- Agrofuels Background information about agrofuels
Agrofuels, which fall under the broad definition of “biofuels”, are derived from the large-scale industrial production of plant crops or biomass used in their manufacture, primarily for export from developing countries in the South to consumer markets mainly in Europe and North America.
The term ‘agrofuels’ was first coined by social movements in Latin America to describe the liquid fuels derived from food and oil crops produced in large-scale plantation-style industrial production systems. These agrofuels are normally blended with petrol and diesel for use primarily by motor vehicles. Traditional biofuels on the other hand, include wood, dung and other biological materials that are mainly used for domestic heating and cooking.
There are two main types of agrofuel - bioethanol and biodiesel. Bioethanol is made from starch plants (e.g. maize, wheat and cassava) and sugar plants (e.g. sugar beet and sugar cane). Biodiesel can be made from palm oil, jatropha nut oil, coconut oil, soybean oil, and other vegetable oils.
Given the increasing cost of petroleum, and concern over climate change, there has been a growing interest in agrofuels, which are claimed by their proponents to pollute less than fossil fuels and to be ‘renewable’, because they can substitute for ‘non-renewable’ fuels derived from finite mineral (fossil-fuel) resources. Energy-hungry economies in the North and big capital are desperately searching for new methods of producing so-called ‘renewable’ energy, and are increasingly seeking land and crops to produce agrofuels, both in order to maintain their energy availability, and to supposedly “reduce carbon emissions”.
Whatever validity there may be in these claims, agrofuels certainly further entrench the agribusiness model based on large-scale industrial agriculture, which includes extensive plantations, genetically engineered plants and an array of toxic agrochemicals. This new trend will inevitably result in environmental destruction and the impoverishment of local communities, especially in rural areas.
In 2005, a group of industrialists established a lobby group called the Southern African Biofuels Association (SABA), to pressurise the South African government to subsidise large-scale agrofuels projects. That same year, the South African cabinet appointed a Biofuels Task Team (comprising national departments and state entities) to develop an industrial strategy for agrofuels. A draft strategy document released in November 2006 proposed a 4,5% agrofuels content in liquid fuels. After a public consultation process, the target was reduced to 2,5%. The strategy identifies cassava and sugar cane (ethanol), as well as soy bean and sunflower (biodiesel) as key crops to help meet the target, but also promotes research into other crop varieties and crops ‘enhanced’ through biotechnology, as a means to increase production.
Other SADC and national initiatives have been launched, either to assess the potential for agrofuel production in the region, or to blatantly promote the industry agenda, which is aimed at serving the narrow self-interest of their shareholders and energy consumers in the North. For example, D1 Oils, in partnership with BP, launched an aggressive campaign to establish jatropha plantations in Swaziland. This was opposed by local NGOs, including Yonge Nawe (Friends of the Earth Swaziland), and the Swaziland government subsequently declared a moratorium on new plantings in Swaziland. Jatropha has also been planted in several SADC countries, including Tanzania, Mocambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia but is not permitted in South Africa.
A selling point used to promote agrofuels is the claimed advantage of moving subsistence farmers into commercial crop farming and creating a value chain that would create jobs and provide market access for such farmers. Another angle being advanced is that it can make local communities self-sufficient in energy. But although touted as ‘green’ there are a number of negative potential issues relating to agrofuels that need to be addressed. These include:
- Increases in staple food prices as wealthy nations compete with the poor for grain supplies, and the arable land and other resources needed to produce them.
- Large-scale agrofuel production is likely to use mechanised chemical-intensive agricultural methods that will impact negatively on both natural and sustainably cultivated areas and yield few jobs.
- It will also lead to further multinational control over local land, water and infrastructure resources.
- The introduction of genetically engineered plants and other invasive species would impact negatively on the environment and local communities.
- The limited potential of agrofuels to alleviate poverty and support energy security, if their production is focused on meeting external energy demands.
