Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Jamaica joins the biofuels debate

What more can be said? The debate over biofuels continues to expand both substantively and geographically. The real lesson here is that "renewable" and "sustainable" are not necessarily synonymous. (GW)

Debate over ethanol heats up as food prices rise

By Petre WIlliams
The Jamaica Observer
January 20, 2008

As rising food prices continue to take huge bites out of the paycheques of Jamaicans, environmentalists, geographers and other interests remain locked in a heated debate over whether the country should be pressing ahead with the production of biofuels such as ethanol.

Biofuels are products that can be processed into liquid fuels for transport and heating purposes. They include bioethanol and biodiesel, which have been lauded by some as the answer to the world's energy crisis, at a time when scientists agree the planet is under threat from climate change.

Environmentalist John Maxwell is staunchly against Jamaica's endorsement of biofuel production, noting that it comes at too great a cost.

"We should be growing food and looking at solar and wind energy and forget all this craziness about biofuels. It is madness. You can't be growing gas while people are starving. It doesn't make any sense," he told the Sunday Observer.

Maxwell's comments come at a time when global agricultural production for energy is driving costs, while threatening food security in some parts of the world. His statements also come on the heels of the Jamaican government's move to ease the burden of rising food prices. The government recently announced the move to limit retail prices on at least five basic food items, among them flour, baking powder, cooking oil and milk powder. As such, some $500 million will be spent by the government over the next three months to contain prices.

Raymond Wright, consultant with the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ), agreed that the global production of corn for biofuels was driving the local cost of food. But he insisted that Jamaica had nothing to fear from its own pursuit of biofuel production through sugarcane.

"Biofuels have caused a rise in food prices, particularly because of corn in the United States. Corn is not necessarily the best provider of ethanol. The energy input from producing ethanol is one to three. For one unit of energy from corn, you get three units of energy," said Wright. "For one unit of energy from sugarcane you get eight units of energy so it is more than two times as efficient as corn. Unfortunately, in the United States they don't have enough sugarcane so they have had to develop corn."

There are two ethanol plants currently in operation in Jamaica.

One is operated by the PCJ and the other by Jamaica Broilers. The PCJ plant (Petrojam Ethanol) was set up in 2005, in collaboration with the Brazilian firm Coinex. At the time of its completion in the latter part of 2005, the plant was to supply the United States with 150 million litres of ethanol per year, while Coinex supplied the feedstock.

Jamaica Broilers invested just over a billion dollars into the construction of the second plant. This plant was built to supply 60 million gallons of ethanol to be produced by Jamaica Broilers, while complementing operations at Petrojam Ethanol.

Marolyn Lucy Gentles, a geographer and chair of the National Environmental Education Committee (NEEC), while not disputing that there were benefits to be gained from producing biofuels locally, said perhaps the island would be better off investing in solar and hydro energy.

"We are not ready for this sugarcane ethanol thing. We don't have enough land to produce it and if you can't produce enough, it makes no sense investing in it. Research has to go into it. But the sun is there, and the sun is not running out at all," Gentles told the Sunday Observer.

Beyond that, she said Jamaica needed to look into better managing its garbage, which could prove a lucrative source of energy. One way in which this is possible, Gentles said, was through the trapping of methane gas.

But Wright, a former head of the PCJ, said Jamaica had more than enough land on which ethanol production could be undertaken, while ensuring food security.

"There is still significant amounts of land that can be developed for biofuels that would not typically be used for food," the consultant said. "It includes the mined-out bauxite lands, which are not at the moment being put to adequate use. Some of these lands can be used to produce fuel. And in this regard it can be used to produce biodiesel."

Clifford Mahlung, Jamaica's chief negotiator on climate change, agreed with Wright that there was nothing to fear from the way in which Jamaica has gone about, and is proposing to continue, its production of ethanol. In fact, he said that the use of sugarcane to produce the fuel was timely, given the realities of the international trade in sugar, which leaves the island at a disadvantage.

"The opportunities now offered from using sugarcane to produce biofuel ethanol is timely and works to our benefit because we now have another means of selling a product from the sugarcane for foreign exchange," he said.

"The problem with biofuels is with those countries using other products to produce it, and we are talking here particularly about countries using corn and soy beans. Corn is used to make cornmeal; and corn is used for feedstock so it means therefore that the higher cost of corn is translating into higher cost of foodstuff made from corn."

Maxwell insisted, however, that Jamaica was on a wrong course.

"Biofuels are already having an effect on us because of the rising prices on wheat and corn, which is driving up the costs of other foods. We are mad if we are going to make it worse out here by (investing further in) biofuels," he said.

A paper produced by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) last year, has meanwhile, attested to the positions articulated by Wright and Mahlung and the potential socio-economic benefits.

"A potential benefit associated with biofuels is their positive impact on agricultural employment and livelihoods. Sugarcane - based bioethanol in Brazil, for instance, already employs around one million workers and this number if expected to grow by 20 per cent in the next five years," said the report, entitled "International trade in biofuels: Good for development? And good for the environment?."

It is, however, the same paper - authored by Annie Dufey - that notes the potential for protectionism undermining the achievement of environment and development goals and the risk of unfair distribution of benefits, underscoring the concerns raised by Maxwell and Gentles.

"The many sustainable development potentials associated with biofuels are contingent upon international trading, since most efficient producing countries are or will be developing countries, while the main consumers are developed countries," Dufey noted.

"The bad news is that, under current trading conditions, there are several policy problems preventing developing countries from reaping the benefits of the biofuels trade, not to mention the negative environmental and social impacts that these policies may have."

Beyond that, Dufey noted that the benefits of pursuing the trade in biofuels for developing countries would depend in large part on how the "value chain" is managed.

"Studies of several agricultural commodity markets assert that benefits from export production in the developing world have increasingly accrued to actors in upper parts of the chain, while primary producers have received comparatively little," she said. "Many biofuels supply chains are, or would be, targeting export markets with the risk that the value added process takes place in importing countries."

Given these realities, Maxwell is insistent that Jamaica needs to focus on growing its own food to ensure its own reliance on food imports is reduced.

"We should be growing food to reduce our dependence on these other guys. Biofuels will drive up the cost of all the foods we import and, if that happens, we are going to have riots," he said.


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