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    Spanish company Ferry Group is to invest €42/US$55.2 million in a project for the production of biomass fuel pellets in Bulgaria. The 3-year project consists of establishing plantations of paulownia trees near the city of Tran. Paulownia is a fast-growing tree used for the commercial production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Hungary's BHD Hõerõmû Zrt. is to build a 35 billion Forint (€138/US$182 million) commercial biomass-fired power plant with a maximum output of 49.9 MW in Szerencs (northeast Hungary). Portfolio.hu - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Tonight at 9pm, BBC Two will be showing a program on geo-engineering techniques to 'save' the planet from global warming. Five of the world's top scientists propose five radical scientific inventions which could stop climate change dead in its tracks. The ideas include: a giant sunshade in space to filter out the sun's rays and help cool us down; forests of artificial trees that would breath in carbon dioxide and stop the green house effect and a fleet futuristic yachts that will shoot salt water into the clouds thickening them and cooling the planet. BBC News - Feb. 19, 2007.

    Archer Daniels Midland, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, is planning to open a biodiesel plant in Indonesia with Wilmar International Ltd. this year and a wholly owned biodiesel plant in Brazil before July, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The Brazil plant is expected to be the nation's largest, the paper said. Worldwide, the company projects a fourfold rise in biodiesel production over the next five years. ADM was not immediately available to comment. Reuters - Feb. 16, 2007.

    Finnish engineering firm Pöyry Oyj has been awarded contracts by San Carlos Bioenergy Inc. to provide services for the first bioethanol plant in the Philippines. The aggregate contract value is EUR 10 million. The plant is to be build in the Province of San Carlos on the north-eastern tip of Negros Island. The plant is expected to deliver 120,000 liters/day of bioethanol and 4 MW of excess power to the grid. Kauppalehti Online - Feb. 15, 2007.

    In order to reduce fuel costs, a Mukono-based flower farm which exports to Europe, is building its own biodiesel plant, based on using Jatropha curcas seeds. It estimates the fuel will cut production costs by up to 20%. New Vision (Kampala, Uganda) - Feb. 12, 2007.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has decided to use 10% biodiesel in its fleet of public buses. The world's largest city is served by the Toei Bus System, which is used by some 570,000 people daily. Digital World Tokyo - Feb. 12, 2007.

    Fearing lack of electricity supply in South Africa and a price tag on CO2, WSP Group SA is investing in a biomass power plant that will replace coal in the Letaba Citrus juicing plant which is located in Tzaneen. Mining Weekly - Feb. 8, 2007.

    In what it calls an important addition to its global R&D capabilities, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is to build a new bioenergy research center in Hamburg, Germany. World Grain - Feb. 5, 2007.

    EthaBlog's Henrique Oliveira interviews leading Brazilian biofuels consultant Marcelo Coelho who offers insights into the (foreign) investment dynamics in the sector, the history of Brazilian ethanol and the relationship between oil price trends and biofuels. EthaBlog - Feb. 2, 2007.

    The government of Taiwan has announced its renewable energy target: 12% of all energy should come from renewables by 2020. The plan is expected to revitalise Taiwan's agricultural sector and to boost its nascent biomass industry. China Post - Feb. 2, 2007.

    Production at Cantarell, the world's second biggest oil field, declined by 500,000 barrels or 25% last year. This virtual collapse is unfolding much faster than projections from Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos. Wall Street Journal - Jan. 30, 2007.

    Dubai-based and AIM listed Teejori Ltd. has entered into an agreement to invest €6 million to acquire a 16.7% interest in Bekon, which developed two proprietary technologies enabling dry-fermentation of biomass. Both technologies allow it to design, establish and operate biogas plants in a highly efficient way. Dry-Fermentation offers significant advantages to the existing widely used wet fermentation process of converting biomass to biogas. Ame Info - Jan. 22, 2007.

    Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited is to build a biofuel production plant in the tribal belt of Banswara, Rajasthan, India. The petroleum company has acquired 20,000 hectares of low value land in the district, which it plans to commit to growing jatropha and other biofuel crops. The company's chairman said HPCL was also looking for similar wasteland in the state of Chhattisgarh. Zee News - Jan. 15, 2007.

    The Zimbabwean national police begins planting jatropha for a pilot project that must result in a daily production of 1000 liters of biodiesel. The Herald (Harare), Via AllAfrica - Jan. 12, 2007.

    In order to meet its Kyoto obligations and to cut dependence on oil, Japan has started importing biofuels from Brazil and elsewhere. And even though the country has limited local bioenergy potential, its Agriculture Ministry will begin a search for natural resources, including farm products and their residues, that can be used to make biofuels in Japan. To this end, studies will be conducted at 900 locations nationwide over a three-year period. The Japan Times - Jan. 12, 2007.

    Chrysler's chief economist Van Jolissaint has launched an arrogant attack on "quasi-hysterical Europeans" and their attitudes to global warming, calling the Stern Review 'dubious'. The remarks illustrate the yawning gap between opinions on climate change among Europeans and Americans, but they also strengthen the view that announcements by US car makers and legislators about the development of green vehicles are nothing more than window dressing. Today, the EU announced its comprehensive energy policy for the 21st century, with climate change at the center of it. BBC News - Jan. 10, 2007.

