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    Taiwan's Feng Chia University has succeeded in boosting the production of hydrogen from biomass to 15 liters per hour, one of the world's highest biohydrogen production rates, a researcher at the university said Friday. The research team managed to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which can be captured and stored) from the fermentation of different strains of anaerobes in a sugar cane-based liquefied mixture. The highest yield was obtained by the Clostridium bacterium. Taiwan News - November 14, 2008.


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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Researcher: feeding distiller's grains vital to future of livestock operations

An important question in the biofuel sector is to know whether the shift from crops grown to feed livestock (such as corn) towards using these feedstocks for biofuels, can be compensated by utilising the residues from the fuel production process as animal feed instead.

According to research by Dr. Jim MacDonald, a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researcher, there is no reason the cattle-feeding industry there cannot remain strong and viable if it incorporates distiller's grains into rations. Distiller's grains are the residue of corn that is processed into ethanol.

The Experiment Station beef cattle nutritionist says "our concern has been 'Will there be enough feed?' Assuming all the distiller's grains are available for livestock feed, clearly there will be."

But, MacDonald says, the ratio of corn being fed versus distiller's grains could go from 11-to-1 today to 3-to-1 nationally in the next 10 years. So it will become important to find the most optimal ways to feed distiller's grains in such large quantities. Several researchers are working on this (and some projections show this could even make meat less costly in the future; on other applications of biofuel byproducts, see here).

Relatively few distiller's grains are fed in the Southern Plains states now. Some beef producers are reluctant because there's no incentive and no ready supply. However, with the opening of two ethanol plants scheduled later this year in the Panhandle, a steady supply of distiller's grains should be available, making the alternative feedstock more attractive:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"In the future, as long as it is priced relative to corn, I think there will be a necessity to use this new large pool of feed," MacDonald said. The proportion of corn used from 2002 to 2006 hasn't changed much in the areas of human consumption, high fructose production or exports, he said.

The biggest change has been corn moving from the livestock-feed sector to the fuel-ethanol sector, MacDonald said. Livestock feed has decreased from 60 percent to 55 percent in that time period, while the ethanol fuel sector increased from 8 percent to 14 percent.

However, National Corn Growers Association forecasts show that while the percentage has decreased, the actual bushels of corn produced will continue to increase due to higher yields and acres planted, he said.

Ethanol expansion

The acres of corn harvest is expected to rise from the current 71 million to 80-85 million over the next five years, MacDonald said. Yields are projected to rise from about 150 bushels per acre to almost 180 bushels per acre in the next 10 years.

"We're not sure how big the ethanol industry is going to get, but if every plant being proposed as of now gets built, the Renewable Fuels Association says we'll be producing 12.5 billion gallons of ethanol a year from starch," he said.

In estimating feed availability for livestock, MacDonald assumed as much as 15 billion gallons of ethanol being produced annually. At that rate, 35.5 percent of all corn would be needed for ethanol. This would bring the amount of corn available for feed down from the current 60 percent to 33.5 percent, assuming the other categories remain steady.

Because yields are expected to increase, he said the decrease of actual corn fed will not be as dramatic, going from 6.1 billion bushels in 2006 to 5 billion bushels by 2017.

The beef and dairy industries are in the best position of any of the livestock industry to use distiller's grains, MacDonald said.

Based on the number of plants proposed in the Texas High Plains, he estimated feed yards will need to include 15 percent to 20 percent of distiller's grains in the diet (moisture-free basis) to use all the available supply.

The two Hereford plants, with a combined 200 million gallons of ethanol production per year, will produce 665,000 tons of distiller's grains, he said. This quantity alone would be enough to include 6 percent to 7 percent distiller's grains in the diets of the 5.75 million head of cattle fed in the Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma region.

If a proportion higher than 20 percent were included into area feed yard and dairy rations, distiller's grains will need to be railed in from the Midwest, he said.

Growth of the ethanol industry in the Corn Belt has created a greater demand for corn in that area, MacDonald said. However, they now have a large surplus distiller's grains. That could make them cheaper to rail into Texas than whole corn.

"The only thing that keeps this all in balance is our ability to utilize the distiller's grains," MacDonald said. "We still have to go through the learning curve of how to feed them."

In the tri-state area, distiller's grains would be mixed with steam-flaked corn. This is different from in the Midwest, where dry-rolled corn is fed, he said.

Several studies are under way to see how to maximize the use of distiller's grains in the feed yard situation, MacDonald said. Those results should be available later this summer.

Picture: Tons of distiller’s dried grains being held in storage at a Midwest ethanol plant. Credit: Agricultural Research Service.

References:
Eurekalert: Researcher: Feeding distiller's grains vital to future of livestock operation success - July 6, 2007.

Article continues

Practical applications of biofuels for the poor - Highlights from the International Conference on Biofuels (Day 2, part 2)

During the fourth session of the International Conference on Biofuels, Simon Trace, chief executive of the NGO Practical Action explained how biofuels can help the poor in very concrete ways, but also warned on circumstances under which they can be less beneficial and risky.

Practical Action is committed to helping the 'really poor' people in the developing world, that is those who live on less than a dollar a day, by using appropriate technologies. The organisation looks at designing concrete solutions for problems such as water and energy access, shelter, transport and food access. It does so by collaborating directly with the communities and by sticking to utilizing local resources, in short, it relies on a strictly bottom-up approach.

In his fascinating presentation, Simon Trace outlined three main reasons as to why the poor should be interested in biofuels: (1) they may offer technical solutions to improved energy access, (2) they may boost rural communities' incomes, and (3) they should be informed about the risks of large-scale projects, which may have negative impacts on their life-world.

Trace set out by stating that not all biofuels are equal, and that the energy and greenhouse gas balance of different fuels must be taken into account. When it comes to their potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, he made the following remark:
If one hectare of grassland is converted to sugar cane for ethanol, it may save 12 tonnes of carbon dioxide. But if that same hectare were to be afforested and the trees left to stand, it would save up to 20 tonnes of CO2.
Of course, this is a bit misleading, because trees don't offer a liquid fuel, which has many socio-economic benefits (mobility, transport of goods and persons, and its crucial role in local economies). Sugar cane based ethanol offers both: impressive CO2 reductions and a transport fuel. In short, the opportunity costs of different land-use options must be analysed in-depth.

Biofuels and energy access
Practical Action then presented a case for biofuels at the local level, in that they can help increase energy access for poor communities - both energy for household use (cooking, heating, cooling) as for transport (crucial in rural and remote communities, where fossil fuels are often extremely expensive or simply not available.)

Almost two billion people in the developing world have no access to modern energy and rely on primitive biomass resources. The sheer physical burden of collecting fuel wood is enormous. Trace stressed that this burden on the body is itself extremely energy inefficient - women and often children spend a lot of their (scarce) calories on walking and carrying raw energy from the gathering site to the home, where the primitive fuel is then burned in highly inefficient ways on open fires. An open fire wastes up to 90 per cent of the useful energy contained in wood or dung, and causes indoor air pollution, a major health burden in the developing world killing up to 1.5 million women and children per year.

But the economic burden is equally big: lack of access to modern energy prevents communities from running schools, hospitals, telecommunications and households in efficient ways - all these are crucial for local development and poverty alleviation.

Biofuels can contribute to solving these problems, in the following ways:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

They can be produced locally, from local crops and in a small-scale, decentralised manner. This is most feasible for biodiesel production, the technology and start-up costs for which are less capital intensive than those for ethanol. In fact, in many instances, straight vegetable oils can be used in diesel engines without any adaptations (that is, in warm climates). The fuel can be used for power generation, for rural transport and for farm machinery, irrigation pumps, and so on.

Simon Trace explained that one of the major causes of poverty is isolation. Improving the access and mobility of the isolated poor paves the way for access to markets, services and opportunities. Practical Action has been running several projects with locally produced biodiesel in Peru, where the fuel is used by remote river communities to power their boats. Their only alternative is extremely expensive diesel fuel, which is often in short supply. The decentrally produced biodiesel is not only much cheaper, but supply chains and scales of the projects can be adapted to precise local needs.


Note that the Biopact is currently writing a project proposal on local biodiesel production in both Congos (Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo) and the Central African Republic, where river transport is the true spine of the (informal) economies of these vast but sparsely populated countries. In the DRC alone, around 30 million people (50% of the total population) rely on river transport to move goods and people around on a daily basis. The rivers supply food and agricultural products for the 15 million other people who live in the country's largest cities. If fuel costs increase or fuel supplies are cut off, river transport collapses with dramatic consequences for all citizens. The situation is similar in the Republic of Congo and the CAR. Here too, locally produced biodiesel or straight vegetable oils are less expensive than petro-fuels, which are often simply not available at all. Biofuels can break the economic uncertainties and dependence that come with reliance on imported fossil fuels.

Simon Trace then briefly focused on the famous jatropha projects in Mali, where the Mali Folke Center has been cooperating with the UNCTAD and the UNDP to run local energy platforms. Jatropha biodiesel is used in Lister-Petter diesel generators for electricity production. Even though the technology is appropriate in the case of Malian communities, in other places alternatives like solar and micro-hydro might be more suitable and efficient, Trace thinks. (We doubt this, as solar comes at a cost 10 to 20 times higher than most bioenergy projects based on biogas or locally manufactured biodiesel; micro-hydro can be less costly but only works where conditions permit its application).

Better cooking stoves - which are under development by many organisations - as well as biogas made in anaerobic digesters that ferment local waste streams, offer great potential as well.

In conclusion, when it comes to local energy access, the poor can definitely benefit from biofuels. But each community and its particular environment call for a thorough analysis of which technologies are most suitable - biofuels are only one of the many options, with others being wind, solar and micro-hydro.

The scale of the problem of the lack of energy access in the South is however gigantic (1.7 to 2 billion people are affected). If we want to solve the problem in 10 years time, we need to reach 475,000 people each single day, for ten years in a row...

Income generation
According to Trace, another major advantage of biofuels is their potential to generate income for the poor. This can be accomplished in different ways: (1) by involving rural communities in feedstock production, (2) by employment creation in the sector by large agribusiness, and (3) by redistributing the income or the savings generated on a national level to the poor; states can benefit from lower petroleum import bills when locally produced biofuels are used instead of diesel and gasoline; or they can acquire revenues from biofuel exports; this money can be spent on social services (health, education), on poverty alleviation programs or on infrastructure works that benefit the poor (e.g. rural roads).

Feedstock production
Experience with cash crops such as coffee, tea or cocoa shows that incomes only reach the poor when they acquire some part of ownership in the production chain. This can be achieved when farmers and workers organise in cooperatives or other forms of association. Smallholder production is not allways efficient, and so good extension services must be in place to make sure smallholders can survive and participate in the sector by applying the latest and most efficient farming techniques.

Large scale projects and jobs
Trace said large-scale production of biofuels can benefit local communities because they often offer many jobs - biofuel production is relatively labor intensive. But the logic of agribusiness is to be as efficient as possible, and, depending on the feedstock (perennial or annual), the threat of mechanisation always looms. Moreover, for crops such as sugar cane, much of the generated labor is seasonal. But all in all, large agribusiness must not be diabolised as such when it generates local employment and jobs that offer more perspectives than mere subsistence farming.

Redistributing national savings
When a state decides to produce biofuels to lessen its dependence on imported petroleum, it is of course crucial that the biofuel in question has a clear margin of competitiveness; in other words, it must be consistently and considerably less costly to produce than diesel or gasoline. Currently only Brazil (for ethanol) and Malaysia and Indonesia (biodiesel) can produce below fossil fuel prices (with oil at over US$ 35/40, sugar cane ethanol in Brazil is competitive; with oil at over US$60, palm based biodiesel is feasible).

However, when a national government saves on replacing petroleum by biofuels, then it is not very likely that these savings ever reach the poorest. The benefits are supposed to trickle down to them via social services (health, education), poverty alleviation programs or infrastructure works (rural roads, etc...). But Trace, citing a study by the New Economics Foundation, showed that in many developing countries, of each 100 dollars spent by governments, less than 1 dollar reaches the 10% poorest.

In short, the argument that the state can save money with biofuels and that this may benefit the most vulnerable in society, is theoretically correct, but only strong governance and appropriate policies can ensure that this theoretical potential is actually made tangible. Redistributive policies are difficult to implement in the highly developed world, so it is not to be expected that they will work easily in the lesser developed countries.

Potential negative effects of biofuels on the poor
But biofuels are no panacea, far from it. Simon Trace told the Conference there are several potential disadvantages and risks of biofuels in the developing world.

First of all, the effects of large scale production which does not involve rural households, on food prices must be understood and analysed more thoroughly. Farmers may benefit from increased food prices (and over 70 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa's population consists of farmers), but the urban poor (an ever growing group of people) will have no means do defend themselves against this. These uncertainties must be addressed in assessments of large biofuel projects and mitigated by appropriate policies.

Further, market forces may push interesting biofuel feedstocks that may benefit small farmers and may help restore the environment (such as Jatropha curcas) out of the market, in favor of monocultures that bring few jobs.

Third, there is a serious problem with land tenure in the South. Small farmers often do not formally own the land they work on, and land grabs coming from outside and above (from top-down decisions and powerful companies) may push people off their land. Strong land reform and formal land ownership rules must be implemented. The West must help developing countries with crafting such policies.

Fourth, some biofuel crops contribute to climate change instead of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Obviously, when forests are cleared for energy crops, the biofuels derived from them are not 'green'.

However, in the debate following Trace's presentation, a representative from Malaysia raised the taboo subject of palm trees and their role in the carbon cycle. He stressed that rainforests sequester less carbon than palm trees, and there is some science backing this up. But obviously, the argument is quite absurd, because rainforests are biodiversity hotspots and offer many additional ecoservices. The value of rainforests for mankind is priceless.

Policies crucial
To conclude, Simon Trace stressed the crucial role of policy frameworks. Biofuels can have many advantages - reduced GHG emissions, increased energy security - but in the end, it depends on us to make sure we also realise their potential to benefit the poor.

Policies decide whether the savings on imported fuel costs are redistributed in a fair way; land tenure policies decide whether the poor become owners of their own land and of their productive activities; and policies decide whether biofuels are produced in a socially and environmentally sustainable way.

Jonas Van Den Berg & Laurens Rademakers, Biopact, 2007, cc.

References:
Simon Trace's presentation should be online at the Conference website soon or at the website of Practical Action.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Researchers make discovery in mechanics of phototropism - could improve crop biomass yields

In a paper published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, scientists at the University of Missouri-Columbia report molecular-level discoveries [*abstract] about the mechanisms of phototropism, the directional growth of plants toward or away from light.

Phototropism is initiated when photoreceptors in a plant sense directional blue light. Understanding phototropism is important because it could lead to crop improvement, says Mannie Liscum, professor in the Division of Biological Sciences in MU's College of Arts and Science and Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center.
By understanding how phototropism works at a molecular level, we can work toward engineering plants that produce more biomass or have increased drought tolerance, among other things. For example, we could use this information to optimize plants' ability to capture light for photosynthesis, which would result in more energy capture and thus growth, or potentially agronomically useful biomass. - Mannie Liscum, professor of Biological Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia
Liscum and doctoral student Ullas Pedmale studied the regulation of phototropic signaling in Arabidopsis thaliana, a weedy flowering plant commonly used as a model in laboratory studies. Focusing on non-phototropic hypocotyls 3 (NPH3), a protein known to be essential for phototropic responses, they examined its phosphorylation, the addition or removal of a phosphate group to the protein molecule. Using a series of pharmacological treatments and immunoblot assays, the team discovered that NPH3 was a phosphorylated protein - a protein with a phosphate group attached - in seedlings grown in the darkness. When the seedlings were exposed to light, they became dephosphorylated, or lost their phosphate group:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

These results suggest that the absorption of light by phot1, the dominant receptor controlling phototropism, leads to NPH3's loss of a phosphate group, allowing further progression of phototropic signaling.

"We found that exposure to directional blue light stimulated NPH3's dephosphorylation," Liscum said. "NPH3 exists as a phosphorylated protein in darkness and is rapidly dephosphorylated by a yet unidentified protein phosphatase in response to phot1 photoactivation by blue light."

