bear because a rise in crop prices threatens to jack up the price. I kid you not.