    The new Canadian government is investing $840,000 into BioMatera Inc. a biotech company that develops industrial biopolymers (such as PHA) that have wide-scale applications in the plastics, farmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Plant-based biopolymers such as PHA are biodegradable and renewable. Government of Canada - Jan. 9, 2007.

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Monday, November 27, 2006

WTO rules against EU on GMOs: towards genetically modified energy crops?

Under public pressure, from 1994 to 1999, the EU imposed a ban on imports of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Soon after, from June 1999 to August 2003, it transformed the ban into a moratorium on GMOs it deemed to be 'unsafe' (see: Europe’s rules on GMOs and the WTO). In a third phase, from 2004 onwards it allowed some selected products in (such as canned GM corn and 'Round-up-Ready' soy), after they had been carefully screened. Highly critical consumers in the EU have always rejected GMOs in food products and continue to do so.

But a World Trade Organisation (WTO) panel, building on an earlier ruling by the international trade body, decided last week that the moratorium was illegal. The European market will have to be opened, to the benefit of exporters from North and South America (90% of GMOs remain cultivated in 4 countries : USA (55%), Argentina (19%), Brazil (10%), Canada (6%)).

Canola and GM energy crops
The ruling not only applies to food products, but to potential biofuel feedstocks as well. Especially the Canadian government applauds the decision, because it allows Canadian canola to find a huge new market. Canola is a trademarked, genetically modified cultivar of rapeseed (the word derives from 'Canadian oil - low acid'), from which rapeseed oil is obtained, a major biofuel feedstock used for the production of biodiesel.

In a press release, International Trade Minister David Emerson says "This ruling will enable Canadian producers to access European markets and effectively market their products." The Canadian government adds that European demand for oilseeds is growing because the EU is promoting green fuels such as biodiesel, which is made from methyl esters extracted from crops like canola.

While the government did not have an immediate assessment of the impact of the ruling, Emerson's press secretary, Jennifer Chiu, said exports of the genetically modified crop provide an indication of the impact of the ban. In 1994, before the ban, Canada exported $425 million of canola to the European Union. After the ban was imposed, exports fell to $1.5 million:
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The EU said it won't appeal the decision. That may be because it wants oilseeds for biodiesel, or because it argues that it changed its policy in 2004, when it allowed modified US canned corn to be sold. "As a result, most of the findings of the panel have become theoretical," EU trade negotiator Raimund Raith told the Associated Press. "There's no basis for claiming that the [EU] is maintaining the moratorium."

The EU initially imposed the ban because of fears about the impact of GMOs on people and the environment. Canada, the US and Argentina fought the move at the WTO, arguing that there was no scientific evidence to stop GMO imports.

Biodiesel is made through a chemical process called transesterification, which separates vegetable oil into methyl esters and glycerin, itself a useful product. Biodiesel, which burns more cleanly than petroleum products, can be used as a fuel by itself, or added to petroleum products.

Third generation biofuels
The question is whether this ruling opens the door to more GM biofuel crops in the future. In principle, many energy crops can be genetically altered and adapted to grow under specific climatic conditions, to resist certain pests and plant diseases or to yield more biomass.

In fact, in Europe there is considerable research into so-called "third generation" biofuels, which involves the creation of crops that are designed in such a way that they can yield specific products during a chosen bioconversion process.

For example, recently the genome of the common poplar was decoded, a first step en route to designer energy crops (earlier post). A biotech laboratory in Ghent, Belgium, which helped crack the genome, already produced a high-yield GM poplar which can be processed into paper and pulp products more easily. Third generation biofuels are just around the corner: by modifying the lignin structure of the woody biomass (the 'hard' parts of the tree), it can be triggered to decompose more easily, allowing for a more efficient conversion into liquid fuels.

In another development, there are some signs the US is trying to develop transgenic cassava which can be grown in the tropics and which will deliver a 'strategic reserve' of starch from which ethanol can be made (earlier post).

No matter how promising or dubious all this may sound, the classic questions on biosafety remain unchanged: the long term environmental effects of introducing such energy crops into the environment are unknown (there's a growing list of genetic contamination 'incidents'); there is no 'reversibility mechanism' in GM agriculture (once crops have been released into the environment, their spread cannot be contained and contamination can occur); and the longterm effects on animal/human consumption are unknown (even though this latter aspect is of lesser importance for energy crops).

The last word on GM energy crops certainly hasn't been said.

More information:

European Commission: Europe’s rules on GMOs and the WTO

Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade: Canada Applauds WTO Ruling on Genetically Modified Organism Imports - November 22, 2006

Monitoring NGO: Genewatch UK.

Monitoring NGO: GMwatch.

Greenpeace and Genewatch's CM Contamination Register.

Institute for Science in Society (UK): GM Crops Irrelevant for Africa.


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