Liscum and Pedmale now plan to study which amino acids on NPH3 are reversibly phosporylated and how NPH3 is involved in regulating other processes within plants.

The photosynthetic efficiency of crops, partly guided by their photoropic mechanisms, is currently below 0.4 per cent. The theoretical maximum efficiency however is around 4 per cent. Scientists and biotechnologists think it may be possible in the future to directly intervene in this complex natural mechanism, to improve the efficiency of the process and thus enhance plant growth by an order of magnitude.


Video: Blue-light-induced Phototropism. This short movie shows the phototropic response of dark-grown Arabidopsis seedlings. 60 hours after germination, blue light was provided from the left side for around 5 hours. The movies show the amount of phototropic curvature over a 5 hour period (Images were captured every 10 min and are played back at 6 frames per sec.) Source: Plants in Motion, tropisms.


References:
Ullas V. Pedmale and Emmanuel Liscum, "Regulation of Phototropic Signaling in Arabidopsis via Phosphorylation State Changes in the Phototropin 1-interacting Protein NPH3", J. Biol. Chem., Vol. 282, Issue 27, 19992-20001, July 6, 2007, doi:10.1074/jbc.M702551200

University of Missouri-Columbia: "MU Researchers Make Discovery in Molecular Mechanics of Phototropism" - July 5, 2007.

Article continues

Promises and challenges of biofuels for the poor - Highlights from the International Conference on Biofuels (Day 2, part 1)

The second day of the International Conference on Biofuels addressed the issue of how developing countries can participate and benefit from the biofuel revolution. There are many potential risks, from increased food insecurity and competition for land and water, to environmental impacts such as deforestation, soil depletion and biodiversity loss. But if implemented in a sustainable manner and guided by strong policies, biofuel production also offers an unprecedented opportunity for the vast rural populations of the South to get out of poverty, increase incomes and food security, and finally get access to modern energy.

Leading experts in the field debated the issues: Louis Michel, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Alexander Müller, Assistant Director General of the FAO and Joachim von Braun, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Ministers from Senegal and the Dominican Republic shared views on biofuels risks and opportunities in their countries. And Simon Trace of the NGO Practical Action looked at some very concrete fields in which biofuels make sense for the poor and where their development should be discouraged.

In this piece, we focus on von Braun's contribution, as the IFPRI - the leading non-governmental food research institute - recently published a major report on the matter, titled "The Promises and Challenges of Biofuels for the Poor in Developing Countries" [*.pdf, 1.8MB], on which he drew profusely.

The issue of 'food versus fuel' is key to the debate, but misunderstood by many and often represented wrongly. From the start, von Braun made the crucial point, reiterated by many at the conference, that:
It is now well understood that food insecurity is a result not simply of a lack of food availability, but poverty. Food-insecure people do not have the income to buy the food that is available. If increased production of biofuels can raise the incomes of small farmers and rural laborers in developing countries, it may in fact improve food security.
Technical potential
Von Braun began by noting that the growing potential of biofuels appears to create a substantial opportunity for the world's farmers. But the key question is whether small-scale farmers and poor people in developing countries can really take advantage of this opportunity.

According to the researcher, energy crops could provide farmers with an important source of demand for their products. About 80 developing countries, for instance, grow and process sugarcane, a high-yielding crop in terms of photosynthesis efficiency that can also be used to produce ethanol. With international sugar prices moving generally downward until recently, partly owing to protectionist sugar policies in some OECD countries, sugarcane production for ethanol has become a more attractive option for developing-country farmers. Other energy crops include maize, soybeans, rapeseed, and oil palm, and many developing countries already grow or could grow these and other potential energy crops.

A modern biofuels industry could also provide developing-country farmers with a use for crop residues like stalks and leaves, which can be converted into ethanol or electricity. Emerging new technologies that convert cellulose to energy might lead to a much higher valuation of "residues," and may in fact make "residues" history in agriculture.

In some cases farmers can grow energy crops on degraded or marginal land not suitable for food production. An oil-bearing crop like Jatropha curcas, for example, produces a seed that can be converted into non-polluting biodiesel. The crop is of special interest because it grows in infertile soil, even in drought conditions, and animals do not graze on it. India has 60 million hectares of waste land, of which it is estimated that half might be used for Jatropha cultivation. The cost of producing biodiesel from Jatropha is just Rs. 20–25 (US$0.43–US$0.54) per liter. The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) of India announced in February 2006 that it is undertaking a 10-year project, in conjunction with BP, to cultivate 8,000 hectares of wasteland with Jatropha and install the equipment necessary to produce 9 million liters of biodiesel a year. The project will include a complete analysis of the social and environmental impacts of the approach.

Employment opportunities for the poor
Because biofuel production is as labor intensive as agriculture, it may be a boon to rural areas with abundant labor. In Brazil, one study showed that in 1997 the ethanol sector employed about 1 million people. Thirty-five percent of these jobs were temporary harvesting jobs employing many poor migrant laborers from the Northeast, but 65 percent were permanent. Moreover, the number of jobs in manufacturing and other sectors in Brazil created indirectly by the ethanol sector was estimated at 300,000. Many of the jobs created are unskilled, and this situation offers an opportunity for increased income to poor rural people. And according to von Braun, small farmers are not left out: some 60,000 small farmers produce about 30 percent of the sugarcane in Brazil.

'Food versus fuel': a misunderstood and complex issue
Will crop production for biofuels compete with and drive out food production, thereby increasing food insecurity as is often claimed? Not necessarily. Von Braun thinks that energy crop production does not need to lead to increased food insecurity, on the contrary:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

First, new ways of combining food production with energy production have been developed. Food crop residues like rice and wheat straw, maize husks, and sugarcane bagasse (a fibrous residue) can be converted into biogas, ethanol, and electricity. In other cases energy crops can be targeted to more marginal lands, while food crops can be grown on more favorable lands. In addition, farmers can rotate food and energy crops. Brazilian farmers are increasingly growing sugarcane in rotation with tomatoes, soya, peanuts, and other food crops. Finally, research can—and must—help enhance overall crop productivity, and this is a prime task for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). (See Box 2 for scenarios of future food and fuel production.)

Second, it is now well understood that food insecurity is a result not simply of a lack of food availability, but poverty. Food-insecure people do not have the income to buy the food that is available. If increased production of biofuels can raise the incomes of small farmers and rural laborers in developing countries, it may in fact improve food security. Still, risks for food security remain, particularly if the biofuel sector is not well managed and if oil price instabilities drive food price instability. Destabilizing oil price fluctuations that translate into food price fluctuations may actually be more worrisome than long-term price effects, as the poor have little capacity to adjust in the short run. Opening up trade opportunities for biofuels can dampen price fluctuations. Thus the effects of biofuel expansion on food security depend heavily on policies related to technology and trade.

Challenges in Creating a pro-poor biofuels industry
The high demand for energy and the apparent enormous potential of biofuels are no guarantee that small farmers and poor people in developing countries will receive the benefits. Creating an industry that helps the neediest people improve their lives and livelihoods will require careful management at all levels. This management includes taking the necessary steps to develop a global market and trade regime with transparent standards for biofuels.

The high demand for energy and the apparent enormous potential of biofuels are no guarantee that small farmers and poor people in developing countries will receive the benefits. Creating an industry that helps the neediest people improve their lives and livelihoods will require careful management at all levels. This management includes taking the necessary steps to develop a global market and trade regime with transparent standards for biofuels.

One of the arguments in favor of biofuels is their potential to serve as an environmentally sustainable source of energy. That added social benefit might even justify some level of subsidy and regulation, given that these external benefits are not internalized by the markets. But several environmental aspects of biofuels require attention.

First, biofuels must be produced in a way that results in an output of energy greater than the amount of energy used to produce them—that is, they should have a highly positive energy balance. Maize ethanol, of which the United States is currently the largest producer, has been controversial because until recently it had a negative energy balance. In 2002, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated that maize ethanol had achieved an energy output-input ratio of 1.34:1, thanks to more efficient cultivation and processing practices. Brazil's large ethanol industry based on sugarcane is well established as a net energy producer.

Second, biofuel production must be managed in a way that substantially reduces greenhouse gases compared with petroleum. Maize ethanol produced in the United States may reduce emissions by 10 to 30 percent compared with petroleum, whereas ethanol produced from sugar or cellulose could reduce them by 90 percent or even more. Farmers can contribute to greenhouse gas reductions by adopting cultivation practices that use less petroleum-based fertilizer and fuel and that sequester more carbon in the soil. The greatest potential for reducing greenhouse gases lies in successfully converting cellulosic and lignocellulosic feedstocks—derived from, for instance, trees, grasses, crop residues, and municipal waste—into ethanol. These feedstocks are, however, more difficult to process than starch or sugar crops. A major R&D effort is needed to develop cellulosic ethanol, which could contribute to a much greater expansion in biofuels without adverse consequences.

There are other challenges as well. Like any innovation, increased production of energy crops has the potential to exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities by concentrating benefits on the well-off. It can lead to deforestation, a loss of biodiversity, and excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, thereby degrading the land and water that poor people depend on. Policymakers must take care to ensure that biofuel production is managed and regulated in a way that avoids these pitfalls. These risks are speculative at present. With improved access to finance and sound policies for support of cooperation and for contract security, most innovations in agriculture can be scale neutral. Under the assumptions of an aggressive biofuel growth scenario—which is not, it must be noted, a prediction—significant price increases for some food crops could emerge in the long run (135 percent for cassava, 76 percent for oilseeds, and 41 percent for maize by 2020) unless new technologies are developed that increase efficiency and productivity in crop production and biofuel processing (see Box 2). Without technologies to improve productivity, the prices changes would adversely affect poor, net-food-purchasing households and would probably exceed the possible income gains by many small farm households.

In addition, in many low-income developing countries, farmers are unaware of the opportunities presented by biofuel production and thus risk missing out on the potential benefits. Public-private partnerships could help raise awareness of these opportunities among farmers in low-income countries.

To develop a biofuels sector that is sustainable and pro-poor, actors at the international, national, and local levels have crucial roles to play. International institutions must help transfer knowledge and technology on developing an efficient and sustainable biofuels industry to poor countries. The international community must also create a level playing field for trade in biofuels. By subsidizing their domestic agriculture and their biofuels industries, the OECD countries are raising the price of grains and feedstock in their own countries and are distorting the opportunities for biofuel production and trade in developing countries. At the national level, policymakers must take steps to create a well-functioning market for biofuels, to promote investment in associated areas like flexible-fuel vehicles and fueling stations, and to regulate land use in line with socioeconomic and environmental goals. They must also provide farmers who wish to grow energy crops with the same kinds of support needed for other forms of agriculture, such as research and extension services, credit, and infrastructure. Finally, local institutions must participate in designing and managing projects to develop biofuels so that poor people and small farmers can gain benefits as both biofuel producers and consumers.

In response to concerns about energy supplies and prices, a number of countries have set standards or targets for biofuels use. The European Union has set a goal of 5.75 percent of motor fuel use from biofuels by 2010. The United States has mandated the use of 28.4 billion liters of biofuels for transportation by 2012. Brazil will require that all diesel contain 2 percent biodiesel by 2008 and 5 percent by 2013, and Thailand will require 10 percent ethanol in all gasoline starting in 2007. India mandates a 5 percent ethanol blend in nine states, and China is requiring a 10 percent ethanol blend in five provinces. Many other countries are taking similar steps.

As countries move to strengthen their energy security by increasing their use of biofuels, they should also work to ensure poor people's and small farmers' participation in the creation of a more sustainable global energy system. With sound technology and trade policies, win-win solutions—that is, positive outcomes for the poor as well as for energy efficiency—are possible with biofuels in developing countries.

References:
Joachim von Braun and R.K. Pachauri: The Promises and Challenges of Biofuels for the Poor in Developing Countries - [PDF 1.8M], November 2006. [Joachim von Braun is director general of IFPRI, and R. K. Pachauri is director general of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi, India].

Peter Hazell, and R. K. Pachauri (eds.) 2006, Bioenergy and Agriculture: Promises and Challenges [*.pdf], IFPRI, 2020 Vision Focus 14.


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How Brazil convinced the EU on biofuels - Lula's speech

The landmark International Conference on Biofuels has acknowledged some of Biopact's main thoughts: that biofuels offer unique opportunities for development and poverty alleviation in the South given the developing world's comparative advantages, that the EU must partner with poor countries to ensure that production occurs in as sustainable and socially equitable a way as possible, and that an international market for biofuel trade must be created on the basis of clearly defined social and environmental sustainability criteria.


The atmosphere at the conference was in tune with President Lula's enthusiasm on promoting green fuels in the South. For Brazil, the EU's openness towards the developing world and to biofuel trade comes as a consecration of years of efforts to get the message across.

On July 5, President Lula addressed the Conference's 300 invited politicians, policy makers, scientists, business people and NGOs from Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. The day before, he signed the first-ever Strategic Partnership between the EU and Brazil, at a summit hosted by Portugal, which took over the rotating presidency of the EU from Germany - a partnership in which biofuels and bioenergy play a key role too. In his speech to the Biofuels Conference, the president announced that Rio de Janeiro will host a major biofuels conference next year, to make the vision of a global biofuels revolution more tangible. Rio was chosen, symbolically, as it is here that the concept of 'sustainable development' was crafted at the landmark Earth Summit in 1992.

Fresh on the heels of the EU-Brazil summit and the Conference, Lula and his Foreign Minister Celso Amorim went to the European Parliament. There they will hold talks with EP President Hans-Gert Pöttering and leaders of the main political groups. Prior to the visit the EP's press team had an exclusive interview with the President in which he reiterated his views on world trade talks, biofuels and poverty. A statement by Pöttering on the meeting with Lula can be found here.

Brazil's presence in Brussels has resulted in the first markers for a 'biopact' of sorts. Now the real work begins of analysing, strategizing and implementing concrete projects, trade rules, and policy frameworks in such a way that biofuels indeed contribute to, in Lula's word's, a more peaceful, inclusive, just and prosperous world for all [entry ends here].
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Canadian government unveils $1.5 billion biofuels plan

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a substantial investment to boost Canada’s production of biofuels. Under ecoENERGY for Biofuels, the government will provide up to $1.5 billion (€1.05/US$1.429bn) in the form of incentives (subsidies) over nine years to producers of renewable alternatives to gasoline and diesel fuel.

Last December, Canada’s New Government announced a new regulation requiring a five per cent average renewable content in gasoline by 2010. At that time, the government also signalled its intention to develop a similar requirement of two per cent renewable content for diesel and heating oil by 2012.
With the transportation sector accounting for more than a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas output, increasing the renewable content in our fuel is going to put a real dent in emissions. With leading-edge technology and abundant supplies of grains, oilseeds, and other feedstocks, Canada is uniquely positioned to become a global leader in the production of biofuels. - Stephen Harper, Canada's Prime Minister
Close to three billion litres of renewable fuels will be needed annually to meet the requirements of the new regulations. Canadian production in 2006 was only about 400 million litres, so the expansion will represent 'a tremendous economic opportunity' for the country’s 61,000 grain and oilseeds producers.

The 'ecoENERGY for Biofuels' program has four main pillars:

1. Increasing the retail availability of renewable fuels through regulation
Regulations under development by Environment Canada will require 5% renewable content based on the gasoline pool by 2010 and 2% renewable content in diesel and heating oil by 2012, upon successful demonstration of renewable diesel fuel use under the range of Canadian conditions. The announcement was made in December 2006 and Environment Canada issued a Notice of Intent in the Canada Gazette later that month.

These new regulations will require enough renewable fuel to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by about 4 megatonnes per year, the GHG equivalent of taking almost one million vehicles from the road:
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2. Supporting the expansion of Canadian production of renewable fuels
On July 5, 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the ecoENERGY for Biofuels Initiative, which will invest up to $1.5 billion over 9 years to boost Canada’s production of renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.

The initiative will provide operating incentives to producers of renewable alternatives to gasoline and diesel based on production levels and other factors. It will make investment in production facilities more attractive by partially offsetting the risk associated with fluctuating feedstock and fuel prices.

Budget 2007 also states that concurrent with the implementation of the operating incentive program to promote additional domestic production of renewable fuels, the current fuel excise tax exemptions for ethanol and biodiesel will be eliminated as of April 1, 2008.


