Can Biofuels Save Sub-Saharan Africa?

A man sprays pesticide on a farm in Sangalkam, Senegal.
Jacob Silberberg for The New York TimesA man sprays pesticide on a farm in Sangalkam, Senegal.

When soaring food prices, climate change, growing energy demands, poverty, international politics and social justice are in the mix, you have a tried and true recipe for heated debate with just about anyone. I’m referring, as you may have guessed, to the hot-button topic of biofuels.

Last week, the journal Nature published a special outlook issue dedicated to the state of, and prospects for, biofuels production in an energy-hungry future. In the article “A New Hope for Africa,” Lee R. Lynd, a professor of environmental engineering design at Dartmouth College, and Jeremy Woods, a lecturer on bioenergy at Imperial College in London, argue that, far from posing a direct threat to the world’s food supply, the development of an African bioenergy industry has a great potential to increase food security for some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

Critics remain unconvinced and highly concerned about the potential effects of land conversion on climate change.

Something everyone can agree on is that 800 million people live in Sub-Saharan Africa and a third of them don’t have enough food. By 2050, an estimated 1.95 billion people will be trying to live off the land in that region. Even if everyone in Sub-Saharan Africa were only to be fed as inadequately as they are today, the region would need to more than triple its food production over the next 40 years. For everyone on the continent to have enough to eat, food production would have to more than quadruple.

Dr. Lynd and Dr. Woods suggest that a growing bioenergy economy can be the key to driving this agricultural boom. Land is relatively plentiful in Africa, they write, and land for crops and land for fuel will not necessarily be in direct competition.

On marginal lands that cannot support agriculture in any case, they see great potential for biofuel crops, which require less water and nutrients. Africa’s vast land resources could also make the continent a competitive exporter of biofuels, which could bring in money for the basic infrastructure needed to transport and process food, they argued. It could also provide an economic incentive for rehabilitating degraded lands, the thinking goes.

In an interview, Timothy Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, took issue with that idea, arguing that people in Africa are hungry partly because of diversions of land elsewhere to bioenergy and resultant spikes in food prices. He contends that the problem will only be exacerbated by the development of an African biofuel industry.

Mr. Searchinger acknowledges the potential for biofuels to be grown and used in Africa on a local level to meet basic community energy needs. But he says that only if you believe in a “reverse Murphy’s law — that everything that can possibly go right, will go right” — is bioenergy a viable option on a large scale as a driver of economic development and food security for Africa.

His chief complaint is that while some marginal lands there can be converted to growing biofuels without highly significant negative effects, the potential profitability of biofuels will inevitably lead to massive land conversion and consequent releases of carbon dioxide.

Mr. Searchinger worries that when the price for biofuels goes up, there will be competition between using land for biofuels and using it for food; the only way that that will be resolved without decreasing the amount of land available for food, he suggests, will be if more land comes under cultivation.

“If biofuels make the most money, than the best land will be used for it,” he said. “Where is the best land in Africa? It’s supporting some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, which are also tremendous carbon sinks,” meaning that they absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas.

In an interview, Dr. Woods pointed out that it’s “always easier to think of problems than it is to think of solutions.

“It’s thanks to the demonization of bioenergy,” he said, “that companies are afraid to potentially tarnish their public image by exploring the potential that bioenergy offers Africa.”

The New York Times

http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/28/can-biofuels-save-sub-saharan-africa/?ref=biofuels

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