Saturday, October 20, 2007

False Panaceas for Fools on Biofuels and Organic Food

Conventional wisdom is dangerous when it comes to climate change remedies and with politicians likely to follow the crowd, it's well to be on guard for what is termed the law of unintended consequences.

So for example, if you believe that you are contributing to alleviating climate change or protecting the environment, by buying organic food, you may be dead wrong. You may also believe that the European Union target to increase the share of biofuels used in transport to 10% by 2020, is a good thing. It may well not be. You may also regard Ryanair's Michael O'Leary's rejection of emission curbs on aviation as pernicious but just consider: Every year, the world loses a forest area the size of Ireland. This accounts for 18 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions, more than from the world’s entire transport sector. Deforestation must be reversed not accelerated by for example biofuel production. (SEE: Finfacts article).

In recent weeks, there have been warnings that the greenhouse gas situation is being made worse by the emphasis on biofuels. Increased palm oil production in for example Indonesia will accelerate the destruction of the rain forests while in India and China, water supplies will be endangered.

The poor of the poor are at most risk from the jump in grain prices that the increase in subsidised biofuel production in the US has triggered.

The damage to the environment may in fact be worse than the disease.

Dr. Norman Borlaug (1914- ), winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, is called the Father of the "Green Revolution" and in the words of US Senator Charles Grassley, has "saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived."

Last week, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, demanded an international five-year ban on producing biofuels to combat soaring food prices.

Switzerland's Jean Ziegler said the conversion of arable land for plants used for green fuel had led to an explosion of agricultural prices which was punishing poor countries forced to import their food at a greater cost.

"232kg of corn is needed to make 50 litres of bioethanol," Ziegler said. "A child could live on that amount of corn for a year."

Using land for biofuels would result in "massacres", he said, predicting a reduction in the amount of food aid sent to developing countries by richer ones.

"It's a total disaster for those who are starving."

Ziegler's proposal for a five-year moratorium, which he plans to submit to the UN General Assembly on October 25, is aiming to ban the conversion of land for the production of biofuels.

Ziegler said he hoped that by the time the moratorium was lifted science would have made sufficient progress to be able to create "second generation" biofuels, made from agricultural waste or from non-agricultural plants such as jatropha, which grows naturally on arid ground.

Taking Brazil as an example, Ziegler said he deplored the fact that sugar cane plantations, whose products were used for biofuels, were spreading at the expense of food-producing land.

He said ten hectares (100,000 square metres) of food-producing land could sustain an average of seven to ten farmers, whereas the same area could only produce enough sugar cane for one farmer.

The use of non-food plants such as jatropha, shows that it is not a simple issue of saying one solution is good, another bad.

Ibrahim Rehman, the director of action programs at The Energy and Resource Institute in India, says that in the absence of a global consensus on specific principles, criteria or standards for bioenergy production, there are indications - especially in the developing world - that the biofuels agenda is being pushed forward with limited understanding of social, environmental and economic implications.

A further complication is that the case for biofuels is often oversimplified. For instance, in India it is argued that crops for biofuels production can be planted on 106 million acres of wasteland - even though a major part of this so-called wasteland is under various uses, not lying vacant, as agricultural planners may assume.

Rehman says that in other situations, biofuels initiatives likely will involve planting on land already in production, or cultivating crops that would otherwise contribute to the food chain - with rising prices of U.S. corn and of cereals in China as cases in point. It will be crucial to properly assess and determine the economics of growing our fuel and its implications on food security.

To an extent, several pilot initiatives are addressing this lack of specific criteria for biofuels production, thus contributing to the nascent development of standards and practices.

In India, one such step in the direction of developing practices and standards is the joint biofuels initiative of BP and The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi. The project focuses on growing jatropha - a non-food crop that thrives in conditions where food crops tend to fail - on more than 19,700 acres of land in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

The project encompasses and assesses the complete biodiesel production process, and very poor farmers are involved in measuring jatropha's benefits in augmenting incomes for marginalized sections of society.

The World Bank in its World Development Report 2008, (WDR) which was published on October 19, 2007, says that promising new opportunities for mitigating climate change and creating large new markets for agriculture have emerged through the production of biofuels, stimulated by high energy prices. But few of the current biofuels programs are economically viable, and many pose social (rising food prices) and environmental (deforestation) risks. To date, production in industrial countries has developed behind high protective tariffs on biofuels and with large subsidies.

These policies hurt developing countries that are, or could become, efficient producers in profitable new export markets. Poor consumers also pay higher prices for food staples as grain prices rise in world markets directly due to the diversion of grain to biofuels or indirectly due to land conversion away from food production.