3. Assisting farmers to seize new opportunities in this sector
On April 23, 2007, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Foods officially launched the ecoAGRICULTURE Biofuels Capital Initiative(ecoABC) a new $200 million initiative that will provide repayable contributions of up to $25 million per project to help farmers overcome the challenges of raising the capital necessary for the construction or expansion of biofuel production facilities.

In March 2007, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Foods announced a $10 million expansion to the Biofuels Opportunities for Producers Initiative, which helps agricultural producers develop sound business proposals, as well as undertake feasibility or other studies to expand biofuels production capacity.


4. Accelerating the commercialization of new technologies
Budget 2007 also makes $500 million, available over eight years to Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) to invest with the private sector in establishing large-scale facilities for the production of next-generation renewable fuels. Next-generation renewable fuels, produced from non-food feedstocks such as wheat straw, corn stover, wood residue and switchgrass, have the potential to generate even greater environmental benefits than traditional renewable fuels.

The measure complements research and development initiatives including the following:
Announcing the new funds,Prime Minister Harper concluded: "Good for the environment and good for farmers, our government’s investment in biofuels is a double win".

References:
Canadian Government: Government’s new biofuels plan a double win: Good for the environment and farmers - July 5, 2007

Canadian Government, Natural Resources: ecoENERGY for Biofuels.

Canadian Government: EcoAction: Biofuels.



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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Investigating life in extreme environments may yield applications in the bioeconomy

From the deepest seafloor to the highest mountain, from the hottest region to the cold Antarctic plateau, environments labelled as 'extreme' are numerous on Earth and they present a wide variety of life-forms, with unique features and characteristics.

Investigating life processes in such extreme environments not only can provide hints on how life first appeared and survived on Earth, it can also give indications for the search for life on other planets. Importantly, the understanding of how organisms tolerate and adapt to extreme conditions and ecosystems may help to predict the impacts of current and future global change on biodiversity. Finally, the study of extreme life-forms - called 'extremophiles' - finds many applications in industry, in particular in the emerging bioeconomy and in biotechnology.

Unique enzymes, genes and metabolic processes found in micro-algae or bacteria may lead to new and highly efficient processes for the production of liquid biofuels, biogas or biohydrogen (recent examples are enzymes and genetic info from Sulfolobus solfataricus and Syntrophus aciditrophicus); properties of plants that survive in extreme environments may help in the design of new (energy) crops that are tolerant to drought, saline soils, frost or toxic environments; new phyto- and bioremediation systems may be created based on findings from research on extremophiles; and new products - from medicines and eco-friendly detergents to bioplastics and green polymers - are expected to emerge from unlocking the mysteries of how organisms cope in extreme conditions.

To examine these issues, the European Science Foundation (ESF) announces it has published a 58-page report entitled 'Investigating Life in Extreme Environments – A European Perspective' [*.pdf]. The report looks at how global changes in recent decades have turned some environments into becoming 'extreme' compared to the 'normal' ecosystems they used to be (e.g. acidification of the oceans). It analyses what kind of environments may become extreme in the future, and what this can teach us about the past, both here on Earth as on other planets. The report further looked at the range of useful applications that may be expected from research into extremophiles. Most importantly, the document outlines proposals for a new research framework that will boost scientific activities in this exciting field.

'Investigating Life in Extreme Environments'
resulted from an interdisciplinary ESF inter-committee initiative which considered all types of life forms (from microbes to humans) evolving in a wide range of extreme environments (from deep sea to acidic rivers, polar regions and extra-terrestrial planetary bodies). The initiative held a series of consultations amongst Europe's science institutions in order to find out which type of extreme-environment research they see as most interesting, deserving priority and European funding:
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On the basis of these consultations and two a large-scale interdisciplinary workshops (November 2005 and March 2006), scientists from across Europe issued a series of recommendations for further research, cooperation and funding. They look as follows:

Cross-cutting Scientific Recommendations
  • Identify and agree on i) model organisms in different phyla (a group that has a genetic relationship) and for different extreme environments; and ii) model extreme environments
  • Favour an ecosystem-based multidisciplinary approach when considering scientific activities in extreme environments.
  • Foster the use of Molecular Structural Biology and Genomics when considering life processes in extreme environments
Cross-cutting Technology Recommendations
  • Laboratory simulation techniques and facilities (e.g. microcosms) should be wider developed and made available to the scientific community.
  • Develop of in-situ sampling, measurement and monitoring technologies. The assessment and use of existing techniques is also recommended.
  • Adopt a common approach (specific to research activities in extreme environments) on technology requirements, availability and development.
Structuring and Networking the Science community
  • Favorise interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity approaches between scientific domains and between the technological and scientific spheres.
  • Create as soon as possible an overarching interdisciplinary group of experts to define the necessary actions to build a critical European mass in the field of “Investigating Life in Extreme Environments”
  • Improve the information exchange, coordination and networking of the European community involved in scientific activities in extreme environments.
The report further includes recommendations specific to (1) Microbial life, (2) Life Strategies of plants, (3) Life Strategies of animals and (4) Human adaptation to extreme environments.

Benefits from research into extremophilic organisms
Organisms that live in extreme physico-chemical conditions, in high concentrations of deleterious substances or heavy metals, represent one of the most important frontiers for the development of new biotechnological applications. Actually, the biotechnological applications of extremophiles and their components (e.g. extremozymes) have been the main driving force for the research in this area.

The most direct application of extremophiles in biotechnological processes involves the organisms themselves. Among the most established we can find biomining, in which microbial consortia that operate at acidic pH are used to extract metals from minerals. Similar applications may help in enhancing oil recovery to obtain more petroleum from fields than would be possible by traditional pumping techniques.

Most applications involving extremophiles are based on their biomolecules (primarily enzymes, but also other components such as proteins, lipids or small molecules). The best-known example of a successful application of an extremophile product is Taq DNA polymerase from the bacteria Thermus aquaticus which facilitated a revolution in molecular biology methodology, but also other commercialised products (e.g. ligases, proteases, phosphatases, cellulases or bacteriorhodopsin) have resulted from investigation of extremophiles isolated from different environments.

In order to develop biotechnological processes, it is important to isolate the organism. In addition, the use of new methodologies, such as comparative genomics is helping to sort out the genetic and molecular bases of adaptation to extreme conditions, facilitating the design of improved products by the introduction of appropriate modifications by protein engineering. This approach has been used not only for improving the thermostability of enzymes but to design cryoenzymes for the food industry to operate at low temperatures.

Most microbial communities are complex and currently only a few components can be cultured. Sequence-based approaches to study the metabolism of microbial communities are being used to retrieve genomic information from the community of potential use in biotechnology (metagenomics). Strategies based on the generation of environmental genomic libraries have been developed to directly identify enzymes from the environment with the required specificity or the appropriate operational conditions.

Plants adapted to extreme environments also provide potential economic and societal applications. Extremophilic plants can survive under conditions toxic or harmful to crop plants. Therefore there is the potential to transfer, e.g. by molecular cloning, some of these abilities from extremophiles to crop plants with the aim of producing frost, salt, heavy metal or drought tolerance or enhanced UV stability. Plants can also be useful to remediate polluted areas where life is made difficult or impossible. New energy crops for the production of so-called 'third generation biofuels' offer a field of applications as well. ('Third generation biofuels' are called that way because they rely on crops the properties of which have been engineered in such a way that they match the demands of a specific bioconversion process; e.g. tree crops with low-lignin content, which makes them easier to pulp or to break down for the production of biofuels, have already been developed).

Phytoremediation is an innovative technology that uses the natural properties of plants in engineered systems to remediate hazardous waste sites. Within the phytoremediation technologies, phytoextraction (uptake and concentration of substances from the environment into plant biomass) and phytotransformation (chemical modification of environmental substances as a direct result of plant metabolism) are of applicative interest. Phytoremediation has been effectively used for the decontamination of soils and waters polluted by high concentrations of hazardous organic (e.g. pesticides) or inorganic (e.g. arsenic and mercury) substances. It is also a promising technology for the remediation of atmospheric pollutants (hydrocarbons, ozone). (See also how energy crops can be used for phytoremediation purposes - previous post on phytoremediation of coal-bed methane, on turning brownfields into green fields with energy crops, and more here and here).

Biomedical applications of adaptive mechanisms of animals should also be thoroughly investigated. Such potentialities are real as illustrated by the subantarctic King penguin that has developed the ability to preserve fish in its stomach for three weeks at a temperature of 38°C. With further developments, the antimicrobial and antifungal peptide involved in this conservation process might be used, for example, to fight some nosocomial infections.

In short, extremophile and extreme environment research is an emerging science field working in vast unexplored settings, and may open a whole range of applications beneficial to society.


The 'Investigating Life in Extreme Environments' document was published by the ESF, and its Marine Board (MB-ESF), the European Polar Board (EPB), the European Space Science Committee (ESSC), the Life Earth and Environmental Sciences Standing Committee (LESC), the Standing Committee for Humanities (SCH) and the European Medical Research Councils (EMRC).

References:
European Science Foundation: Investigating Life in Extreme Environments – A European Perspective [*.pdf] - July 2007.

European Science Foundation: Investigating Life in Extreme Environments report gives hints on life - July 4, 2007.

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Celebrity spotting: Marc Van Montagu and GM energy crops

Step aside Presidents, Ministers and Ambassadors. Here comes the Scientist. At the International Conference on Biofuels, we spotted a man who stands above short-term politics and ideologies. However, his work has been controversial and will be even more so in the near future. We are talking about professor Marc Van Montagu, one of the fathers of modern biotechnology.

Van Montagu is the Belgian molecular biologist who, in the 1970s, discovered the gene transfer mechanism between Agrobacterium and plants, which resulted in the development of methods to alter the bacterium into an efficient delivery system for gene engineering. The discovery opened the era of transgenic plants.

The prof developed plant molecular genetics, in particular molecular mechanisms for cell proliferation and differentiation and response to abiotic stresses (high light, ozone, cold, salt and drought) and constructed transgenic crops (tobacco, rape seed, corn) resistant to insect pest and tolerant to novel herbicides. His work with poplar trees resulted in engineering crops with improved pulping qualities. Today, he is working on GM energy crops.

Van Montagu was one of the members of the DOE Joint Genome Institute's team that recently decoded the world's first tree genome, namely that of the poplar. The effort was explicitly placed in the context of the development of future energy crops (earlier post, more here). The vision for so-called 'third generation' biofuels is to design these crops in such a way that their properties conform to one particular or a series of bioconversion processes, which results in higher conversion efficiencies and in the potential to integrate them into true biorefineries. Van Montagu's experience with engineering trees with improved pulping qualities is a serious step towards this development.

GM crops and the developing world
But Van Montagu is an interesting figure for another reason. The professor sees vast potential in the capacity of GM crops to help meet the rapidly growing food and fuel needs of the world's poor. He is actively developing genetically modified crops for them and with them. In order to further this vision, Van Montagu founded and presides over the Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries (IPBO). The center is located at Ghent University, Belgium, an institution with a strong tradition in development work and assistance.

It is this combination of curricula, world leading expertise and interests which make Van Montagu such an important personality in the emerging bioeconomy. In the corridors of the biofuels conference in Brussels, we heard the father of biotech commenting on some of the speeches delivered by the politicians: "They were all very careful to avoid the issue of genetically modified energy and food crops." The silence on the topic was indeed so deafening, that it seemed as if everyone either agreed that GM crops will play a big role in the future of energy agriculture or that they are an eternal taboo. At the Biopact, we have not touched on the issue much, but maybe it is time to start looking into it more thoroughly:
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The resistance to GM crops is large, especially in the EU and amongst environmentalists. However, at the Biopact, we are not entirely sure of what position to take in this vastly complex debate. Global issues like climate change, rapid population growth in the South, and the depletion of oil resources may well tilt the argument in favor of GM crops.

Consider the following: biofuels and bioenergy offer the only realistic option to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally by replacing fossil fuels. But these green fuels require land to grow and may impact the food security of some groups of people. GM crops could yield both improved energy and food crops, that could help solve the intertwined issues of food insecurity, climate change and energy scarcity. Rapidly growing populations in the Global South, with rising demands for energy and food, add some urgency to the issue.

Moreover, climate change is already irreversible and will impact the developing world most, even if biofuels are used on a large scale to mitigate the worst effects of global warming. Some affected regions on the planet could benefit greatly from crops that are climate-resilient. And indeed, major international efforts are now underway to engineer such crops, by, amongst others, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) - the body that fathered the 'Green Revolution' (earlier post).

In a GM scenario, developing countries with a large potential for biofuels, would become early adopters of GM energy crops, which would guarantee that we get the most out of the land that is allocated to biofuel crops. High-yielding GM crops would reduce the land needed, allow extra incomes to farmers (now biofuel producers and exporters), and reduce pressures on the environment (e.g. less forest-land would have to be cleared for land expansion). The same would apply to food crops, already widely grown in the Global South.

On the other hand, the long-term risks posed by such a GM future remain largely unknown. These risks include unknown impacts on biodiversity, questions about biosafety, dependence of farmers on GM crops (seeds of which they have to buy each year again) and on the multinationals that market them, and the loss of traditional farming knowledge. Moreover, ongoing scientific research produces results that continuously shift the debate. An example: recently, researchers found that GM-field trials consistently underestimate the risks of cross-pollination, an issue that seemed to be largely resolved. But then again, a very authoritative study published recently in Science shows that genetically modified crops may contribute to increased productivity in agriculture that can genuinely be called 'sustainable'; the research analysed, for the first time, environmental impact data from field experiments all over the world, involving corn and cotton plants with a Bt gene inserted for its insecticidal properties (earlier post).

The EU's role
A recent debate organised by Friends of Europe, an EU policy think-tank, explored the role of the EU in the GMO debate, and asked whether our resistance to the crops is preventing developing countries from investing in potentially lifesaving technologies. The positions expressed during the debate sum up some of the different ways one can look at GMs in the developing world, and as they are positioned in the world's trade regime.

Danish Environment Minister Connie Hedegaard said that the EU should not dismiss all GMOs automatically, because the technology could help to solve developing countries' hunger problem. "In a global world, the EU's actions impact on other countries," she said, explaining that developing countries' inability to export to the EU discourages them from investing in and producing GMOs. She believes that the scepticism in Europe about genetic engineering in agriculture stems from the fact that few GMOs "have brought unquestionable benefits to the European table". But she underlined the fact that the EU must assess each GMO on its own merits, because crops that can resist diseases and insects can be grown in the third world. "Like it or not, GMOs are here to stay," she said, adding that the EU has a special role to play in the debate because it can contribute to ensuring that GMOs are used in a safe and beneficial way for consumers by, for example, investing public research in this field.

Per Pindstrup-Andersen, Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), stressed: "Not a single person has died or become sick because of GM foods." Nevertheless, he agreed that more studies should be carried out on for example, allergies. "The EU could have generated a lot of information on GMOs during the moratorium, but it simply sat on its hands," he complained. Although he conceded that Europeans have the right to know about the benefits and risks, he criticised the EU's dogmatism in refusing all GMOs.

"The debate in Europe is very one-sided," he said, adding: "If millions of farmers in India and China are willing to break laws to get genetically engineered food, there must be a reason." He underlined the importance of understanding the risk-benefit trade-off for developing countries, saying that for many the question is not "Is genetic engineering the best solution?" but rather "Is there any other solution?"

For the moment, he said, Europe is standing in the way of developing countries solving their own problems because of its straight-out rejection of GMOs. "Developing countries are scared of losing their export market to Europe if they start cultivating GM crops," he said. But, he agreed that Europe has an important role to play in encouraging the development of biosafety regulations, which are often very weak in developing countries.

Simon Barber, Director of External Relations, EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries, said that the public had "very limited knowledge" about GMOs and about agriculture in general. He accused green groups of spreading unfounded rumours, saying: "After ten years of GM plants, what negative effects have ever been seen?" He added: "Many other plant-breeding technologies are just as scary and do not only produce benefits…To categorically say that the technology should not be used is not ethical."

Furthermore, he said that imposing a ban on GMOs was not feasible anyway as "the international trading system simply cannot segregate crops on a 100% basis".

