Oct 14, 2008

Pro-Poor Biofuel Crops: Sweet Sorghum and Cassava

Written by Nick Chambers

USA. Gas2.0 - Portland,OR, Oct. 13, 2008
Posted in Food vs. fuel, International issues

Editor’s Note: I was in Houston, TX, last week, celebrating the International Year of the Planet at the first ever joint meeting between the American societies of Soil Science, Geology, Crop Science and Agronomy. With a significant focus on biofuels, this conference was rife with interesting materials.

The Challenge: Find biofuel crops that are “pro-poor.”

One Answer: Crops that can be grown with limited resources by small-scale farmers, can be converted to biofuel with existing cheap technology, and can simultaneously provide food, fuel, and livestock feed.

In my last post I discussed how agriculture could regain its rightful place as the keystone of civilization due to the rise of biofuels over the next 30 years or so. But, in what seems a ridiculously colossal conundrum, hundreds of millions of impoverished people worldwide could face starvation due to competition of fuel land with food land.

In that post, I began to address how to deal with this problem, but didn’t provide any concrete examples — the main reason being that nobody really knows how to solve it yet. Imagine my luck last week when I found myself amidst scientists at a forum on biofuels, food security and poverty who had plenty of good ideas on how to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory issues.

One of the most interesting solutions that cropped up (pun intended — so shoot me) involved what are being dubbed as “pro-poor” biofuel crops. Dr. Mark Winslow covered the pro-poor aspects of sweet sorghum and to Dr. Hernán Ceballos covered the same aspects of the cassava plant.

Sweet sorghum is an Africa-native plant that produces grain which can be harvested for human consumption. After grain harvest, the stalks can be squeezed for sugar, much like sugarcane, which can then be turned into ethanol. Even after ethanol production, the remaining stalk material can then be pressed and used as a high-quality livestock feed.

Cassava is a tropical plant that produces bulbous starchy roots. These roots can be eaten by humans and can also be converted to ethanol in much the same way that corn is. The leaves of the cassava plant are called “tropical alfalfa” and are used as livestock feed. The left over stem material is then cut into foot-long pieces and planted in the ground to propagate the plants.

In both cases, these crops are already grown by many impoverished cultures around the world as a source of food and livestock feed, so the agricultural knowledge needed to grow them already exists.

Both crops are grown on land that doesn’t compete with high value food crops such as wheat and rice. And, besides this, neither sweet sorghum or cassava would provide a large enough economic incentive due to biofuel production that major food crop growers would switch over to just growing these instead of staple food crops like wheat and rice.

Without a doubt, pro-poor biofuel crops have several kinks that need to be worked out before they can be widely adopted in developing countries:

Yields of the fuel-producing parts of the plants need to be increased before they can be economically viable, but through intensive breeding this hurdle is being quickly jumped.

The infrastructure for transportation of biofuel feedstocks from many hundreds of scattered farms to a central processing facility is no small feat to build. For this to be accomplished, countries need to be convinced that it’s a worthwhile goal enough to pour money into. It may be better to produce only enough fuel for local consumption.

Many pro-poor biofuel crops are grown in areas that are susceptible to drought. A worldwide source of crop insurance needs to be established so that these farmers are protected in the case of low rainfall. The crops themselves also need to be bred for drought tolerance.

Even with the hurdles, these types of pro-poor biofuel crops represent a promising way for poor farmers to become an integral part of the world energy supply, bring high value back to agricultural products in their respectively impoverished nations, keep food prices low, and provide food from local sources.

Other Posts From the Joint Meeting in Houston:
How Much Oil is Actually Left On This Planet? Should We Care?
Biofuels are Here To Stay: What To Do About Food Supply?
Image Credits: Pictures from talks by Dr. Mark Winslow and Dr. Hernán Ceballos.

Tags: alternative energy, alternative fuel, Biofuels, Cassava, Crop yields, Dr. Hernán Ceballos, Dr. Mark Winslow, Ethanol, Famine, Food Supply, Global Economy, Houston, Poor, Poverty, Pro-poor biofuel crops, Sweet Sorghum, texas

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