Nelly Bassily | December 17, 2007
As the cost of fossil fuels rises and concern over climate change grows, the demand for biofuels – or fuels made from plant and animal sources – is steadily increasing.Governments and corporations from many African countries are investing in machinery to process crops such as maize, sorghum, sugarcane, and jatropha into fuel, in hopes of generating livelihoods and profits. But serious concerns have been raised about the production of biofuels, particularly that it could lead to food shortages by diverting farmland from food production to fuel production.
The crux of this issue was highlighted recently in South Africa. Citing food security concerns, the South African government announced that it would not allow maize to be used for biofuels. Several days later, the government reversed its position under pressure from maize producers.
Farmers see biofuel processing as a valuable new market for crops. In South Africa, the use of maize for biofuels is seen as a rescue plan for farmers who have struggled to stay profitable as bumper harvests have pushed maize prices to multi-year lows. The government now states that as long as farmers can meet domestic food demand for maize, surplus crops may be sold for biofuels.
It is not clear, however, whether the average farmer will benefit from biofuel production, or whether only corporations or individuals with large plantations will profit. A Mozambican initiative to process coconut meat into biodiesel demonstrated how challenging it can be for small-scale farmers to supply a large-scale fuel processing plant.
A plant equipped to process up to 5,000 litres of biodiesel per hour was opened near the capital city of Maputo this August. But the plant sits idle because local farmers cannot provide enough quality coconut meat. As Anna Lerner, a consultant with the South African Development Community’s Programme for Biomass Energy explains, small farmers often lack the infrastructure to properly harvest and preserve their crops for biofuel processing.
Many concerned parties have even greater fears – worrying that small-scale farmers, unable to participate in the biofuels trend, may actually be forced off of the most fertile lands.
But there is also great hope for an oil seed plant called jatropha. Jatropha has been identified as one of the best plants for biofuel production and it can grow on land unsuitable for most food crops. A pilot project in the eastern provinces of Kenya is testing the potential for jatropha to help farmers generate incomes on semi-arid lands. Some 950 farmers will learn to cultivate and process jatropha as part of this trial.
Meanwhile, analysts looking at global trends in biofuel production frequently conclude that the surge in biofuels demand will inevitably affect food prices. Siwa Msangi is a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. He believes that food and fuel prices will be closely linked in the future, and that when energy prices rise, so will food prices. Mr. Msangi says this situation is detrimental to the poor who, on average, spend more than half of their income on food, but generate little demand for fuel.
Dr. Shem Arungu Olende is the secretary general of the African Academy of Sciences. He cautions that while biofuel production could drive growth in agriculture and rural development, there is no guarantee that the new industry will have a positive impact. Dr. Arungu Olende argues that African governments must develop strong policies that take into account the need for both food and fuel, in order to prevent conflict between the two interests.