To Eat or To Grow Biofuel: That is the Question

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The rapid expansion of biofuel production in Africa over the past decade has stirred up enormous controversy. Critics have questioned the efficiency of the alternative fuels, and charged rich countries with endangering the food security of developing nations by commandeering land that would be used to grow food crops.

In that vein, a new study (pdf) by the environmental group Friends of the Earth points a wagging finger at the European Union, among other international organizations, for buying over 19,000 square miles  of land across Africa — an area larger than the Netherlands — to build massive biofuel projects that supposedly provide few returns for local communities. 

Drawing upon case studies of "land-grabbing" (the leasing or selling of land to outside governments or corporations) from 11 different countries across Africa, Friends of the Earth argues that the only solution is for African states to, "immediately suspend further land acquisitions and investments in agrofuels."

But the report is steeped in alarmist language, and it oversimplifies the many complexities surrounding biofuel production in Africa and its effect on local economies.

Across the African continent, projects are supporting over a dozen different types of biofuels — jatropha, sugar cane, and maize, to name a few. The efficiency of these projects is highly variable and depends on a collection of factors, including the type of biofuel production process, the technology being used, and geographical location.

Friends of the Earth (whose acronym is, ironically enough, FoE) highlights a trend of some African countries jumping on the biofuel production bandwagon without properly researching the productivity of certain crops. For example, many countries in Africa and elsewhere blindly threw large sums of money at jatropha farms, a plant with an oily seed that can be harnessed for fuel shown in the image above, only to find was not the miracle crop it had promised to be. 

But such negative examples are only half of the African biofuel story. In the same countries that the FoE reports as suffering from biofuel production, well-recognized international donors, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and research programs, like the International Food Policy Research Institute, have shown the benefits of biofuel projects for local communities. 

Biofuel farms often provide jobs and stimulate local economies. Moreover, the fuel is then distributed to both domestic and international markets (rather than only international markets, as touted by FoE). 

Mozambique is a perfect example of an African nation that is going into the biofuels business with its eyes open. The government is investing lots of land (over 46,000 square miles) and money into biofuels, even though 35 percent of the country's population is "chronically food insecure." The country believes it can accommodate both food and biofuel production.

But if it cannot, the government will halt biofuel production, promising, "not to allow biofuel production to compromise food security in any way."

The key to successful biofuel production in Africa depends on crafting policies that safeguard the interests of local populations. 

There are many examples of countries failing to do this in the past, but according to a recent review by the Forum of Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), the continent is on track to strike a healthy balance between between its fuel and food needs. 

Image: tonrulken, Flickr

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