Fouad Hamdan, director of Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE), believes that it is an exaggeration to say that GMOs can save developing countries, because there are only four types of GM crops: soy, maize, oilseed rape and cotton. The majority of these crops are destined for feeding animals, not people, in rich countries.

Furthermore, he said, GM crops only benefit large farmers, not small ones who cannot afford expensive patented seeds. And, as for the environment, he said that the use of pesticides has actually increased in Europe following the introduction of GMOs. He refuted the argument that NGOs were stirring up fear on false pretences, saying: "I still believe that the benefits of GM food are almost nil... NGOs are working with independent scientific facts, not with biotech-industry funded research." Therefore, he concluded: "The EU can with a lot of confidence tell developing countries to be cautious too. The organic market is the future.”

A South African participant said that most Africans don’t have the luxury of choice of what to eat and what not to eat. "If genetic engineering can bring some relief to this food insecurity, then let it be. And if it is too risky, then come up with another solution."


The Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries
Whatever position one takes in this debate, GM bioenergy crops would not enter the food chain, which is a small step forward towards taking away some of the risks associated with engineered crops. But the issue of economic dependence and the threats to biodiversity remain key topics that must be addressed more thoroughly.

Back to professor Van Montagu. We should give the eminent scientist's Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries the benefit of the doubt, at least on a purely conceptual level. The Biopact is not science-averse, on the contrary, and in principle favors all means to help reduce poverty in the Global South. With Van Montagu's expertise and his committment to assisting developing countries through high science, we have an excellent partner for a debate. In the coming months, we will be exploring the potential role of GM energy crops more thoroughly, by exploring the professor's points of view.

For now, let us conclude with an overview of the IPBO's goals. The institute has three specific objectives that will be initiated over the next five years:
  • Strengthening the training of plant biotechnology scientists and plant breeders in developing countries
  • Enabling the implementation of science-based biosafety policies in developing countries
  • Acting as a focal point and internode to promote and leverage the biotechnology platform of Flanders
The program described is the product of the expertise and reputation that IPBO has built in the international plant biotechnology arena through its activities, publications and participation in international debate. This expertise is the basis for proactive measures to ensure that the agricultural biotechnology programs of developing countries bring tangible results.

Given the dynamics of the global plant biotechnology sector, it is likely that ongoing events, particularly in the field of biosafety and regulatory affairs, will evolve rapidly. With that in mind, the IPBO's goals are a projection of the activities planned for the next 5 years. But specific details of events may differ significantly to those described because the debate and the policies change continuously. In addition, because the IPBO intends to significantly enhance its integration into the local Flemish 'biotech hub', the inputs and influences of the organizations with which it intends to collaborate on specific projects will alter the eventual outcome of these projections.

The vision of IPBO is to resolve the constraints and leverage the opportunities presented by the challenge to translate new discoveries in plant sciences into successes in agriculture for the benefit of the poor of the world.

According to the institute, there is an urgency to enable this vision and broaden the sphere of influence that IPBO already exerts at multiple levels since there is growing concern in the international community that without a major commitment to enhancing agricultural productivity, we are unlikely to halve the number of people living on less than a dollar a day by 2015.

Van Montagu was professor and director of the Laboratory of Genetics at the faculty of Sciences at Ghent University (Belgium) and scientific director of the Genetics Department of the Flanders Interuniversity Institute of Biotechnology (VIB). He is president of the European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB) and of the Public Research Responsibility Initiative (PRRI).

References:
Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries, website.

EurActive: Are EU GMO rules starving the poor? - May 21, 2007.

Friends of the Earth, Europe: Biotechnology Programme and European GMO campaign - ongoing.

Biopact: CGIAR developing climate-resilient crops to beat global warming - December 05, 2006

Biopact: Anthropological study explores the effects of genetically modified crops on developing countries - January 27, 2007

Biopact: Scientists: GM crops can play role in sustainable agriculture - June 10, 2007

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Sweden calls for the creation of a 'biopact' with the South - Highlights from the International Conference on Biofuels (Day 1, part 2)

Today's second session at the International Conference on Biofuels focused on the development of international trade in biofuels. The chief of staff of Brazil's President, India's Minister of New and Renewable Energies, the Ukraine's Vice-Prime Minister of Energy and Transport, and European Commissioner for Trade Peter Mandelson presented the many challenges ahead for the creation of a global biofuels market.

They include technical issues like standardisation of fuels, the elimination of tariffs and import duties, a reassessment of farm and biofuel subsidies, a new trade status for the renewable fuels, and the creation of a set of sustainability criteria without these rules becoming new barriers to trade.

Sweden's Minister for Trade, Sten Tolgfors, was most outspoken on what needs to be done (full speech). His country is Europe's greenest economy and the fastest growing user of biofuels. Sweden has also become the largest European importer of bio-ethanol from Brazil, which supplies 75% of ethanol used in the country.

Tolgfors outlined the advantages of what we call a 'Biopact' with the South. And to back up the fact that Sweden is committed to such a pact, it has set a target to decrease its use of fossil fuels in motor vehicles to 50% of current usage by 2020 made possible by importing biofuels from poor countries - a stark difference from the binding EU target of 10%.

So what makes such a Biopact the most logical option for countries in the North? According to the minister, biofuels only make sense when they are produced in such a way that they help contribute to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Countries in temperate climates do not have the agro-ecological resources to produce such fuels, but the Global South does. The energy and GHG balance of ethanol produced in Brazil is many times better than biofuels made in the North. The natural competitive advantages leading to this situation, must therefor be exploited to the fullest.

Consumers, producers and the climate benefit from biofuel trade
Tolgfors stressed that both tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers in the EU make biofuels for European consumers much more costly than they have to be. When imported from the South, consumers in the North benefit, as testified by the fact that ethanol from Brazil costs less than half that of the same fuel made in Europe. Sweden's imports as well the country's automakers' development of flex-fuel vehicles, are responsible for the sudden success of biofuels there. Swedish consumers have started buying flex-fuel cars, because they know the imported bio-ethanol is affordable, and hasn't been subsidised.

According to the trade minister, it has become untenable to keep a 54% tariff on imported ethanol, when the tariff on polluting (and costlier) gasoline is only 5%. These and other trade distortions must be abandoned in order to create a win-win situation for both the South and the North.

The advantages of such a 'Biopact' are manifold: producers in the developing world can enjoy their competitive advantages (abundant land and crops under suitable agro-ecological conditions), and can finally enter a market with a product that will not face price collapses, as has been the case with traditional commodities; demand for the product can only increase when oil prices remain high and when efforts to mitigate climate change are stepped up; finally, consumers in the North as well as in the developing world benefit from less costly fuels - an important aspect in a world in which access to mobility has become a crucial social good. Large-scale production of biofuels in the South - if implemented in a socially inclusive way - offers opportunities for poverty alleviation in countries with large rural populations.

Ending 'resource nationalism'
For all these reasons, Sweden, followed by the Netherlands, has launched a formal request for a study by the OECD on how to get rid of the current trade distortions, to which it objects (we reported on this earlier). If necessary, Tolgfors said, the EU should abandon these distortions alone, without waiting for the US:
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The Minister referred to European Trade Commissioner Mandelson and his recent proposal to lower taxation and tariffs on so-called 'environmental goods and services': if a proposal for lower duties on these products and services has become an official position of the EU's trade commissioner, then biofuels must follow. Tolgfors calls for the total abolishment of all forms of trade taxation and protectionist measures for ethanol and biodiesel.

The implementation of such trade reforms must however be accompanied by the creation of mechanisms that measure the sustainability of biofuels. Few developing countries will experience an immediate boost in biofuel production, because they often lack technological and agronomic expertise. This leaves time to help them devise policies that ensure social and environmental sustainability. But for countries that already have a working and sustainable biofuels industry, like Brazil, the abandonment of tariffs and trade barriers would only be fair.

Temporal synergy
In the meantime, as developing countries make the transition from the status of agricultural importer (the result of farm subsidies and trade barriers in the US/EU) to that of biofuel exporter, the European Union's producers will make progress on the development of next-generation biofuels. In Sweden, such fuels are already being produced from cellulose.

In short, it becomes possible to think of a synergy between two developments: the time needed for the developing world to become a large biofuel exporter, will be long enough for the EU to become more competitive via cellulosic ethanol. Over the short term, the EU will have to import biofuels from the South in order to reach its 10% target, but in the longer term, its degree of self-sufficiency will rise because of more efficient next-generation fuels. At the end of this cycle (15 years from now), cellulosic bioconversion technologies can be transferred to the South, to increase the energy and GHG balance of fuels there even further.

The Swedish minister's logic comes close to that of the Biopact, as it was expressed in an opinion piece over at EurActiv.

European Commissioner for Trade, Peter Mandelson, largely agreed with his Swedish collegue, and added that the EU is the best actor when it comes to helping the developing world creating biofuels industries that respect the social wellbeing of the farmers as well as the environment. The EU has the technological and scientific expertise needed to achieve this.

However, Mandelson tried to balance the importance of environmental sustainability against 'resource nationalism', and concluded that sustainability criteria are crucial but should not become barriers to trade aimed at protecting European farmers.

Jonas Van Den Berg & Laurens Rademakers, Biopact, 2007, cc.


Picture: Sweden's Minister for Trade, Sten Tolgfors.

References:
Government Offices Sweden: Sten Tolgfors, Minister for Foreign Trade: Speech International Conference on Biofuels, Brussels 05 July 2007.

(Check against delivery)


EurActiv: 'Towards a bioenergy pact with the global south' - Feb. 15, 2007.

Biopact: Sweden looks to Indonesia for green fuels - June 01, 2007.


In a next piece, we zoom in on the points presented by Brazil's President Lula, by the President of the European Commission, and by the new President of the European Union.

Tomorrow, on day two of the conference, focus will shift to the opportunities and risks of producing biofuels in developing countries (session 1) and on the latest scientific and technological developments in bioenergy, in the EU and abroad (session 2).




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Highlights from the International Conference on Biofuels (Day 1)

The European Commisson's Directorate-General (DG) for External Relations organised its first high-level International Conference on Biofuels, taking place today and tomorrow in Brussels. The event comes at a time when most developed countries are implementing biofuel policies, whereas the potential from the Global South is gradually being recognized.

Biopact was amongst the non-governmental organisations invited to attend. Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, hosted the conference, which on its first day attracted some 200 experts from around the world and political leaders from African, Asian and Latin-American countries as well as civil society organisations from the South. This is part 1 in a series of exclusive articles with highlights from the event.

Opening the conference, Benita Ferrero-Waldner outlined the topics for debate: the fact that biofuels are becoming an internationally traded commodity with a large potential, which requires the creation of new trade rules and sustainability frameworks. Current global patterns of energy consumption are untenable in their current form, as they trigger climate change and threaten the security of energy supplies for most countries. Ferrero-Waldner stressed that the EU will be affected by climate change to a much lesser extent than the developing world. Therefor, a new generation of leaders must ensure that the tension between economic development in the South and climate change is overcome. Sustainable development through biofuels offers a key to such a strategy. (Ferrero-Waldner's full speech can be found here).

Security of energy supplies and climate change
Andris Piebalgs, European Commissioner for Energy, then introduced the first session on 'Biofuels policies in the EU and Other Countries', by sketching the main reasons behind the EU's ambitious biofuels targets (10% by 2020). First of all, Europe is the world's largest importer of energy, and oil dependence on foreign sources currently stands at around 50 per cent. The transport sector is dependent on oil for 98 per cent. Europe produces less and less oil, whereas the trend to declining reserves can be observed globally as well. An ever smaller group of countries supplies an ever growing need. In short, the security of petroleum supplies is increasingly difficult to guarantee and new geostrategic risks arise. This calls for short and medium term alternatives. Currently, biofuels are the only realistic option to subsitute oil on a large scale.

Besides the security of energy supplies, climate change is the major driver of the EU's efforts to promote renewable fuels. The transport sector is currently responsible for one third of the EU's carbon dioxide emissions, and growth in the sector is negating reductions made in other economic sectors (industrial and domestic). Without alternatives to oil, growth in the EU's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be dominated by the transport sector, which will contribute up to 60% of all new emissions.

There are only two options to change this situation: increasing the efficiency of transport and utilizing more biofuels. For Piebalgs, biofuels offer advantages in that they bring rural development, new markets and jobs, as well as opportunities for scientific work and technological development which will result in newer generations of cleaner fuels. But their potential to reduce GHG emissions remains the main reason for their support.

Importantly, Piebalgs stressed that, contrary to previous goals (5.75% by 2010), the EU's new biofuel targets are binding, that is, each member state must reach them. The Commissioner then touched a subject other speakers focused on as well: the EU cannot meet these goals alone, and will rely on imports. This calls for the creation of an international market for biofuels:
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However, the Energy Commissioner left the debate of how to organise such a market to other speakers (amongst them EU Commissioner for Trade, Peter Mandelson), and instead focused on the sustainability of such internationally traded green fuels.

Biofuels are not automatically sustainable. And not all biofuels are born equally. When they are grown on new land for which forests are cleared, they may lose much of their potential to reduce GHGs. However, most biofuels as they are produced today, can be labelled as environmentally sustainable; new expansion of the sector makes the issue more problematic.

Sustainability criteria
For this reason the European Commission is working on a framework for biofuels sustainability criteria, to be presented to the European Parliament which will decide on the matter in September, and later to the European Council.

The framework will be part of the EU's broader package on renewable energy, because biofuels cannot be seen outside of the context of efforts on the front of efficiency, research, and trade. The new legislation's sustainability scheme will in all likeliness contain the following provisions:
  • a minimal set of sustainability criteria must be met by all biofuels in the EU
  • only these biofuels will count for the 10% target the EU member states must reach by 2020
  • and only these fuels are eligible for European support (subsidies, tax incentives, etc...)
  • finally, the minimal criteria apply to imported biofuels as well
However, Piebalgs noted that 'sustainability' as such is a descriptive concept, open to debate. The EU wishes to help define it in the context of biofuels, fully aware of the fact that such criteria cannot constitute new barriers to trade.

Trade and solidarity
Intergovernmental and international efforts are needed to streamline and help the convergence of biofuel standards. Several initiatives on international standardisation are currently underway, which will improve the tradeability of the fuels.

The Energy Commissioner ended his presentation with two important thoughts. First, the EU is fully committed to creating an international market for biofuels - it does not want to rely on domestic production alone because this would require new land (set-aside land) to be taken in production, which is not desirable as it impacts biodiversity. But closing off the market is not desirable for another reason: biofuels offer a unique lever for global solidarity. Countries in the South have competitive advantages (land, sun, climate, crops) but often lack the technological and financial means to create biofuel industries. The EU can help transfer technologies, encourage investors to go South, and learn from countries like Brazil. Moreover, the sector will boost international cooperation in a range of fields - from biotech and agronomy, to bioconversion technologies and cooperation in the field of infrastructures.

Most importantly, in the era of problems like climate change and growing oil scarcity - which are truly global -, biofuels trigger a world-wide sense of responsibility: successful policies and the use of biofuels in one country, positively impact all citizens of the globe. (Piebalg's full speech can be found here).


Session One: Policies in the EU and other countries
The first session of the conference, moderated by Claude Mandil, executive director of the International Energy Agency, saw Xiong Bilin, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission of China, Purnomo Yusgiantoro, Indonesia's Minister for Mineral Resources and Energy, Salvador Namburete, Mozambique's Minister of Energy, C. Boyden Gray, U.S. Ambassador to the EU, and Javier de Urquiza, Argentina's Secretary for Agriculture present their respective countries' current policies, projections about the biofuels potential, and the challenges and opportunities in the sector.

Indonesia
Minister Yusgiantoro outlined Indonesia's biofuels plan, as we have discussed it here before. Interestingly, a new initiative called 'Energy Self-Sufficient Villages' aims to help around 1000 poor and remote villages to 'leapfrog' beyond the oil era. Indonesia counts over 70,000 villages, 45% of which have living standards below the poverty line. One of the key reasons of this situation is the lack of access to modern energy.