There is insufficient public information and debate concerning the possible consequences of engaging in agrofuel production. Vulnerable communities and small and medium scale farmers have had little opportunity to discuss and contribute viewpoints on the agrofuel agenda with regard to land rights, the impacts of industrial agriculture, food and fuel security and access, and environmental degradation.
Although the initial enthusiasm for agrofuels has declined, there is still political pressure to establish an export-oriented agrofuels industry in southern Africa. There is also pressure from elements in the agriculture and energy sectors to have governments support subsidy schemes that would help make agrofuel industry ventures financially viable, rather than to support subsidised public transport or small-scale 'agroecological' food production.
Growing crops for agrofuel will only exacerbate the pressure on land, soil and water. In addition, it will add to the current food crisis and the poor will always be the losers. Expanding agrofuel production in southern Africa will create a land, water, food, environmental, and humanitarian crisis, besides exacerbating the impacts of climate change. There is no evidence that tangible benefits will accrue to affected rural communities so as to justify the expenditure of large amounts of public money needed to subsidise an agrofuels industry. South Africa, together with Brasil, China, India, the United States and the European Commission, are part of the International Biofuels Forum. The IBF was established to promote an international market for agrofuels, and to impose global standards that would ensure that ethanol becomes an internationally tradable commodity.
There is strong evidence to suggest that sugar cane and sorghum will probably become major sources of ethanol agrofuel in years to come. News that the EU had banned the importation of agrofuels derived from crops such as rapeseed, maize and soybean has emphasised how much perceptions hare changing. However, sugar cane and sorghum production still come with a wide range of negative social and environmental impacts that appear not to have been acknowledged by European decision-makers, and it is therefore likely that large-scale ethanol production from these crops will have unintended negative consequences.
The fundamental problem is that pressure from the European motor industry has influenced a decision to allow continued growth in the manufacturing of cars, construction of roads, etc., rather than addressing the real challenge to reduce energy consumption overall. Furthermore, the initial 10% biofuel target adopted by the EU does not take into account the likelihood that this could still allow an increase in petroleum consumption, due to the high probable increase in the number of vehicles by 2020. Any percentage-based target will suffer from this problem, as the only honest way to approach the challenge of lowering transport emissions would be through introducing targets that actually reduce fossil-fuel combustion, and do not use the sleight of hand that agrofuel-use percentage targets constitute.
Given that there are many new sugar-cane ethanol projects planned within the SADC region, in countries like Mocambique, South Africa and Zambia (and large-scale expansions of sugar cane plantations are already underway), there is a need to create awareness of the negative impacts of expansion that will no doubt be driven by European ethanol demand. The most obvious impacts are the destruction of natural vegetation, including forests, the loss of farmland, displacement of people living on the land taken for plantations, and the vast amounts of water that will need to be diverted for irrigation of plantations, as well as supplying the needs of sugar mills and ethanol production plants. Additional social problems arise from the dangerous nature of the work involved in cane cutting and transportation, coupled with the fact that the work is seasonal, providing low-paid employment during only a part of the year. See: "Deadly Brew: The Human Toll of Ethanol".
Multinational corporations, international financial institutions and the EU-Africa trade process will dictate the manner in which agrofuels will be rolled out; and the environmental injustices that will be associated with it.
Ethanol from sugar cane is one of the agrofuels that are impacting negatively upon people’s livelihoods in southern Africa. Other concerns are jatropha and cassava in Swaziland, where D1 Oils is aggressively seeking land for other agrofuel crops. Jatropha plantations are set to change land use patterns in the affected countries, compromising their local food security initiatives. D1 Oils used an out-grower scheme, contracting with local communities to produce jatropha seeds, thus effectively tampering with land ownership rights, and promoting jatropha plantations despite the uncertainties around market potential. This could expose local farmers to serious risks, as well as threatening biodiversity, as science remains divided on jatropha’s potential invasiveness.
Read the Der Spiegel article: Africa Becoming a Biofuel Battleground
Friends of the Earth (FoE) Regional Agrofuels Workshop, August 2008
See report HERE