Will Agro fuels Usher Famine?

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[Africa News Update]

Industrialized countries are drawing up ambitious renewable fuel targets to reap huge rewards from the bio-fuels boom while avoiding discussion of the heavy price people in the Global South are paying to help sustain the consumptive oil-based lifestyles of the West.
Agronomists, ecologists, environmentalists and development activists who met recently in Mali called on African governments to resist pressure from the Industrialized North to grow food crops for the production of biodiesel.

“The push for agro-fuels is the latest of these so-called ‘solutions’ that is extensively promoted as an opportunity for Africa to develop energy security and alleviate poverty in rural areas,” an official of the African Biodiversity Network said.

He warned that global biofuel developments are going to have a huge impact on the African continent as powerful multinationals are ganging up for the huge stakes in the bio-diesel production sector.

More than 150 participants from 25 African countries, and 10 countries from other continents, participated at this conference where they shared information and viewpoints on the emerging and controversial issues of agro-fuels and food supply system.

Zimbabwe commissioned a biodiesel plant recently and the Minister of Science and Technology Development Dr. Olivia Muchena said the country will not allow the use of food crops to produce biodiesel. She said the country’s biodiesel project would utilize the jatropha, a multi-purpose tree grown in marginal soil areas. The Mali conference generated ardent debate and development experts called for the use of appropriate terms.
They argued that the term biofuels should be used to describe the traditional use of biological materials for fuel such as wood, dung, and bagasse while the term agro-fuels should be used to refer to the process of specifically growing crops on a large scale to produce fuels.

“New large scale agro-fuels projects are mushrooming across Africa. Africa is being told that biofuels exports will be good for development, good for the economy and good for the environment. There is a high level of enthusiasm for these new developments as African governments hope that agrofuels initiatives will lift their countries out of poverty by providing the fuels that Europe craves while hoping it will improve energy security in Africa at the same,” the ABN said.

ABN says there have, however, been several warnings that agrofuels may bring more problems that they can solve. “We have seen how palm oil plantations are leading to the destruction of the rainforest in Indonesia, how soya and sugar cane plantations are leading to the cutting down of the Amazon in Brazil and grain prices around the world have escalated because of the ‘ethanol effect,’’ the Network said.

“At the same time the Genetically Modified industry is positioning itself to ensure that agrofuels become an entry point into a continent that has so far mostly resisted GM crop commercialization.”

Eric Holt-Gimenez of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, commonly known as Food First, led highly charged discussions on the myth of the supposed benefits of agrofuels.

He said the agro-fuels push by rich countries “obscures the political-economic relationships between land, people, resources and food and fail to help us understand the profound consequences of the industrial transformation of our food and fuel systems.”

“Agro fuels better describes the industrial interests behind the transformation and is the term most widely used in the global South. Industrialized countries started the biofuels boom by demanding ambitious renewable fuel targets. These fuels are to provide 5.75 percent of Europe’s transport power by 2010 and 10 percent by 2020. The United States wants 35 billion gallons a year.

Holt-Gimenez argues further: “Agro-fuel champions assure us that because fuel crops are renewable, they are environmentally friendly, can reduce global warming and will foster rural development. But the tremendous market power of agro-fuel corporations, coupled with weak political will of governments to regulate their activities is a recipe for
environmental disaster and increasing hunger in the Global South.”

Proponents of the agrofuels boom say that agro-fuels are ‘clean and green’ because the photosynthesis process from fuel crops removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and can reduce fossil fuel consumption.

Critics, however, argued that when the full ‘life cycle’ of agro-fuels is considered –from land clearing to automotive consumption, the moderate emissions savings are undone by far greater emissions from deforestation, burning, peat drainage, cultivation and soil carbon losses and high rates of soil erosion.       

The second belief is that agro-fuels will not result in deforestation as proponents of agro-fuels argue that fuel crops planted on ecologically degraded lands will improve rather than destroy the environment. However, critics say the introduction of agro-fuel plantations will simply push indigenous people and subsistence farmers out of their lands. In Brazil, for example, the biodiverse ecosystems of the Mata Atlantica, the Cerrado and the Pantanal indigenous communities has been re-classified as ‘degrade’ land suitable for agro-fuel plantations.

“Agro-fuels growers will be increasingly dependent on this oligopoly of companies. Farmers are not likely to receive many benefits. Smallholders will likely be forced off the land,” Holt-Gimenez told the conference.

He said hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the soy bean plantations in southern Brazil, northern Argentina and eastern Bolivia. “All this is built on grand mythology. Instead of driving less, consuming less, rich countries are consuming more and this will not solve the problem.”

Said Mariam Mayet of the African Centre for Biosafety: “I don’t think we should fool ourselves that Africa is going to benefit from agro-fuels. Agro-fuels are introducing another subtle and hardened form of capitalism with same oil multinationals that are already benefiting eyeing to reap huge profits from the growing agro-fuels in Africa.”

More farmers will opt to grow agro-fuel crops which could turn out to be more profitable than food production leading to pressures on farmers and large multinationals to increase production of agro-fuel crops to the cost of food crops. Critics warn that the consequences of using crop material for the production of fuel is likely to create food insecurity especially in Africa where sugar, maize, soy, sunflower are mainly used for food.

In the end, even though the justification for the production of agrofuels is to combat climate change, Holt-Gimenez said: “The question is not whether ethanol and bio-diesel have a place in the future but whether or not to allow a handful of global corporations to impoverish the planet and the majority of the people. This is the last struggle for the peasants. This is the last big push to get rid of the peasants.”

Tsiko is The Black Star News’s Southern Africa correspondent based in Harare and can be reached at sifelani@ctdt.co.zw

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