Even though petro-based fuels are heavily subsidised in Indonesia, a large number of these villages only have access to extremely expensive gasoline and diesel fuel. Creating local biofuel cottage industries will help them become less dependent on outside supplies. The 'Energy Self-Sufficient Villages' are a pilot group that will have to demonstrate the feasibility of producing modern energy in a decentralised manner. Funding for the program does not only come in the form of cash, but in material aid: seeds, machinery, education. Small and medium enterprises developing from this new market will benefit local economies and make the project self-funding over the medium term.

Indonesia stresses the social dimension of its ambitious biofuels and bioenergy program (5% of all energy by 2020; between 7 and 10% biofuels in transport by 2010). The program is expected to bring 3.5 million new jobs to the rural poor. Some 5.25 million hectares of land will be allocated for crops such as jatropha and palm oil (for biodiesel) and sugarcane and cassava (for bioethanol). A special biofuels trade zone will be established that must become a hub for global trade.

An impressive list of existing and planned biofuel factories in Indonesia was followed by an interesting overview of power plants utilizing solid biomass and liquid biofuels as feedstocks. Around 70MW of bioenergy is currently produced in these large plants, with a much larger potential for the future.

Mozambique
Mozambique's Minister
Salvador Namburete opened his sketch with a strong point: all African countries, no matter whether they are oil importers or producers and exporters, suffer under high oil prices. Liquid fuels are crucial for the economy at large, as they are used in all productive sectors. When prices rise, indeed, all these sectors are affected - especially in African countries whose economies are energy intensive.

Mozambique chooses to utilize its huge biofuel potential for classic reasons: to cut dependence on imported fuels, to grab the opportunity biofuels offer to make use of existing infrastructures, to mitigate climate change and ensure low-carbon development, and to supply neighboring countries as Mozambique has a large potential for green fuels and demand in Southern Africa, with its 250 million inhabitants, is growing rapidly. But most importantly, biofuels offer a unique chance to boost employment opportunities in rural areas and to supplement the Mozambican government's poverty alleviation efforts.

International exports to the EU are obviously one important way to acquire income that can be spend on such important areas as education, health, social policies and poverty alleviation. Current imports of refined oil products cost Mozambique dearly and have decreased funds that can be spent on these services; biofuels can turn this situation around.

Minister Namburete briefly discussed Mozambique's vast biofuel potential: the country only utilizes around 5% of all land available for agriculture, and an additional 41.5 million hectares of degraded land can be used for the production of crops like jatropha. Farmers can for the first time tap these marginal lands to make a profit from them - this was not possible with any other type of crops.

Biofuel projects in Mozambique come under the guise of of private, private-public partnerships, cross-sectoral cooperation and Kyoto Mechanisms (such as the Clean Development Mechanism).

A preliminary biofuels regulation is in place in the country, but a two-phase project - first assessing the bottlenecks and opportunities, then outlining the long-term potential - is underway that will lead to the adoption of a national policy. This is important in order to attract foreign investments. Some challenges have already been identified, such as the need for the creation of monitoring mechanisms that must ensure land allocation rules are strictly adhered to.

Current projects are few in number (7 biodiesel plants and 4 ethanol plants), but, according to Namburete, Mozambique's potential is "enormous". The country will attract investors by showing off its stable political situation, its interesting investment climate, and its agro-ecological advantages. The biofuel campaign aimed at bringing in foreign investors will draw on the slogan that 'Mozambique will become the Brazil of Africa'.

The United States
U.S. Ambassador C. Boyden Gray was brief: the explosive growth in America's biofuels sector has been almost entirely market-driven. Silicon Valley money is in, and this will lead to technology developments that ensure the efficient production of next-generation, cellulosic biofuels. Gray devoted his presentation to 'debunking' some myths about corn-based ethanol: ethanol from corn does have a positive energy balance and helps clean the air. He attributed the U.S.'s far lower health burden from air pollution to the introduction of ethanol.

Speaking about the WTO's Doha trade round, Gray said that prices for global farm commodities will strengthen in such a way that both the EU and the US may find it easier to cut tariffs and other trade barriers, as well as lower farm subsidies. Doha can thus be 'saved' by biofuels.

Argentina
Javier de Urquiza,
Argentina's Secretary for Agriculture, was the first to touch on this issue of trade barriers and tariffs, a theme that would pop up many times during the rest of the conference. The Secretary had a series of objections to the current state of things: ethanol tariffs in the US and the EU, import duties for biodiesel, subsidies European farmers and energy crops, technical rules for biodiesel based on certain crops (such as soybeans)... all these will have to go if the EU and the US are serious about creating a truly global market for biofuels.

De Urquiza therefor stressed the need to create a mechanism for multi-lateral negotiations on both the standardisation of biofuels and on the trade rules for the new market.


Claude Mandil wrapped up the first session by repeating the many social, economic and environmental benefits of biofuels, but he urged everyone to remain realistic. In the medium term, biofuels will not contribute more than 5, 7, maybe 10% of global liquid fuel demand. Second-generation fuels may allow a more significant share. But in all cases, this remains a petroleum-driven world.

Referring to ambassador Gray, Mandil noted that the discourse on 'market-driven' development cannot obscure the fact that both the U.S. and the E.U. lavishly subsidise their farmers, their biofuels sectors and protect their market against foreign competition.

According to Mandil, the key question remains that of sustainability: should there be a global framework with criteria, should such rules be compulsory, or will this be contrary to the committment to encourage free trade?

Finally, the IEA Chief stressed that his organisation's outlook on biofuels is extremely positive when it comes to the many opportunities the green fuels bring, but they remain only one of a much broader range of options to reduce oil consumption or to make its use less of a burden for the environment.

Jonas Van Den Berg & Laurens Rademakers, Biopact, 2007, cc.

Part 2 of this series of articles will appear shortly. It will include the staunchest defense of a sort of 'biopact' - the view that the North must import biofuels from the South - as it was expressed by Sweden's Minister for Trade. Part 3 will highlight the keynote speeches of the three portuguese speaking presidents who attended the conference: President Lula from Brazil, President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, and President of the European Union, José Socrates (PM of Portugal). Check back soon.

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Petrobras and Galp Energia form joint-venture to produce and distribute biofuels

The first EU-Brazil Summit held yesterday in Lisbon, an initiative of Portugal which took over the rotating Presidency of the European Council from Germany, brought President Lula and a host of Brazilian biofuel business representatives to Europe. At the Summit, the EU signed a strategic partnership with one of the world's largest emerging economies, putting Brazil on an equal footing with countries like China, India and Russia.

In the ambit of the Summit, state-owned Petrobras and Portugal's largest energy company Galp Energia signed a term of commitment aimed at the production of 600,000 tons of vegetable oils per year in Brazil and at biodiesel marketing and distribution in the Portuguese and/or European markets. The agreement is the outcome of the Memorandum of Understandings (MOU) the two companies signed last May, in Lisbon (earlier post).

To carry this project out, the companies will create a joint venture - in which both companies will hold 50% (fifty percent) of the joint stock - to produce:
  • 300,000 tons of vegetable oils to produce second generation biodiesel at Galp Energia's refineries (earlier post on Galp's H-Bio)
  • 300,000 tons of vegetable oil to produce biodiesel to be exported to Portugal and/or other European countries
This agreement is in line with the goals set forth by Petrobras' Strategic Plan, as it boosts the company's participation in both the domestic and international biofuel market. Additionally, this association with Galp is promising since the biodiesel expected to be produced in Brazil in 2008 will generate nearly immediate export availability. The Portuguese market, on the other hand, will require the fuel, in 2010, to comply with the regulatory mark that determines the use of 10% biofuels as of that year [entry ends here]
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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

OECD-FAO Outlook: growing biofuel demand underpinning higher agriculture prices

Increased demand for biofuels driven by high oil prices is causing fundamental changes to agricultural markets that could drive up world prices for many farm products, according to the new Agricultural Outlook published by the OECD and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Continued high petroleum prices thus imply the era of cheap food may be over.

The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2007-2016 [*.pdf] says current hikes in farm commodity prices were not caused by biofuels, but by temporary factors such as droughts in wheat-growing regions and low stocks. But when the focus turns to the longer term, structural changes are underway which could well maintain relatively high nominal prices for many agricultural products over the coming decade (graph, click to enlarge).

Reduced crop surpluses and a decline in export subsidies are also contributing to these long-term changes in markets. But more important is the growing use of cereals, sugar, oilseed and vegetable oils to produce the fossil fuel substitutes, ethanol and biodiesel. This is underpinning crop prices and, indirectly through higher animal feed costs, also the prices for livestock products.

In the United States, annual maize-based ethanol output is expected to double between 2006 and 2016. In the European Union the amount of oilseeds (mainly rapeseed) used for bio-fuels is set to grow from just over 10 million tonnes to 21 million tonnes over the same period. In Brazil, annual ethanol production is projected to reach some 44 billion litres by 2016 from around 21 billion today. Chinese ethanol output is expected to rise to an annual 3.8 billion litres, a 2 billion-litre increase from current levels.

Other findings and projections include:
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The expectation that world market prices have attained a higher plateau may facilitate further policy reform away from price support. This would reduce the need for border protection and would provide flexibility for tariff reductions.

Given that in most temperate zone countries ethanol and biodiesel production are not
economically viable without government support, a different combination of production technologies, biofuel policies and crude oil prices than is assumed in the Outlook could to lead to lower prices than are projected.

The report points out that higher commodity prices are a particular concern for net food importing countries as well as the urban poor. And while higher feedstock prices caused by increased biofuel production benefits feedstock producers, it means extra costs and lower incomes for farmers who need the feedstock to provide animal feed.

Changing trade patterns
The Outlook also says trade patterns are changing. Production and consumption of agricultural products in general will grow faster in the developing countries than in the developed economies - especially for beef, pork, butter, skimmed milk powder and sugar. OECD countries are expected to lose export shares for nearly all the main farm commodities. Nevertheless, they continue to dominate exports for wheat, coarse grains and dairy products.

World agricultural trade, measured by global imports, is expected to grow for all the main commodities covered in the Outlook, but less rapidly than for non-agricultural trade as import protection is assumed to continue to limit expansion. Nevertheless, trade in beef, pork and whole milk powder is expected grow by more than 50% over the next 10 years, coarse grains trade by 13% and wheat by 17%. Trade in vegetable oils is projected to increase by nearly 70%.

The growing presence on export markets of Argentina and Brazil is staggering. While Brazil’s growth is mostly concentrated in sugar, oilseeds and meats, Argentina’s export performance also covers cereals and many dairy products. Other growing exporters in the developing and transition economies include Russia and the Ukraine for coarse grains, Vietnam and Thailand for rice, Indonesia and Thailand for vegetable oils, and Thailand, Malaysia, India and China for poultry.

Import growth is much more widely spread across countries. However, China’s dominance of oilseeds and oilseed products trade is striking. By 2016, China will have become the world’s largest importer of oilseed meals and it will have further consolidated its leading position in imports of oils and oilseeds. For the latter product, its share in global imports will have risen to almost 50%.

References:
Biopact: Growing biofuel demand underpinning higher agriculture prices, says joint OECD-FAO report - July 04, 2007.

OECD, FAO: Agricultural Outlook 2007-2016 - July 2007.

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China announces 'Agricultural Biofuel Industry Plan': new crops, higher targets

China's Ministry of Agriculture has announced its 'Agricultural Biofuel Industry Plan' which forms the basis for the development of a number of new crop bases to provide sufficient biomass resources to meet the country's growing demand for biofuels. The plan implements the shift away from food grains to non-food crops, as it was announced earlier.

The People's Republic's biofuel targets have now been raised: instead of 12 million tons of ethanol by 2020, the new goal is to produce 6 million tons by 2010 and 15 million tons by 2020. For biodiesel, a target of 5 million tons has been set (more on the previous targets). Under the new vision, bioenergy will make up almost 25% of the nation's energy consumption.

According to the Agricultural Biofuel Industry Plan, released yesterday, the new crop bases will consist of sugarcane, sweet sorghum, cassava and rapeseed for use in the production of both ethanol and biodiesel. The plan rules out the expansion of grain-based ethanol production, in particular corn and potato-based fuels, to avoid any detrimental impact on the food sector. For biodiesel, the shift to non-food crops is easier to implement.

According to the ambitious plan:
The total production of biomass energy from non-grain crops will grow to 500 million tons of coal equivalent, worth some 3 trillion yuan [€290/$385 billion], which will account for 24 percent of the nation's total energy consumption.
Of all the non-grain ethanol resources, sweet sorghum is the favorite among agricultural experts due to its low cost, low needs for inputs and the fact it can be grown on non-arable land. Under the plan, a total of 3.8 million tons of ethanol will be produced annually from the stalks of the sweet sorghum. The plan proposes to integrate sweet-sorghum-based ethanol products into the current oil sales system, a privilege so far reserved for grain-based ethanol products:
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Nine provinces - Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, Jiangsu, Shandong, Henan, Anhui, Hubei and Hebei - currently have gas stations that offer fuel mixed with 10 percent ethanol. The number of provinces is expected to grow this year as ethanol output is increased.

The country's four existing State-approved ethanol plants, which produce some 1.2 million tons per year, are located in the corn and maize production centers of Heilongjiang, Jilin, Anhui and Henan. Like the many unlicensed producers, the plants mostly use corn.

However, the rapid expansion of corn-based production has had a serious impact on corn prices and last year spurred fears of possible food shortages.

"The new investment is likely to be in plants that produce ethanol without competing with grain supplies or taking up arable land," Zhou Dadi, former director of the energy research institute of the National Development and Reform Commission, said.

Four non-grain-based ethanol plants are currently under construction in the autonomous regions of Inner Mogolia and Guangxi Zhuang and the provinces of Hebei and Shandong, which boast ample supplies of cassava and other biomaterials. It is hoped they can help strike a better balance between ethanol demand and food supply.

With the growth in the production of non-grain based ethanol, the proportion of corn used in the process will fall from the present 90 percent to 70 percent after 2009, Cao Zhi, a market analysis on ethanol production, said.

However, some experts say the country lacks sufficient support policies to ensure the development of non-grain ethanol production.

Non-grain-based biofuels are currently not allowed to enter the market and their producers do not enjoy the same government subsidies as grain-based product manufacturers, Cao said.

References:
China Daily: Crop bases to feed biofuel production - July 4, 2007.

Biopact: Researchers look at key drivers of China's bioenergy strategy - April 10, 2007

Biopact: An in-depth look at China's ambitious biofuels program - August 12, 2006

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Scandinavian groups to build region's largest rapeseed crushing plant

Scandinavian groups AarhusKarlshamn (AAK) and Lantmännen Energi have signed an agreement to invest in a new rapeseed oil crushing plant, in a move designed to meet the growing demands of the food and biofuels industries.

According to fat and oil manufacturer AAK, the new facility will be the largest in any of the Nordic countries. The new plant will have a capacity sufficient to crush and refine all Swedish rapeseed. The joint venture is expected to satisfy the increased demand for rapeseed based products for both foodstuffs and biofuels.

The 400 million Swedish Kronor (€44/US$59 million) investment will significantly increase AAK's current rapeseed capacity. The new plant will be placed within AAK's plant in Karlsham (picture), where Lantmännen's biodiesel production is also placed.

The jointly owned crushing plant is scheduled to come on line in the second half of 2009 and is expected to generate profits from the end of 2009.

Biofuels have become an increasingly hot topic in the food and drink industry over the past few years. In 2003 the EU introduced a directive calling on member states to increase the share of biofuels in the energy used for transport to two per cent by 2005 and to 5.75 per cent by 2010. A new energy strategy, announced on 10 January 2007, establishes that biofuels should make up at least 10 per cent of the energy used for transport in each country.

And as the food and drink industry increasingly competes with the biofuel sector for the same raw materials, food and drink operators are facing increased prices in a number of sectors:
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Earlier this year, the EU's food and drink industry called on the bloc's governments to take action on halting price rises for their supplies, as more crops are diverted for biofuel production.

The Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA) said it was concerned about the impact of the EU's 10 per cent legally binding target will have on the supply of agricultural raw materials in terms of both availability and price.

AAK and Lantmännen said the addition of their new facility will go some way to responding to a surge in demand for rapeseed oil resulting from the increased use of vegetable oils in the energy sector.

