Monday, 10 December 2007

FOOD VS FUEL: CHINA'S BIOENERGY CHALLENGE

By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre member

A recent spotlight on biofuels on the SciDev.net website gives a detailed overview of research issues, including risks and benefits for developing countries and an article by Siwa Msangi of IFPRI on potential food security impacts from the biofuels “revolution”. Msangi’s article points to the need for international policies to promote innovations that will reduce the dependence of biofuels on agricultural production systems, as well as action to secure food supplies for the world’s food-insecure poor. At present, however, the development of the burgeoning corn bioethanol sector, especially in the US, is fast-outpacing such regulatory reforms.

This weekend’s edition of the China Daily contains a front-page article describing recent policies drawn up by the Chinese Ministry of Finance to promote the use of non-food products to make bio-fuel.

As well as banning the use of grains to make biofuel earlier this year, the more recent policies offer subsidies to producers of biofuels derived from non-food feedstocks, such as cellulose-based sources, sweet sorghum and cassava. Farmers producing such feedstocks will also benefit. These are among a suite of government actions aiming to minimise food security impacts from China’s increasing biofuel production.

The global impact of these policies is questionable while major markets for feedstock remain open to corn and other grains, however at least China has acted decisively to ensure domestic food security.

In comparison, US policies and those of the international community require a significant rethink if corn bioethanol, which also has dubious relative environmental benefits as well as obvious negative food security implications, is to act as a “stepping stone” to second generation fuels with a more attractive carbon balance rather than an end in itself.

Science and technology policies (e.g. supporting research, development, demonstration and diffusion of cellulosic bioethanol) to facilitate this move are unlikely to quickly succeed in this goal without other policies to limit the production of fuel from corn, which could prove politically extremely unattractive, especially in the US.

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