Experts say biofuel and food shouldn’t be in competition

This year’s African Biofuel Conference saw a continuation of the debate around biofuel’s influence on food security and food inflation.
Issue date: 11 April 2008

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This year’s African Biofuel Conference saw a continuation of the debate around biofuel’s influence on food security and food inflation.
“Before the massive food price hikes, families spent only 10% of their income on food – now they spend up to 45%,” said Richard Lee, regional public information officer for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). But the massive increases in commodity and cereal prices certainly aren’t due to the increase in biofuel production alone.

“Factors such as the steep rise in the oil price, natural weather patterns and disasters such as drought also have an impact on the food price,” explained Lee. Yet experts say high food prices aren’t necessarily due to a shortage of food.
Distribution, not production

Graham von Maltitz, senior researcher at the Natural Resources and Environment Unit at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), pointed out that the world produces more than enough food
“The problem is distribution. This is at the core of the poverty problem,” said Von Maltitz.

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He added the debate around food security and biofuel production shouldn’t be about whether the industry uses a food or non-food crop for biofuel production, but about the availability of land.

Lara-Ann McLaggan of D1-BP Fuel Crops – a company cultivating Jatropha curcas, a low-cost, sustainable biodiesel feedstock – believes land availability isn’t a concern in Africa. “At the moment figures show Zimbabwe has 7 million hectares of arable land, Mozambique 15 million hectares and Malawi 1 million hectares. Land is not our biggest issue,” she said.

McLaggan said land is being under-utilised by subsistence farmers. This year Zambia had a 600 000t grain surplus, but of that 300 000t had to be dropped to grade four because it was stored incorrectly and was no longer fit for human consumption.
“Africa has the food, but it doesn’t have adequate storage facilities and storage skills management. We need to improveon this,” she said. Andrew Makenete, president of the Southern African Biofuel Association (Saba) said a biofuel industry in South Africa could open and facilitate markets for biofuel in the SADC region.
But the Biofuel Industry Strategy, finalised late last year, doesn’t provide enough incentives to encourage investment.

“The proposed incentives, while moving in the right direction, don’t make biofuel production commercially feasible at this stage and don’t compare with global trends,” said Makenete. Von Maltitz said government’s cautious approach to the industry could have merit. “Biofuel doesn’t have a track record as the best land-use option and government isn’t convinced it could achieve that,” said Von Maltitz.
Makenete said for biofuel production to move forward in South Africa it’s important to challenge inappropriate perceptions about the industry. “It’s critical to deal with the perception that this industry is a money-making scam, particularly among Afrikaner farmers,” he said. – Wilma den Hartigh