AAK, which was unavailable for immediate comment, said in a statement issued today that the plant will use the most modern technology available to industry today, making it one of the most efficient plants in the world.

"We are striving for a growing proportion of high value added products, and a jointly-owned company for the crushing of rapeseed oil is an important step in the right direction," said Jerker Hartwall, AAK's President and CEO.

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Brazilian government frees sugarcane debt 'slaves'

Despite attempts by the Brazilian government to 'humanise' the sugarcane industry, the exploitation of workers continues. The Mobile Verification Task Force, a body created to screen working conditions in agriculture, has discovered a sugarcane plantation near Ulianopolis where more than 1,000 labourers were forced to work in inhumane conditions. This reopens the debate about the social sustainability of biofuels (earlier post, here and here).

Human rights and labour organisations believe that of the 700,000 sugarcane workers, between 25,000 to 40,000 people could be working in conditions akin to debt slavery.

The plantation where the abuse was discovered was located about 250 km (155 miles) from the mouth of the Amazon river near the town of Ulianopolis. The company which runs the plantation denies the charges against it and said that the workers were paid good wages by Brazilian standards.

Labour ministry officials and prosecutors who found the more than 1,100 workers, said they were working 13 hours a day and living in conditions described as 'appalling'. Officials said that the labourers lived in overcrowded conditions with no proper sanitation facilities. There were no provisions for them to store food either.

Many workers in Brazil are thought to fall into debt slavery by paying for transportation to work far from where they live and by buying overpriced tools and food. Farmers in the Amazon region who incur debts are forced to work virtually for free in order to repay the money they owe:
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The government's anti-slavery team, the Mobile Verification Task Force, which conducted the raid on the plantation, was founded in 1995 by the Labour Ministry and claims to have freed more than 21,000 workers from debt slave conditions at more than 1,600 farms across Brazil. The latest is the largest such raid in Brazil, a country beset by the problem of slave labour.

Recently, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva pledged to bring industry leaders and workers together to "to discuss the humanisation of the sugar cane sector in this country".

He was acting after being criticised for calling Brazil's ethanol producers "national and world heroes", despite critics accusing producers of exploiting workers in the sugar cane and ethanol industry. The Roman Catholic Church estimates there are some 25,000 workers living in slave-like conditions throughout Brazil, most of them in the Amazon.

Ethanol sells in Brazil at half the price for conventional petrol. The vast bulk of the sugarcane from which the fuel is made, is grown in the south-central state of São Paulo.

But even if all forms of 'slavery' were to be rooted out in the sector, the tragedy is far from over. The growing trend towards the mechanisation of the sugarcane harvesting process threatens to push the seasonal labourers who enjoy better working conditions into poverty for good. This situation of workers being caught between backbreaking work and unemployment, can only be solved when profits from the sugarcane industry are distributed more fairly.

In 2004, the Brazilian government launched the ProBiodiesel program, with the explicit aim of producing the biofuel in conditions that benefit small farmers. For biodiesel, a special policy called 'Social Fuel' was created, which guarantees ownership by small farmers (earlier post). But for the sugarcane and ethanol industry there is no such framework.

References:
BBC: 'Slave' labourers freed in Brazil - July 3.


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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Nanosphere catalyst could improve biodiesel production

Victor Lin, an Iowa State University professor of chemistry and a program director for the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory has developed a catalyst based on nanospheres that could revolutionize the way biodiesel is produced. The particles and the precise chemistry filling the channels that run through them could make production cheaper, faster and less toxic.

The new catalyst could also produce a cleaner fuel and a cleaner glycerol co-product. And it could be used in existing biodiesel plants. The technology allows efficient conversion of vegetable oils or animal fats into fuel by loading the nanospheres with acidic catalysts to react with the free fatty acids and basic catalysts to react with the oils. The nanoparticles are recyclable.
This technology could change how biodiesel is produced [...] and could make production more economical and more environmentally friendly. - Victor Lin, Iowa State University professor of chemistry
Lin is working with Mohr Davidow Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm based in Menlo Park, California, the Iowa State University Research Foundation and three members of his research team to establish a startup company to produce, develop and market the biodiesel technology he invented at Iowa State.

The company, Catilin Inc., is just getting started in Ames. Catilin employees are now working out of two labs and a small office in the Roy J. Carver Co-Laboratory on the Iowa State campus. The company will also build a biodiesel pilot plant at the Iowa Energy Center's Biomass Energy Conversion Facility in Nevada. Lin said the company's goal over the next 18 months is to produce enough of the nanosphere catalysts to increase biodiesel production from a lab scale to a pilot-plant scale of 300 gallons per day.

Lin will work with three company researchers and co-founders to develop and demonstrate the biodiesel technology and production process. They are Project Manager Jennifer Nieweg, who will earn a doctorate in chemistry from Iowa State this summer; Research Scientist Yang Cai, who earned a doctorate in chemistry from Iowa State in 2004 and worked on campus as a post-doctoral research associate; and Research Scientist Carla Wilkinson, a former Iowa State post-doctoral research associate and a former faculty member at Centro Universitario UNIVATES in Brazil:
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Larry Lenhart, the president and chief executive officer of Catilin, said the company is now up and running. It has a research history. It has employees. It has facilities. It has money in the bank. And he said the company has proven technology to work with. The nanosphere-based catalyst reacts vegetable oils and animal fats with methanol to produce biodiesel. All that makes biodiesel production "dramatically better, cheaper, faster," Lenhart said.

The technology replaces sodium methoxide - a toxic, corrosive and flammable catalyst - in biodiesel production. And that eliminates several production steps including acid neutralization, water washes and separations. All those steps dissolve the toxic catalyst so it can't be used again.

Catilin's nanospheres are solid and that makes them easier to handle, Lenhart said. They can also be recovered from the chemical mixture and recycled. And they can be used in existing biodiesel plants without major equipment changes.

Lin said the catalyst has been under development for the past four years. The company will market the third generation of the catalyst -- a version that's much cheaper to produce than earlier, more uniform versions.

The technology was developed with the support of grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Basic Energy Sciences and the state's Grow Iowa Values Fund. Patents for the technology are pending. Catilin has signed licensing agreements with Iowa State's research foundation that allows the company to commercialize Lin's catalyst technologies.

As the company grows and demonstrates its technology, Lin said company leaders will have to decide whether the company will become a catalyst company, will work with partners to develop biodiesel plants or will produce its own biodiesel.

Even though he expects plenty of worldwide business for the new company, Lin said he'll continue to work as an Iowa State professor. "I'm not going to quit my day job," he said. "And I'll continue to do research in the catalysis and biorenewables area."

Nanotechnology is playing an ever greater role in bioenergy technologies. Researchers from China recently used carbon nanotubes loaded with rhodium (Rh) nanoparticles as reactors to convert a gas mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen into ethanol (more here).

Other applications include the development of gas storage media that can store many times more natural gas/biogas/biohydrogen than traditional gas tanks (earlier post and here), the creation of nano-enhanced biofuels and plant based oil (an example) and improved ways of utilizing biofuel waste streams (previous post).

In combination with biotechnology, nanotech promises to deliver major efficiency increases in agriculture (an overview).


Picture
: an example of selenium nanospheres formed by bacteria. Note, these are not the same nanospheres as the ones developed by professor Lin. Credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

References:
Iowa State University: Iowa State chemist hopes startup company can revolutionize biodiesel production - July 2, 2007.


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Revolution in the kitchen: 5000 Indian rural households receive smokeless biomass pellet stove

Over 5,000 rural households in the Madurai and Virudhunagar districts of Tamil Nadu state in India now have smokeless kitchens and a way to cut their household fuel bill by up to 50%. No longer do housewives and children have to put up with the smoke pollution coming from burning wood on open fires or kerosene in inefficient stoves - a true killer in the kitchen which, according to the WHO, costs up to 2 million lives annually in the developing world (earlier post). Nor do they have to bear the expensive LPG cylinder bills which drain household budgets.

This revolution in the kitchen is the result of the introduction of the smokeless 'Oorja' biomass stoves promoted by BP Energy India Limited. Developed in conjunction with the Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore, the stoves run on pellets made from local agricultural waste. The success of a pilot study of the stove in Tamil Nadu and Maharastra, which began in 2006, has encouraged the promoters to expand their operation to Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. According to a BP spokesperson, the stove has already reached 25,000 customers in the country. A small segment of the 2 billion people in the developing world who still rely on extremely inefficient and unhealthy cooking methods.

Many initiatives and attempts are underway to develop cooking stoves that reduce energy consumption. Traditional cooking methods such as burning wood and dung on open fires, can waste up to 90% of the energy contained in the fuel. This incredible inefficiency is a key driver of deforestation and, recent research shows, a serious culprit of climate change (earlier post). A good stove can help solve these problems, but it is not easy to design an appropriate device. Minimal requirements are:
  • a reduction of smoke pollution and particulate emissions
  • a radical increase energy efficiency
  • affordability and easy to use by rural households (this is a tall order, given that millions of households live on less than 2 dollars per day)
  • blend in with local cultural views on cooking, cuisine and using energy (high-tech devices will often not succeed; the famous example is that of stoves that can't be used to make flat types of bread)
  • be fuelled by locally available resources
Some designs rely on the use of liquid biofuels, others on biogas, solid biomass or bio-based gel fuels, but most are too expensive or may be too high-tech (such as the biomass powered thermoaccoustic device or the biogas powered stirling generator being developed).

The 'Oorja' stove however is one of the few designs that meets all the necessary requirements. Importantly, the device only costs around 675 rupiah (€12.2/US$16.6). The stove has a chamber for burning pellets and a mini-fan, powered by rechargeable batteries and controlled by a regulator, which blows air to fan the flames. The technology increases combustion efficiency, reduces fuel costs for the household by up to 50 percent and provides users with the option of using cleaner fuel.

The stove has helped C. Kasturi, of Perungudi in Madurai district, cut fuel cost by 50 percent. "For our family of six, we require 20 litres of kerosene every month. We get only 10 litres from the ration shop [for 90 rupiah]. We had to shell out more money for buying another 10 litres in the open market. [Now it costs around 30 rupiah a litre]." However, by using the stove, the family consumes only six bags of pellets (a 5-kg bag costs 20 rupiah) and three litres of kerosene. This combination of fuel costs her only 147 rupiah a month, whereas she was spending 390 rupiah a month earlier:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"However, making 'dosas' and 'chappatis' is a problem, as the stove generates excessive heat. Besides, once it is lit, it cannot be stopped unlike LPG or kerosene stoves. Refuelling cannot be done midway," Ms. Kasturi says. The entire ash has to be replaced, and the stove has to be lit afresh. Though this can be done in a few minutes, Ms. Kasturi has learnt to finish cooking within the 75 minutes (the maximum burning time using 450 grams of pellets) by keeping vegetables and utensils ready before lighting the stove.

N. Muneeswari, one of the women of Aviyur in Virudhunagar district, has tested the stove too and says: "Cooking is faster with this stove. It leaves no smoke, so the utensils are very clean." For a joint family of five couples and children, the stove is used for making "sambar," "koottu" and "poriyal." The group still prefer the traditional open stoves to cook rice in large quantity. She has almost abandoned LPG stove ever since she started using this one in August last year.

BP Energy India is focussing on rural areas where people have limited, or no, access to clean and safer energy owing to economic reasons or poor service.

Picture: Smokeless 'Oorja' biomass stove that runs on burning pellets made up of agricultural waste being used in a house at Aviyur in Virudhunagar district. Credit: The Hindu.

References:
The Hindu: A stove and a smokeless kitchen - July 2, 2007.

Biopact: "Researchers develop biomass powered "refrigerator-stove-generator" for developing world", May 12, 2007

Biopact: Bosch and Siemens introduce biofuel cooking stove for developing world - May 20, 2007

Biopact: Biogas powered stirling generator for the developing world - June 29, 2007

Biopact: Ethanol gel fuel for cooking stoves revolutionizing African households - August 11, 2006

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Mozambique-India partnership: biofuels for poverty alleviation

Speaking at the opening of 'Conclave on India/Africa Project Partnership 2007' in Maputo, Mozambique's Minister of Energy, Salvador Namburete, said Mozambique has become "one of the major African destinations for investment from various parts of the planet."

The country is indeed one of Africa's success stories. After a cruel civil war that lasted nearly two decades (1975-1992), the country organised general elections, took a careful approach to the 'structural adjustment' programs introduced by international institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, and, ensuring political and economic stability, steadily attracted foreign investments. The country's GNI has doubled in the past 5 years, and GDP growth was 7.7% last year (World Bank data).

Investments not only include mega-projects such as the MOZAL aluminium smelter on the outskirts of Maputo, and the Brazilian investment in coal mining in the western province of Tete, but also a 'concerted effort by the government to promote the country's enormous business potential' to 'non-traditional' investors in Asia, including India. Namburete says the government hopes to see further investment in such areas as agriculture, food processing, mining and energy.

Biofuels and poverty alleviation
India is seen as a prime partner in the sector of renewable energy because of its growing expertise.
We would like to see Indian involvement in the field of renewable sources of energy. India has a very advanced experience in this area, in solar energy and in biofuels. Its technology is good, simple and easy to use, and that's what we need to fight against poverty.- Salvador Namburete, Mozambique's Minister of Energy
Namburete will also be present at the EU's high-level meeting on international biofuels trade to be held this Thursday in Brussels, where Mozambique's biofuel potential has been recognized. Biopact was invited to attend this two-day conference and we will be reporting on it from Friday onwards.

Namburete insisted that the Mozambican government remains committed to the promotion of biofuels "with the aim of responding to the national poverty alleviation agenda, as well as providing a response to high, unpredictable and volatile oil prices on the world markets". High oil prices are disastrous for developing countries, with some now spending twice as much on importing petroleum than on health. Among the benefits of biofuels the minister mentioned the fact that "they are labour intensive, and can create agricultural and agro-industrial employment, self-employment and income".

Producing biofuels does not threaten food security in Mozambique, given its vast unused land base. Estimates (map, click to enlarge) by researchers working for the International Energy Agency put the country's explicitly sustainable biofuel potential at around 6.7 to 7 Exajoules per year, with moderate introduction of agricultural technology and using strict sustainability criteria. 6.7EJ is the equivalent of around 3 million barrels of oil per day (earlier post). Namburete pointed out that Mozambique has 36 million hectares of arable land of which only nine per cent is currently in use:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Furthermore, a crop like Jatropha curcas, can be grown "on an additional 41.2 million hectares of marginal land, giving people in rural areas the opportunity to generate an income out of land that did not produce anything at all".

Namburete pointed out that it was not enough that Mozambique had natural resources - the government had to take a pro-active role in attracting investment, though a consistent and coherent programme of reforms to ensure macro-economic stability and efficient management in selected priority areas, such as fiscal management, public sector and financial reforms, improving the investment climate and the ongoing reform of the judicial system.

The minister stressed that the government is taking further steps to reduce the cost of doing business in Mozambique through decentralisation, streamlining of licensing procedures, addressing the rigidities in the labour market, and improving basic infrastructure, such as energy, roads and telecommunications.

For his part, the Indian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anand Sharma, said that agriculture was vital for India's cooperation with Mozambique and other members of SADC (Southern African Development Communitry). "We want to cooperate with these countries and help Africa advance and improve its investment climate", he said.

Besides investors from India, several initiatives from Europe, Brazil and China have been launched in the country's biofuels sector (earlier post). Amongst them is a typical South-North-South exchange which sees Italy and Brazil cooperating on biofuels in Mozambique.

References:
Agência de Informação de Moçambique (via AllAfrica): Mozambique: India Now Among Top Ten Investors - July 2, 2007.

Batidzirai, B., A.P.C. Faaij, E.M.W. Smeets (2006), "Biomass and
bioenergy supply from Mozambique"
[*abstract / *.pdf], Energy for Sustainable Development, X(1),
Pp. 54-81

Faaij, A.P.C., "Emerging international biomass markets and the potential implications for rural development" [*.pdf], Development and Climate Project Workshop: Rural development, the roles of food, water and biomass; opportunities and challenges; Dakar, Senegal, 14-16 November 2005.