What is the future for the global food supply?
From World Development Report 2008

Agriculture has been largely successful in meeting the world’s effective demand for food. Yet more than 800 million people remain food insecure, and agriculture has left a huge
environmental footprint. And the future is increasingly uncertain.

Models predict that food prices in global markets may reverse their long term downward trend, creating rising uncertainties about global food security.

Climate change, environmental degradation, rising competition for land and water, higher energy prices, and doubts about future adoption rates for new technologies all present huge challenges and risks that make predictions difficult.

To meet projected demand, cereal

production will have to increase by nearly 50 percent and meat production by 85 per cent from 2000 to 2030. Added to this is the burgeoning demand for agricultural feed stocks for biofuels, which have already pushed up world food prices.

Managing the aggregate response of agriculture to rising demand will require good policy and sustained investments, not business as usual. Sharply increased investment is especially urgent in Sub-Saharan Africa, where food imports are predicted to more than double by 2030 under a business-as-usual scenario, the impact of climate change is expected to be large with little capacity to cope, and progress continues to be slow in raising per capita food availability.

The WDR says that Brazil is the world’s largest and most efficient producer of biofuels, based on its low-cost production of sugarcane. But few other developing countries are likely to be efficient producers with current technologies. Policy decisions on biofuels need to devise regulations or certification systems to mitigate the potentially large environmental footprint of biofuels production. Increased public and private investment in research is important to develop more efficient and sustainable production processes based on feedstocks other than food staples.

Dr. Norman Borlaug is presented the Congressional Gold Medal by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, President George W. Bush and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on July 17, 2007 - - Professor M.S.Swaminathan, President, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences of India, said at the ceremony: The impact of the Borlaug-led Green Revolution symphony will be clear from the fact that during 1964-68, Indian farmers increased wheat production in four years by an order greater than that achieved during the preceding 4000 years.

Organic Food

Peter Melchett of the Soil Association, Britain's leading organic lobby group, says that environmental concerns, rather than health benefits, are now cited by British consumers as their main justification for buying organic food.

The Economist says that there is no clear evidence that conventional food is harmful or that organic food is nutritionally superior.

The Economist says that not everyone agrees that organic farming is better for the environment. Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Dr. Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution”, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to increase crop yields.

He claims the idea that organic farming is better for the environment is “ridiculous” because organic farming produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food.

Thanks to synthetic fertilisers, Dr. Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%. Using traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a tripling of the area under cultivation. The more intensively you farm, Dr. Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

What of the claim that organic farming is more energy-efficient? Lord Melchett points out for example that the artificial fertiliser used in conventional farming is made using natural gas, which is “completely unsustainable”.

The Economist says that Anthony Trewavas, a biochemist at the University of Edinburgh, counters that organic farming actually requires more energy per tonne of food produced, because yields are lower and weeds are kept at bay by ploughing. And Mr Pollan notes that only one-fifth of the energy associated with food production across the whole food chain is consumed on the farm: the rest goes on transport and processing.

The Economist says that the most environmentally benign form of agriculture appears to be “no till” farming, which involves little or no ploughing and relies on cover crops and carefully applied herbicides to control weeds. This makes it hard to combine with organic methods (though some researchers are trying). Too rigid an insistence on organic farming's somewhat arbitrary rules, then—copper, a heavy metal, can be used as an organic fungicide because it is traditional—can actually hinder the adoption of greener agricultural techniques.

Norman Borlaug

Named by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 most influential minds of the 20th century, Norman Borlaug was born in 1914 to Norwegian-American parents outside Cresco in the north-eastern part of the American State of Iowa.

In 1944, Dr. Borlaug participated in the Rockefeller Foundation's pioneering technical assistance program in Mexico, where he was a research scientist in charge of wheat improvement. For the next sixteen years, he worked to solve a series of wheat production problems that were limiting wheat cultivation in Mexico and to help train a whole generation of young Mexican scientists.

The work in Mexico not only had a profound impact on Dr. Borlaug's life and philosophy of agriculture research and development, but also on agricultural production, first in Mexico and later in many parts of the world.

It was on the research stations and farmers' fields of Mexico that Dr. Borlaug developed successive generations of wheat varieties with broad and stable disease resistance, broad adaptation to growing conditions across many degrees of latitude, and with exceedingly high yield potential.

These new wheat varieties and improved crop management practices transformed agricultural production in Mexico during the 1940's and 1950's and later in Asia and Latin America, sparking what today is known as the "Green Revolution." Because of his achievements to prevent hunger, famine and misery around the world, it is said that Dr. Borlaug has "saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived."

Finfacts 2006 report: Enormous tasks ahead to feed the world, says former Nobel Peace Prize recipient

Finfacts Climate Change Reports can be found in the lower right-hand column of the home page.