Science & the Environment Energy

Africa: Biofuels won’t feed the people

15 March 2012
La Repubblica Rome

A jatropha nursery field in Dimbokro, central Ivory Coast, in 2008.

A jatropha nursery field in Dimbokro, central Ivory Coast, in 2008.

Seeking to meet new regulations on low-carbon emission fuels, Europeans are battling over millions of hectares of African land in order to grow biofuels. This is detrimental to food crop production, warn NGOs.

Imagine a surface the size of Switzerland – 4 million hectares – totally covered in plantations aimed at supplying fuel to vehicles and electricity plants. That's the total land currently exploited in Africa by Western countries in order to supply biofuels. The British are in the lead with a record 1.6 million hectares of cultivated land, followed by the Italians, the Germans, the French and the Americans.

They are betting on the forecasts announced in 2004 by Amsterdam's Copernicus Institute. If the bio-energy market is to develop, the continent with the greatest amount of affordably-priced, arable land will become the world's largest producer, the Institute says. Africa's 807 million hectares of virgin soil is fifteen times more than needed to satisfy the need in biofuels for the next twenty years.

Biofuels demanded spurred by EU legislation

The demand for biofuels is spurred by European legislation. As of 2011, petrol stations in the EU were required to progressively increase the percentage of fuels  with low carbon dioxide emissions: bioethanol for petrol and biodiesel for diesel fuel. The goal is to reach 10% of biofuels by 2020. The new standards aim to lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce reliance on oil, but Europe does not have sufficient arable land to produce the amount of biofuels required. According to the Institute for European Environmental Policy in London, the ambitious 10% goal will result in a three-fold increase in imports of biofuels. The current flow of supply from Asia and Latin America will no longer suffice. Africa seems to be the new Eldorado for "green gold" through a fuel extracted from a plant originally from Latin America, jatropha. The seeds are used to make low-carbon emission diesel fuel.

Repubblica studied 90 projects in over 20 African countries, run by 55 firms, mostly European. About 2.8 million hectares, over a third of the total, are destined to grow jatropha. It is difficult to believe that four years ago the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) predicted that the 2 million hectare mark would not be hit before 2015. If jatropha plantations are so widespread, it is, among other reasons, because biodiesel is expected to represent 71% of biofuel imports to the EU. It is also a result of the trucking sector's progressive shift to diesel fuel. Several of the investors in Africa are waiting for their jatropha oil to be declared environmentally sustainable, as required by the European Directive on Renewable Energy.

Official acreage estimates are tip of the iceberg

The total number of hectares is however, just the tip of the iceberg. It does not take into account local projects or the vast concessions obtained by other countries such as China and also major players such as Brazil and Malaysia. In the lead for biofuels production in Africa, these countries are poised to export to Europe as soon as the increase in oil prices and the abolition of EU customs duties on local agricultural products allows these fuels to become highly competitive.

In addition, this type of foreign investment is encouraged by a number of African governments. A dozen of them have already signed the so-called 'Green OPEC' charter defending the local production and use of biofuels in order to reduce costly oil imports. The goal is to make important savings that can be reinvested in the consolidation of agriculture and toward food self-sufficiency.

According to a report by the International Land Coalition, 66% of the land acquired in Africa is aimed at biofuels production with only 15% set aside for food production. The study also says that all told, biofuels occupy 19 million hectares in Africa. At the global level, replacing food crops with biofuels plantations contributed to the dramatic rise in food prices during the 2008 famine. This caused humanitarian organisations to lash out against biofuels.

Sustainability better served by small projects

The investors swear, for their part, that jatropha, which grows easily in arid zones ill-adapted to agriculture, is the answer to the criticism of civil society. Yet, studies by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, experts and experience in the field show that jatropha requires more irrigation than forecast in order to meet the needs of commercial production. Furthermore, jatropha plantations often replace forest lands which casts doubts on its sustainability.

To save their reputations and to limit the economic risk, many investors are showing an interest in local projects while awaiting better times for export. "As a result of the financial crisis, most of the great single crop jatropha plantations have lost both their attractiveness and their sponsors," says Meghan Sapp, General Secretary of Partners for Euro-African Green Energy, a Brussels-based network promoting sustainability. "The EU should take advantage of this to finance less ambitious projects within the framework of its programme for sustainable energy in Africa," she suggests.