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Fuel vs. Food: Agrofuels and Africa

As our planet faces carbon-fuelled destruction, it is bewildering that the European Union considers agrofuels to be part of the solution. On 11 September 2008, a European Parliament vote confirmed a binding target of 10% agrofuel in all transport fuels by 2020. It is grimly ironic that as we approach the United Nations World Food Day (16 October), tens of millions of African people are being pushed into poverty and hunger as a direct result of agrofuel production.

Using the term “agrofuels”, rather than the more common “biofuels”, makes it clear that it is the industrial-scale growing of crops by agribusiness which is being contended with – not the small-scale use of wood, dung or waste matter that is often integrated into food production or used for household and local energy production.

Africa is feeling the impact of climate change. Because it is the continent most likely to be the hardest hit by future changes in weather systems, everything that can be done must be done to both mitigate the problems and adapt to the coming changes. Yet the push for agrofuels is not the seductive “carbon neutral” solution it claims to be. Instead it will exacerbate Africa’s climate and food security problems.

Agrofuel in Africa is being termed the next “Green Gold Rush”. Investors are rushing to privatise land for industrial scale plantations, while governments willingly allocate millions of hectares from the 70% of Africa’s land that is still communally owned. “Jatropha”, a poisonous hedge plant brought to Africa by Portuguese traders, is being pushed as one of the new miracle fuel crops for small farmers to produce. But in reality the gold rush is controlled by large transnational companies bringing about disastrous socio-economic and environmental impacts shouldered by communities, food security, forests and water resources.

Some of the impacts that already have been observed in 2007 include:

  • Displacement of farmers and food security in Tanzania
  • Deforestation for agrofuels in Uganda
  • A bad deal for out-growers in Zambia
  • Debate over fuel or food in West Africa
  • Conservation areas threatened in Ethiopia

Read these in more depth on our supplementary post.

The agrofuels ‘revolution’ is geared to replace millions of hectares of local agricultural systems, and the rural communities working in them, with large plantations. It is oriented to substitute biodiversity-based indigenous cropping, grazing and pasture farming systems with monocultures and genetically engineered agrofuel crops. The millions of hectares of what agribusiness euphemistically calls “wasteland” or “marginal soil” are to be turned ‘productive’ via fuel-crop production disregarding the needs of millions of people in local communities who make a living from these fragile ecosystems. Where there are no indigenous farming systems to replace, one just takes forest.

In Africa, much of the drive for agrofuel developments comes from talk of achieving national energy security. However, in most countries there seems to be a failure to recognise that foreign industry is already controlling the direction of agrofuel production, with an eye on targeting more lucrative export markets. Rising global oil prices will determine the price of liquid agrofuels, and is likely to price fuel and feedstock out of the reach of the poor, and into export markets in the North.

Agrofuels do not offer a genuine solution for climate change or energy security. Prof. Tad Patzek, specialist in biofuels and sustainability at Berkeley University, outlines the inherent limits of bio-energy:

“The astronomic scale of energy consumption from fossil plants and the minute scale of energy production from new plants are fundamentally incompatible. In engineered crop systems, we continuously apply fossil fuels and nutrients to replenish soil. What Earth has produced over 400 million years cannot be produced in annual cycles. If we ever attempt to do so, we will destroy the planet and ourselves. The initial stage of planetary destruction is well under way. We must pull back and use fewer resources.”

We do not need agrofuel plantations to produce fuel energy. What is needed is to turn the industrial production system upside down. We need policies and strategies to reduce the consumption of energy and to prevent waste. In agriculture and food production this means orienting production towards local rather than international markets; it means adopting strategies to keep people on the land, rather than throwing them off it; it means supporting sustainable approaches which bring biodiversity back into agriculture; and it means putting local communities back in the driving seat of rural development.

Africa can ill afford to lose food, forests, land and water. A moratorium that can protect Africa from the many threats of the new and dangerous agrofuel stampede is desperately required.

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