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Portugal to invite Brazil as EU partner, Lula to be present at high-level biofuels meeting

The European Union has a rotating Presidency that changes every six months. Portugal is taking over from Germany and has announced that it will invite Brazil into a select club of EU strategic partner countries. The main reasons: the fact that the Latin American giant is the major biofuel producer and that it plays a crucial role in mitigating climate change. Another focus of Portugal's Presidency is aimed at boosting EU cooperation in Africa, particularly in the field of energy.

Portugal and Brazil have been cooperating intensively on producing biofuels in the South, not only in Brazil itself, but in Africa as well. This 'lusophone connection' brings both countries to former colonies, like Angola and Mozambique. Last week, a delegation of Brazilian government officials and business people met in Lisbon to discuss cooperation in biofuel production.

The invitation into the status of European Strategic partner will be announced tomorrow at Portugal's first summit as EU president. This EU-Brazil summit is set to allow the former Portuguese colony to join the ranks of countries such as the United States, Russia and China by 2008 as a partner of the 27-nation bloc.

The meeting of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and other leaders signals a higher profile for Latin America in EU foreign policy as it shifts its focus from eastern Europe.

The partnership is meant to improve cooperation between the EU and Brazil in areas like trade, renewable energy and the fight against poverty.
Brazil has an important role in the production of biofuels and we will also look at ways to cooperate in that area. - Clara Borja, spokeswoman for Portugal's EU presidency.
Brussels sees Brazil - one of the world's biggest emerging economies which is home to most of the Amazon's rainforest and the major biofuels producer - as a key player in the fight against global warming, one of the EU's priorities. EU leaders agreed in March to a target for biofuels to represent at least 10 percent of vehicle fuels by 2020 (earlier post).

Afyer the summit in Lisbon, Lula is due to visit Brussels on Thursday for a two-day conference on biofuels trade, part of his country's push to foster consumption and production of fuel made from crops rather than fossil fuels. Biopact was invited to attend this conference and we will be reporting on it:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The summit will also address bilateral trade and investment issues to complement the EU's talks for a trade deal with the Mercosur group of South American countries including Brazil.

These talks are on hold pending an outcome of struggling global trade talks at the World Trade Organisation, in which Brazil has locked horns with the EU and the United States.

Brazil is the EU's main trading partner in Latin America.

Trade with Brazil totalled around 39 billion euros ($53 billion) in 2005, the EU importing 23 billion euros, mostly agricultural products, and exporting 16 billion, according to the European Commission.

That is why Brazil's Lula has sounded an uncompromising note over the negotiations, saying rich nations must open up their markets to agricultural imports before demanding trade concessions from developing countries.

"We made a point of saying the days of subservience are over. We want to be treated as equals," the former union leader told workers at an auto industry event in Sao Paulo on Monday.

The Portuguese Presidency is further going to organise an EU-Africa Summit which will focus on the issues of migration, but also energy.

References:
EU Commision, External Relations: The EU's relations with Brazil.

Euractiv: The Portuguese Presidency: In Brief - July 2, 2007.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Physicists find way to increase ultracapacitor energy density seven times

The growing interest in electric vehicles is a boon to bioenergy, because the electricity used by such vehicles must be derived from a primary energy source (previous post). If this source is based on fossil fuels, electric vehicles are obviously not green and could increase greenhouse gas emissions. Renewables such as solar, wind and biomass offer an alternative. Of these, biomass has several advantages: it is cost-competitive, can be used in existing power plants (co-firing with coal, feeding biogas to natural gas plants), and can be stored and used whenever it is needed. Moreover, biomass can be traded physically and globally (earlier post). Most importantly, biomass is the only resource that can be used in carbon-negative energy systems.

For electric vehicles to be mass-produced and penetrate the market, advances are needed in energy storage technologies. Besides batteries and fuel cells, ultra-capacitators stand a good chance of finding an important application in the sector: high performance capacitors would enable hybrid and electric cars with much greater acceleration and better regeneration of electricity when using brakes.

North Carolina State University physicists have now deduced a way to improve high-energy-density capacitors so that they can store up to seven times as much energy per unit volume than the common capacitor:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

A capacitor is an energy storage device. Electrical energy is stored by a difference in charge between two metal surfaces. Unlike a battery, capacitors are designed to release their energy very quickly (graph, click to enlarge). They are used in electric power systems, hybrid cars, spacecraft and all kinds of electronics.

The amount of energy that a capacitor can store depends on the insulating material in between the metal surfaces, called a dielectric. A polymer called PVDF has interested physicists as a possible high-performance dielectric. It exists in two forms, polarized or unpolarized. In either case, its structure is mostly frozen-in and changes only slightly when a capacitor is charged up. Mixing a second polymer called CTFE with PVDF results in a material with regions that can change their structure, enabling it to store and release unprecedented amounts of energy.

The team, led by Vivek Ranjan, concluded that a more ordered arrangement of the material inside the capacitor could further increase the energy storage of new high-performance capacitors, which already store energy four times more densely than capacitors used in industry. Their predictions of higher energy density capacitors are encouraging, but have yet to be experimentally tested.

References
Vivek Ranjan, L. Yu, M. Nardelli and J. Bernholc, "High-performance energy storage", Physical Review Letters (forthcoming).

Eurekalert: The first heat transistor, remote controlled nanomachines, and more from APS Physics - July 2, 2007.

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New biodiversity data access portal launched

Biofuel production and biodiversity are not necessarily two opposite ends of a spectrum. In fact, the large-scale use of sustainably produced carbon-negative biofuels may come at a cost in biodiversity that is far smaller than the cost of not using biofuels. After all, unmitigated climate change is set to have a major impact on global biodiversity and could bring countless species to the brink of extinction (earlier post and here).

Moreover, environmental damage in some of the biodiversity hotspots in the developing world is partly driven by material poverty which forces small farmers to slash and burn their way through forests for subsistence. The era of the bioeconomy provides opportunities to introduce far more advanced farming practises, opens an entirely new market that may yield unprecedented chances for farmers to increase their incomes, making them ultimately less dependent on destructive agricultural techniques. Sustainable farming in the South can only be achieved when farmers have the financial means to invest in inputs. Biofuels may be the market on which to obtain these means (earlier post).

But for this strategy to succeed against a far more destructive 'monoculturalist' logic, a whole series of policy instruments and decision making tools must be designed and made accessible to as large a number of stakeholders so that appropriate bioenergy strategies can be developed - from earth observation tools to 'biofuels atlases', policy databases and biodiversity records.

The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) is exactly contributing to fulfilling this need. It launched a new internet tool today at an international meeting for scientific and technical advice to the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at the UNESCO building in Paris.

The database produces zoomable maps showing the distribution of biodiversity records. In this example the map includes data shared for all species included in the genus Sorghum (218 species) (click to enlarge).

The new GBIF Data Portal is an Internet gateway to more than 130 million data records provided by 200+ institutions scattered over 30+ countries around the world. All of these data (with more to come) can be accessed all at once on the GBIF Data Portal.
This new Portal is one of the key tools GBIF has been working toward since its inception in 2001. It will be extremely useful in improving decisions in support of sustainable development. - Dr. Nick King, currently CEO of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, and soon to become Executive Secretary of GBIF.
Using GBIF's new search engine, you can find where on the globe a species can be found, or get a list of species in your country or your back yard. The data retrieved are instantly mapped by the Portal. The data can also, if the user chooses, be easily plotted on Google Earth:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The Data Portal is a sophisticated tool for users to incorporate biodiversity data into their own websites, or download datasets for ecological studies.

When combined with environmental datasets (soil type, climate, elevation and the like), GBIF data can be used in predicting species' response to climate change, choosing the best places to put protected areas, and so on.

GBIF is an international organisation founded to make the world's biodiversity data freely and openly available worldwide. Membership now stands at 40 countries and 33 international organisations. Current non-members are welcome and invited to join.

The GBIF Data Portal is capable of handling hundreds of millions of data records. With the launch of the Portal, the GBIF network of data providers is set to grow dramatically, from hundreds to thousands of institutions.

GBIF makes the Portal and its extensive capabilities and services, as well as software for data providers, freely available. Civil society, countries and organisations are invited to utilise GBIF's new Data Portal.

References:
PowerPoint introductions to the new Portal used at the launch event are available in English, French and Spanish.



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Scientists develop polyurethane plastics from rapeseed oil

An intensive world-wide effort to develop technology for manufacturing plastics from vegetable oil, rather than petroleum, has led researchers in Canada to a process for making polyurethane (PUR) plastic sheets from canola (rapeseed) oil.

Given the wide-spread use of PUR plastics in our daily lives, this can be seen as an important development. The breakthrough adds to a growing series of plant-based alternatives to petroleum based plastics. Last week, researchers from Brazil announced they successfully produced polyethylene (PE) from sugar cane (earlier post). With the new PUR plastic, we now have a bio-based alternative for most of the commonly used plastics.

In their study scheduled for publication in the July 9 issue of Biomacromolecules, Suresh S. Narine and Xiaohua Kong report on the properties of their vegetable-based PUR sheets. An open access ASAP version of the article is already online.

Polyurethanes are one of the most interesting classes of copolymers, which can vary from rubbery materials to glassy thermoplastics and from linear polymers to thermosetting plastics. The versatile PURs are widely used in liquid coatings and paints, adhesives, flexible foam in upholstered furniture, building insulation, shoes, and automotive interiors.

The process
The PUR sheets were produced with an improved version of a process in which canola oil is treated with ozone to make the chemical raw materials for PUR. This ozonolysis technology has been industrially established and has been used earlier to produce azelaic acid and pelargonic acid from commercial-grade oleic acid. Generally, the process of producing acids is carried out in carboxylic acid. To produce alcohols using this technology, the conversion of the ozonide to acids during ozonolysis should first be prevented. The researchers achieved this by using a nonacid solvent. The products of such ozonolysis (the ozonide) have been further reduced to aldehyde using a reductive agent and subsequently hydrogenated to produce the alcohols.

The scientists then used this ozonolysis- and hydrogenation based technology to produce polyols with terminal hydroxyl groups from vegetable oils and used them successfully to produce PUR elastomers and foams which had better thermomechanical and mechanical properties than the corresponding PUR made from commercially available biobased polyols. This first generation of polyols was not suitable to produce PUR plastics due to their relatively high acidity content:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The researchers have now improved the technology, optimized the process and produced a new generation of polyols from canola oil with lower acidity and hydroxyl number close to what is theoretically achievable. The polyols were suitable for the production of a wider range of PUR materials including PUR plastics.

In their article, the scientists describe the process as low-cost without the need for complicated technology, and said that it produces PUR sheets with "excellent" mechanical properties.

"It is reasonable to believe that the vegetable-based PUR could be a potential candidate to replace or practically replace petroleum-based PUR, in sensitive and high end applications such as in the biomedical area," the report says.

In 2006 world consumption of polyurethanes stood at 8.9 million tonnes.

The number of bio-based platform chemicals is growing steadily. We now have replacements for virtually all basic compounds used most commonly in the petrochemical industry as far as plastics are concerned.

Green alternatives now exist for some major types of plastic: for low and high density polyethylene (LDPE/HDPE) and polypropylene (PP), polyethylene teraphthalate (PET), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In fact, in several cases, the bio-based alternatives outperform their petroleum rivals on many properties (for an example, see Rilsan, a very robust castor bean oil based polyamide).

References:
Xiaohua Kong and Suresh S. Narine, "Physical Properties of Polyurethane Plastic Sheets Produced from Polyols from Canola Oil", Biomacromolecules, ASAP Article 10.1021/bm070016i S1525-7797(07)00016-5 June 6, 2007.



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'Plants for the Future' technology platform presents plan for European bioeconomy

The EU-backed ‘Plants for the Future’ Technology Platform officially released its full and final Strategic Research Agenda [*.pdf] in the European Parliament in Brussels last week. The document backed by scientists, farmers, industry and other public and private stakeholders signposts a route for Europe to use plant sciences and biotechnology to enhance EU competitiveness and welfare. The document outlines a radical transition towards the knowledge-based bioeconomy.

Plants for the Future is a stakeholder forum on plant genomics and biotechnology that was initiated by the European Commission in 2003. It is coordinated by the European Plant Science Organisation (ESPO), is an independent body that represents more than 50 leading Research Institutions from 23 European countries, and by the European Association of Bioindustries (EuropaBio). The organisation has members from industry, academia and the agricultural sector. It provides a short-, medium- and long-term vision for Europe’s plant agricultural sector and sets out a consensus on the research needed to fulfill the vision for the creation of a bioeconomy.
Our forefathers used the potential of plants far more than we are using it today. Today we are using plants nearly only for food, feed and construction. In the future we aim to use plants for energy and as a source of chemicals. The development of the knowledge-based bioeconomy – involving a global industry based on renewable plant resources as an alternative to the current fossil fuel-based industry – constitutes by far the most challenging and promising opportunity in terms of economic, environmental and societal potential. - Dr Markwart Kunz, Plants for the Future.
The strategic research agenda identifies five challenges for Europe’s society to which the plant sector can contribute:
  1. Healthy, safe and sufficient food and feed
  2. Plant-based products – green chemicals and bioenergy
  3. Sustainable agriculture, forestry and landscape
  4. Vibrant and competitive basic research
  5. Consumer choice and governance
The strategic plan includes targets under different time-frames. When it comes to green chemistry and bioenergy, goals for the biotech research community are the development of advanced plant-based raw materials and pharmaceuticals, of plants as energy production systems and as genuine 'production factories' based on the optimisation of non-food plants as a vehicle to produce compounds of interest. The targets and deliverables are highly optimistic but because they are based on expert consultations they offer an overview of what is deemed scientifically and technologically feasible over the coming years.

Bioenergy systems
Sustainable use of plants to produce energy requires a substantial net energy gain. Simulations that take into account all inputs in the plant-based energy generation process tend to show that the net gain currently ranges between negative and a factor two compared with input energy. This is insufficient to play a role of importance in resolving future energy demand. The challenge is to rethink the concept and dramatically lower energy input requirements for growing and harvesting plant biomass, while maximising energy retention. The ultimate application of this know-how would be the development of an economically competitive, net energy producing system for the energy industry. Deliverables and research activities include:

Over the next five years:
  • Development of out-of-the-box options, including some primary feasibility testing of high-energy plant biomass production systems (crops, plant cultures, other) with at least 50% lower energy input requirements than current best production systems (i.e. plants and methods of cultivation and harvesting)
  • Development of out-of-the-box options, including some primary feasibility testing, to increase the energy retention of plants by at least fivefold in comparison with today’s best performers
  • Gene replacement technology to optimise selected, high-energy plant biomass production systems
Over the next ten years:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

  • Prototype development of three prioritised high-energy plant biomass production systems with at least 50% lower energy input requirements than current best production systems (i.e. plants and methods of cultivation and harvesting)
  • Prototype development of three prioritised high-energy plant biomass production systems with a forecasted fivefold higher energy retention than today’s best performers
Over the next twenty-five years:
  • Prototype development of two prioritised high-energy plant biomass production systems with at least 50% lower energy input requirements and at least fivefold greater energy retention than current best production systems (i.e. plants and methods of cultivation and harvesting).
Green chemistry
Both society and industry would benefit from exploring the uses of new plant raw materials with better-performing features or an accumulation of new compounds. These benefits may range from cheaper, safer or more environmentally friendly production methods to the ability to develop better products for the consumer. New plant raw materials may include oils, starches, fibres and secondary metabolites, with application in the health, nutrition and materials industries.

Similarly, plants may become a major source for the production of pharmaceuticals. The development of new plant raw materials and compounds requires the development know-how on key pathways and participating genes, nutrient uptake and transport, energy metabolism, growth conditions, as well as the appropriate enabling technologies.

