Policymakers yet to learn from the Jatropha debacle; focus should be on crop diversification
An additional 63.8 million hectares are needed for sugarcane to meet the demand for ethanol
Given his penchant for achieving net-zero, Kerry should actually, in my opinion, be asking for phasing out the US Renewable Fuel Standard programme. It is easy to blame farmers then to disciple the industry for relentlessly spewing emissions into the atmosphere. Farmers are the soft target and countries like the Netherlands have clearly demonstrated how easy it is to paint them as culprits.
There was a time when all eyes were on Jatropha plantations for bio-diesel production. To reduce dependence on fossil fuels, the prices of which were in any case steadily on the rise, Jatropha was being touted globally as the saviour. In India too, policy makers were excited and had promised to make available adequate land resources for the plantations.
While the National Mission on Bio-Diesel was launched in 2003 with the objective of promoting Jatropha and Pongamia plantations for 20 per cent blending with high speed diesel, in another five years, news reports say, companies had brought three-lakh hectares of wastelands under energy plantations. And then, by 2008 the National Mission was quietly shelved.
But there were hardly any lessons learnt. With an initial investment of Rs 1,400-crore, the plan was to bring four million hectares under Jatropha. With reports of large scale acquisition of land resources by private companies in the name of Jatropha plantations, and with fears of food security being hit, all the excitement over its potential use for energy conversion fizzled out.
I remember even the UN Food & Agriculture Organization had acknowledged the failure of Jatropha.
So when the Global Bio-fuel Alliance was formed at the recent G-20 Summit, I thought the leaders must have learnt enough lessons from the Jatropha fiasco. While the official declaration says: “The Alliance intends to expedite the global uptake of bio-fuel through facilitating technology advancements, intensifying utilisation of sustainable bio-fuels, shaping robust standard setting and certification through the participation of a wide spectrum of stakeholders,” the warning by the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, cannot be ignored.
Before you ask what has Kerry’s warning to do with emphasis on bio-fuel production, let me explain. He has recently warned that the world can’t tackle climate change without first addressing the agriculture sector’s emissions.
“A lot of people have no clue that agriculture contributes about 33 per cent of all the emissions of the world. We can’t get to net-zero, we don’t get this job done unless agriculture is front and centre as part of the solution’.
What he said certainly reads well. But I doubt if Kerry himself understands the depth of the issue that he is talking about. Instead of blaming farmers for emissions emanating from intensive farming practices, he should have instead focussed his attention to the US bio-fuel programme. US alone has 38 per cent share in the global bio-fuel production and is consuming 90 million tonne of foodgrains, which should have ideally gone for feeding the hungry in the US, instead for feeding the automobiles.
Kerry needs to read the research report ‘Environmental Outcomes of the US Renewable Fuel Standard’ (https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.2101084119) which finds that ‘the carbon intensity of corn ethanol produced under the RFS is no less than gasoline and likely to be at least 24 per cent higher.’ The study also points to 3-8 per cent increase in fertiliser application and increase in water degradation by 3-5 per cent. Given his penchant for achieving net-zero, Kerry should actually, in my opinion, be asking for phasing out the US Renewable Fuel Standard programme.
It is easy to blame farmers then to disciple the industry for relentlessly spewing emissions into the atmosphere. Farmers are the soft target and countries like the Netherlands have clearly demonstrated how easy it is to paint them as culprits. Already 3,000 farmers have been directed to move out of agriculture with the direction that they can’t even farm anywhere else in Europe. From all pointers available, this horrendous decision is likely to be expanded in other parts of the world in the time to come.
Writing in the gripping and fascinating book ‘The World for Sale’ (Penguin and Random House, 2022) journalists Javier Blas and Jack Farchy, explain how a $1,25, 000 contribution by the trading giant Archer Daniels Midland (better known as ADM) found its way into the bank account of one of the five Watergate burglars that eventually brought down Richard Nixon. The commercial interests were so huge, and ADM lobbied hard to ensure no stone was left unturned to seek generous tax breaks and loan guarantees. Accordingly, ‘The US Government introduced tax breaks for blending ethanol into gasoline; it imposed tariffs on ethanol suppliers; and it offered loan guarantees to build ethanol plants.”
ADM was the biggest beneficiary of the bio-fuel programme. ADM didn’t stop here. By 2008, the company had put $ 2.1 million in lobbying. The writers say that ethanol became ‘politically irresistible’ so much so that George W. Bush approved legislation in 2005 that mandated oil refineries to blend billions of gallons of ethanol into gasoline. But then, in 2011, Arab Spring happened in the Middle East. At that time the US ethanol industry was consuming one in every six bushels of corn on the planet. While commodity prices cannot be solely blamed for the rising food prices, it was an important factor. Studies now show that at least 44 per cent of the US corn harvest goes into ethanol production. And another 44 per cent goes for animal feed.
Subsequently, ADM’s interest in ethanol production declined. It had even put up its plants for sale. “We’ve been very clear that ethanol is not a strategic focus area for us going forward,” a spokesperson was quoted as saying.
In the chapter ‘hunger for profits’, the authors say that ‘the food crisis of 2008 and 2010 – popularly dubbed as the World Food Crisis – was a demonstration of the influence of the commodity traders’. The thrust on ethanol production had not only caused chaos on world markets, but also helped the grain traders to make the biggest profits they had ever seen. The unsavoury trend however remains ‘politically irresistible’ even now.
Coming to India, the demand for 20 per cent blending with gasoline by 2025, just two years away, will mean the ethanol production to rise to 1,100 litres. This is expected to be achieved by largely converting sugarcane (84 per cent) and the remaining 16 per cent from cereals. In a report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2011, it was estimated that India will require bringing in an additional 63.8 million hectares area under sugarcane to meet the demand for ethanol.
Given that sugarcane is a water guzzling crop, and so is rice, I thought the thrust should be on reducing the area and production under sugarcane. Moreover, for a country like India that has the largest food insecure population, the focus should be on first feeding the teeming millions.
On the one hand, policy makers repeatedly have been calling for crop diversification, while on the other, they continue to push the same exhaustive cultivation practices that have brought the world close to a tripping point.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)