/ 24 April 2007

Is South Africa ready to produce biofuels?

While South Africa is planning to increase biofuels production, some experts warn the move may hurt subsistence farmers and cause more hunger in impoverished areas of the country.

Proponents in the United States and Brazil say biofuels such as maize-based ethanol is a clean energy alternative that comes from resources that are renewable. However, the production of ethanol itself is energy intensive and requires fossil fuel to process and transport.

In recent years, the growing appetite for biofuels, coupled with rising oil prices, has heightened demand for maize and driven up commodity prices. Hoping to cash in, South Africa is expected soon to release a biofuels policy that officials say will re-energise the agricultural sector and pave the way for a home-grown biofuels industry.

Authorities claim biofuels will help the country reach its Kyoto Protocol emissions-reduction target, create about 55 000 jobs and contribute to economic growth. Some farmers are also expressing confidence that fuel-generating crops could become huge revenue earners.

South Africa’s first ethanol processing facility is at least three years away. The plan is to produce a relatively small amount of ethanol — 5% of fuel supply, compared with about 85% in the US and Brazil.

“Biofuels are going to be big business in a few years’ time. That is where the future is if we hope to survive and be competitive,” says Theunis Pretorius, who owns a sprawling, 1 800ha operation in the Free State.

Food production

But some worry that such a step will divert crop cultivation away from food production while increasing price pressures on agricultural products, especially for the poorest people. Calorie-rich pap, maize meal cooked into a stiff porridge served with stew or grilled meat, remains a popular and relatively cheap meal in South Africa.

Michelle Pressend, senior researcher at the Johannesburg-based think tank the Institute for Global Dialogue, says she questions the environmental sustainability of biofuels. Intensive farming normally requires large amounts of fossil fuels to feed machinery, uses hazardous inputs and causes soil degradation.

She is also concerned that South Africa may lose the ability to feed itself or to export surplus maize to neighbouring countries as more prime arable land becomes devoted to growing green fuel rather than food crops.

“We should not just think of the environmental argument. We also have to consider food security. If food sources become biofuels, that may lead to shortages and raise prices,” Pressend contends.

Replacing foodstuffs with energy cash crops may erode efforts to fight hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, a region prone to food shortages and famine with about 200-million malnourished inhabitants, according to United Nations estimates.

This year, large swathes of fields in parts of Southern Africa were hit by floods or dry weather. As a result, thousands of tonnes of maize will have to be imported to make up for a shortfall, according to the UN World Food Programme.

Exacerbating the situation, South Africa, usually a net exporter of white maize, will need to import the product due to lower-than-expected output. In South Africa this year, maize prices reached their highest level in decades. Some experts expect the upward trend to continue on the back of the global ethanol rush.

A related concern is that large-scale farming operations could take over the most productive land to grow biofuel crops, crowding out subsistence farmers that use older agricultural techniques and lack the ability to compete on the world market, Pressend says.

“The big question right now is how biofuels will support big agri-business and commercial farmers with huge tracts of land at the expense of small farmers who will not be able to keep up,” Pressend points out.

Land issue

Twelve years after the end of apartheid, white commercial farmers still own most arable farm lands despite a government policy to return one-third of such land to black people by 2014.

“The road the government is going down is in direct conflict with the imperative of food security. Already the poor and vulnerable are feeling the pinch. Down the line, prices are going to rise further. The government will have to decide between promoting food or fuel,” says Jeremy Wakeford, senior economics lecturer at the University of Cape Town.

Wakeford believes subsistence farmers in South Africa should get the first opportunity to participate in the local ethanol industry. “We need an accelerated programme to train small-scale farmers to produce enough food for their own needs and make a little extra cash from biofuels.

“This has to be managed carefully or hunger may become a problem. We could also see more Aids-related deaths of people experiencing nutritional deficiencies. Such problems may lead to social unrest. South Africa has a very dynamic civil society and they will not hesitate to demand that the government step in if prices become unaffordable,” he says.

Some of those fears have been substantiated in other parts of the developing world. This year, global ethanol demand was partly to blame for inflated corn prices in Mexico where the humble tortilla, a dietary mainstay there, used to cost almost nothing.

Consumers reacted with outrage as prices of its main ingredient, corn, increased. The Mexican government intervened and instituted price controls.

Craig Steward, manager of the Institute for International Research in Johannesburg, downplays the potential effects — positive or negative — of South Africa pursuing renewable fuels, saying the country is limited by its small agricultural industry.

He contends that the benefit of an ethanol industry in South Africa is to reduce reliance on oil imports.

“Food versus fuel is one of the biggest debates. But I would be hesitant to say that this could affect the food supply adversely because we are dealing with such small amounts of fuel crops compared to food crops,” Steward says. — IPS