Deliverables and research activities include:

Over the next five years
  • Fourty prioritised pathways understood at level of participating genes and products
  • Efficient molecular gene evolution technology development applicable to genes participating in the aforementioned pathways
  • Optimise plant recombinant protein expression technology
  • New transgenic production strategies
  • New enabling technologies, such as gene replacement and chemical switch technology
Over the next ten years
  • Systems biology know-how for 100+ pathways in three prioritised plant species
  • Manipulation of 20 prioritised pathways using on/off switches at all control points and the introduction of foreign genes with new functions
  • Sophisticated manipulation of first set of pathways by introducing evolved genes through experimental gene replacement
  • Commercialisation of recombinant pharmaceuticals from plants
  • Improvement of new enabling technologies, such as efficient gene replacement, chemical switch to bring them up to commercial standards
Over the next twenty-five years
  • Predictive systems biology knowledge of 50 pathways in three plant species
  • Revalidation of existing systems biology know-how in five additional plant species
  • Manipulation of 100 prioritised pathways using evolved genes at multiple control points and the optimisation of foreign genes with new functions
Plants as production factories
Plants may offer an attractive alternative production system for proteins and other compounds. Their use as a production system depends on their cost, quality, environmental friendliness and the time it takes to produce the compound of interest, as well as on the uniqueness of the plants needed to produce a particular compound.

The central theme is the optimisation of non-food plants as a vehicle to produce the compounds of interest. A number of factors are likely to determine whether or not industry embraces this new approach: (1) the concentration of the compound, (2) the ability to direct post-translational modifications, (3) the storability of the compound in the plant or (intermediate) extract, (4) the extractability of the compound, (5) the infrastructure requirements (field, greenhouse, growth rooms and ‘fermentors’) and the acreage necessary to grow the plants, (6) the handling requirements during growth and (7) the time needed to grow the plants. In addition, to minimise plant waste and maximise economic benefit, the plant residue remaining after extraction should have a second purpose.

Deliverables and research activities include:

Over the next five years
  • Improved plant gene expression technology for selected non-food plants: mRNA production, translational performance of mRNAs, protein folding, post-translational modification technology
  • Compound accumulation and storage technology
  • Compound transport and secretion technology
  • New technologies (e.g. gene replacement, transfection technologies and chemical switch) applicable to a range of selected species with the potential to meet commercial performance standards
  • New manufacturing strategies for production, extraction and processing
  • Development of small-scale manufacturing infrastructure and capacity for nonfood products
Over the next ten years
  • Mainly non-food plants and plant cells optimised for compound production and extraction
  • Broadened platform of post-translational modification technologies
  • Broad use gene replacement, chemical witch and transfection technologies
  • Controlled boosting of plant cell division rates
  • Development of large-scale production capacity for non-food products
Over the next twenty-five years
  • Compound production and extraction technologies for commercial use and applicable to multiple plants and plant cells
  • Development of plants or plant cells suitable for fermentor-like applications

Speaking at the presentation of the Strategic Research Agenda, the president of EPSO Mr Gruissem said: “Europe must put its knowledge base in the field of plant science into practice to keep the European agricultural sector innovative and internationally competitive.” Plant genomics, the other life sciences and biotechnology are the main scientific drivers of the bioeconomy which is worth an estimated €1.6 trillion a year in Europe. Together, they make up what is becoming known as the knowledge-based bioeconomy:

“To improve their future competitiveness, European farmers will need more diversified and environmentally friendly crops, producing more and better quality food and non-food products. This real challenge will be tackled through state of the art innovation, especially in plant biotechnologies,” said Mr Serra Arias, former vice-president of the Committee of Agricultural Organisations (COPA).

Plants for the Future hopes that the research themes described in its Research Agenda will feature in the EU Commission conference which opened June 26th in Brussels entitled “Towards future challenges of agricultural research in Europe” and in any European Agricultural Research Agenda that may be developed thereafter.

The organisation consulted on the Stakeholders Proposal for a SRA at consultations in 20 European Countries, with the Mirror Group of the European Parliament, and received numerous individual replies via its online invitation for comments.

References:
European Plant Science Organisation: ‘Plants for the Future’ invites Europe to reap fruits of knowledge-based bio-economy [*.doc]- June 25, 2007.

Plants for the Future: Stakeholders Proposal for a Strategic Research Agenca [*.pdf] - June 2007.

ESPO consultations on the Strategic Research Agenda; country-specific consultations can be found here.

EurActiv recently conducted an interview with Dr Markwart Kunz in which he explains the challenges of the bioeconomy: AgroSciences see future in energy and chemicals - July 2, 2007.


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Unique CGIAR project: small farmers in decentralised cassava ethanol production


Cassava is increasingly gaining attention in the developing world as an attractive biofuel crop. The reasons are manifold: as a biofuel, cassava based ethanol has a strong energy and GHG balance. This contrasts with fuels made from crops grown in the US and the EU, the fuels of which barely have a positive energy balance and do little to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Moreover, the plant thrives under rainfed conditions on marginal lands not suitable for other crops, requires relatively low inputs and is thus easily cultivated by small farmers. Cassava grows far away from rainforests the soils of which are not suitable for the crop, thus limiting the risk of the biofuel driving deforstation.

Some of the brightest minds in biotechnology - like Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution - are working on mapping cassava's genome with the aim of improving it for fuel production (see the U.S. DOE's Joint Genome Institute and its work on cassava, as well as the work at the International Atomic Energy Agency's Plant Breeding and Genetics division, where nuclear and space breeding techniques are used to study the crop for improvement).

According to a report from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), one of the leading global agricultural research consortia working towards strengthening the food security of people in the developing world:
"Cassava has erupted into the first decade of the third millennium as a crop that can contribute to agro-industrial and small-farmer development in the tropics. One of the most recent advances — using cassava to produce fuel alcohol — has opened multiple opportunities, not least for small farmers."
In short, cassava looks like an ideal biofuel crop and countries like Thailand and China have already taken it up to produce ethanol. In Nigeria, the Presidential Cassava Initiative is aimed at ethanol and biogas, and is expected to bring 3 million jobs.

An initiative by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia (part of the CGIAR), is now playing an active role in diversifying the use of cassava and in creating new strategies to access markets. The approach promoted by CIAT, in alliance with the Latin American and Caribbean Consortium to Support Cassava Research and Development (CLAYUCA) and with Dutch company Diligent Energy Systems, facilitates the participation of small farmers in the production of cassava as the raw material and in pre-processing activities.

Unique decentralisation approach
The initiative is unique in that cassava roots are initially transformed into ethanol at 50% concentration by the small producers, at the most local level. The alcohol is then taken to a central distillery to produce fuel alcohol (ethanol at 99.5% concentration). One of the biggest hurdles to producing fuels from biomass efficiently - transporting the bulky material over long distances - is thus overcome. Raw biomass (such as starch tubers) has a low energy content. By transforming the material into an intermediate product with a higher energy density (alcohol) at the local level, the transport costs can be greatly reduced.

The CIAT's low-tech approach to decentralisation is similar to high-tech strategies based on placing pyrolysis plants near biomass harvesting sites, aimed at producing bio-oil which is then brought to a central processing plant (more here).

Artisan-scale processing plants can easily be set up in many rural communities because of their low cost. Small distilleries have been around for a long time, but their efficiency can be greatly improved with minimal redesigns. In addition, processing by-products from the fermentation step can be used by the local farmers as feedstocks for biogas, animal feed and organic fertiliser:
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To facilitate the implementation of this decentralised approach, CIAT and CLAYUCA received financial support from Colombia’s ministry of agriculture to establish in the second half of 2007, a pilot plant for processing ethanol from cassava, sweet potato and other sources of biomass. The plant’s processing capacity will be 800 liters a day. It will be located at CIAT's headquarters.
We are working to generate an innovative, decentralised process, where small farmers are given more participation and where production is oriented towards a bio-refinery concept, in which the potential of crops such as cassava and sweet potato is tapped to obtain biofuels, convert wastes into fertilisers and animal feed products, and transform liquid effluents into biogas. - Bernardo Ospina, executive director of CLAYUCA.
This endeavour aims to position cassava as an agricultural option that can help Colombian farmers improve their income and quality of life. It should also help validate sustainable and competitive options of energy and agro-industrial development currently implemented by the Colombian government.

The experience can serve as a model for other countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America that seek the sustainable development of bioenergy programs using traditional crops.

The project is not limited to biofuel production. It also aims to solve the problem of contamination from solid and liquid wastes.

The North American companies Feeco, Encap and Soil Net LLC (all from Wisconsin), the sugar refineries Mayagüez, Providencia and Riopaila, Colombia’s largest paper manufacturer (Propal), CLAYUCA and CIAT recently formed an alliance to transform the contaminating residues resulting from the manufacture of ethanol (sugar industry effluents, also known as vinasse) into competitive products, thus helping to reduce the adverse environmental impact of these residues on the region’s soil and water resources.

Vast potential
Cassava holds an enormous potential across the subtropics and the tropics. Especially in Central and West-Africa there is a vast amount highly suitbable non-forest land currently not being used.

Traditionally, cassava is grown as a subsistence crop and seen as an emergency foodstuff. It can be left in the ground for long periods of time and harvested in times of scarcity. At this subsistence level, yields remain low. Given the vast number of small farmers who grow cassava in Africa, Asia and Latin America without inputs, production from existing hectarages can be increased considerably with micro-doses of fertilizer (previous post). Besides increasing yields from existing farms, there are millions of suitable and highly suitable hectares of non-forest land available.

Some countries, like Thailand and Nigeria, have developed an industrial-scale cassava sector which serves to produce animal feeds and starch. Nigeria used to export large quantities to the EU, but new policies there which support European animal fodder producers, have closed off the market. For this reason, former president Olusegun Obasanjo launched a 'Presidential Cassava Initiative' aimed at boosting and diversifying uses for the crop. Biofuels offer an entirely new market and may revive the sector for industrial cassava (earlier post).

More information:
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research: Fueling Cassava's Popularity - June 2007.

CIAT's Cassava Biotechnology Network.

The Consortio Latinoamericano y del Caribe de Apoyo a la Investigación y al Desarollo de la Yuca.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Biofuels 'top priority' for Fiji government - teams up with India, Brazil

Island states have a problematic relationship with oil. Their small, often single-sector economies are heavily dependent on refined oil products which they have to import. High oil prices are disastrous for the development of these nations, with some now spending more than twice the amount of money on imported oil than on health (earlier post).

Luckily, many of these island nations have abundant natural resources that allow them to become less dependent on petroleum imports. The South Pacific islands of Fiji (map, click to enlarge) are the latest in a series to see the many advantages of biofuels.

The Republic of Fiji is currently in a state of economic and political turmoil. Citing corruption in the government, commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, commander of the military forces, staged a coup on December 5, 2006 against the prime minister taking over powers of the president and dissolving the parliament. On January 4, 2007, the army announced that it was restoring executive power to President Iloilo, but the next day, Iloilo named Bainimarama as the interim prime minister.

This interim government now announces that biofuels have become one of its priorities. Speaking at the annual general meeting of Fiji's Bus Operators Association, the Minister for Transportation, Works and Energy, Manu Korovulavula, said that they are conscious of the current state of the economy and they are trying their best to stabilize and improve it. Biofuels are one way to kick back life into the island's economy, they think.

Fiji is endowed with a large potential for biodiesel production from coconut and palm oil and for ethanol from sugarcane. The islands are one of the main beneficiaries of the EU's ACP sugar agreement, which provides preferential prices. Over 70% of Fijians are employed in agriculture, many at a subsistence level. As is the case in many other island nations, biofuels open an entirely new market that allows them to grow out of subsistence farming.

What follows is a transcript of part of the speech [*.mp3] by ministers Manu Korovulavula, broadcast on Fijian radio, in which he explains why green fuels are important for the island state:
'Biofuels are environmentally friendly and are also a creator of employment on a large scale on account of its labor intensity. In the area of biofuel development, the interim administration has established formal arrangements with the government of India, for technical assistance and to provide expertise to establish a biofuels industry in Fiji.'
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'Fiji's economic develoment is also focused on palm oil, ensuring assistance is received from Brazil and Malaysia. The interim administration is prepared to visit both countries to negotiate for technical assistance to establish a palm oil industry in Fiji. This too, is a labor intensive industry which will provide employment on a large scale.'
Even though the Republic of Fiji is one of the more developed island states of the Pacific, there still exists a large subsistence sector. As is the case in other island nations, biofuels offer an opportunity for these farmers to grow out of subsistence and to supply a market for which prices are set to keep increasing.

Earlier the island state of Tonga showed its growing interest in utilizing its vast potential for the production of coconuts for biofuels (earlier post). A similar example of the benefits of coconut biodiesel, this time on Vanuatu, is presented in an recent article at the UN's Small Island Nation's website. The emerging sector helps small farmers make a better livelihood by involving them in cottage biodiesel industries. As in Tonga, they cannot count on a steady income and the local economy suffers because of global copra price fluctuations. Biofuels can change this situation.

A more comprehensive overview of the potential for biofuels in the Pacific can be found here.

References:
Manu Korovulavula, Minister for Transportation, Works and Energy: speech given at the annual meeting of Fiji's Bus Operators Association [*.mp3].

Fiji Village: Biofuel industry top priority for Interim Government - Jul 1, 2007. 09:10

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EU Environment ministers approve reductions in car emissions, divided over implementation

On 28 June, the EU's 27 environment ministers unanimously backed a Commission plan that would force car manufacturers to implement steep cuts in vehicle emissions, but they failed to come any closer to agreeing on how the burden of these reductions should be spread out between makers of small and large models.

Cars account for around 20% of total European carbon-dioxide emissions and automobile manufacturers are expected to miss a 2008 voluntary commitment to reduce their pollution levels. For this reason, the Commission last February proposed introducing new binding legislation (earlier post). The EU Environment ministers backed the plan at the latest Council [*.pdf].
This sends a clear message to the car industry that current efforts to reduce emissions must continue and must be intensified and accelerated. - Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas.
The strategy would require vehicle manufacturers to cut average emissions from new cars from the current 162grammes per kilometre to 130g/km by 2012 through vehicle-technology improvements, while asking other players, including tyre-makers, fuel suppliers, repairers, drivers and public authorities, to contribute to a further 10g/km reduction.

Concrete measures for realising these targets are yet to be decided upon, with the Commission due to announce proposals during 2007, once Council and Parliament have agreed on the strategy.

Divisions
However, the issue divides the European car industry, pitting French and Italian manufacturers, which typically produce smaller, more fuel-efficient models, against manufacturers of large, luxury vehicles – mainly German and UK-based companies such as Mercedes, Audi, Porsche, BMW, Jaguar and Land Rover:
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While the former are already on track to meeting a 2008 target of 140g/km and want the tough standards to apply to individual manufacturers at fleet level, the latter say it is unfeasible to subject manufacturers of larger cars to the same standards as light-weight vehicles.

Carbon emissions from newly registered cars in Germany still averaged at 172.5 g/km in 2006. But German automakers insist that their cars simply respond to consumer demand for bigger, safer and more powerful cars and that it would be unfair to penalise them for it.

Since ministers failed to agree on suggestions for solving the dilemma, they will leave it up to the Commission to propose, said German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency through the end of June. The Commission's proposals are due at the end of the year or early in 2008.

Meanwhile in Parliament, Rapporteur Chris Davies has just submitted a report that advocates "sharing the task between manufacturers", by setting separate targets for models, according to their size and the cost of achieving emission reductions, in order to take into account "the large variation in consumer preferences regarding passenger cars and the different composition of manufacturers' fleets".

On the other hand, the MEP has proposed banning all cars that go faster than 162 km per hour – 25% above the usual EU state limit – in a move that would signal an end for sports cars such as Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini.

However, German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel commented: "The competition problem is a tough nut to crack," adding: "There's an enormous conflict there, for example, between the German car industry and the French and Italian [industries]."

He said that targeting large vehicle manufacturers separately would not help to tackle climate change: "If you have more than 60% mid-size cars in the EU and 20% large cars, you cannot reach the 120 grammes target only by reducing the emissions of large cars. This is not possible. It's not a question of politics, it's a question of mathematics."

He also suggested that setting an identical reduction target for each carmaker's fleet would push companies to make acquisitions just to bring down the average emission levels.

Meanwhile, French and Italian car companies are pushing their ministers to support a strategy where each carmaker takes individual responsibility for meeting the target rather than the industry as a whole. "We do not want to subsidise German gas guzzlers," an Italian industry source said.

References:

Council: Conclusions on Results of the review of the Community Strategy to reduce CO2 emissions from passenger cars and light-commercial vehicles [*.pdf], - June 28, 2007.

EurActiv: EU ministers divided over car-emissions rules - June 29, 2007.


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