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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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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

When energy blogs get serious: Ethablog cooperates with former agriculture secretary

Quicknote bioenergy information
Pro-bloggers often get the criticism that they merely replicate news stories, copy each other ad nauseam and seldom contribute any meaningful insights to a debate. Some still make the distinction between 'real journalists' working for traditional news agencies who do their own research, and bloggers, who simply copy+paste the stuff others wrote. But more and more often, things happen the other way around: 'serious' journalists pick up thoughts from bloggers whose ideas end up in the big news outlets, camouflaged. Some blogs have become genuine authorities on a subject matter, because of the dedication of their knowledgable owners, the depth of the coverage, and precisely because they aren't big media.

Ethablog is such an information source. Maintained by Henrique Oliveira, the blog tracks the developments in Brazil's dynamic ethanol industry. It is the only source in English to do so. Oliveira has the advantage of knowing the sector from within and of being able to switch between a Brazilian and an American context (the author is a Brazilian MBA student at the University of Michigan). This allows him to get exclusive and in-depth interviews from key players in the Brazilian ethanol market, which he can publish in full -- something 'real journalists' can only dream of. No wonder then that news agencies and traditional media do not hesitate to have a peek at what Oliveira writes. Texts from Ethablog have ended up in American newspapers -- but not a trace of any copyright or credits, though...

Henrique is now taking it a step further. He just announced that his blog is getting the support of Milton Maciel, a former Secretary of Agriculture of the state of Alagoas, in northeastern Brazil. Besides being a former official who helped craft and implement Brazil's ethanol policies, Mr Maciel is a consultant, an autority on organic farming and author of more than ten books. So this is how things go in the blogosphere: a young student devotes a lot of his time on writing a smart energy blog and leaves an impression on a wise old man with 'real world' experience in the sector who decides to lend a helping hand and some of his authority and credibility. I'm sure journalists will mention their sources next time when they write a piece on Brazilian ethanol... Well done Henrique!
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Malaysian company to produce ethanol from Nypa fruticans

Several years ago, we started studying the use of a mysterious mangrove palm, called Nypa fruticans, for the production of ethanol. Meanwhile, we have been cooperating with a Nigerian NGO, located in the volatile Niger Delta, where the palm thrives and is seen as an invasive species. The goal of the project is to find ways to build a locally rooted ethanol industry around the crop, involving delta-communities who live in dire poverty. Earlier, we reported on the mysterious crop in an introductory article.

Nypa fruticans, also known as nipah, attap chee or the mangrove palm, is classified as an 'underutilized' crop, relatively unknown and lacking research, even though it has been used for ages in the tropics by mangrove communities. These communities tap the palm in a skillful manner to extract vast quantities of sugar-rich sap, that is used to make wine and vinegar. The leaves, fruits, stems and fibres of the palm are used for a variety of other purposes.

Very-high yields
The secret of nipah is its incredibly high sugar-rich sap yield, as it has been observed by several researchers. Fermented into ethanol, the palm's large amount of sap allows for the production of 15,000 to 20,000 liters of the biofuel per hectare (compare with sugarcane at 5000-8000 liters, or corn, at 2000 liters). And it does so on a continuous basis, year round, for up to 50 years. Typical for an underutilised crop from the tropics, nipah research is scarce and there have been very few plant-breeding attempts.

In a for us very interesting announcement, we learn that a Kuala Lumpur-based company, in coordination with local authorities and the state government, is going to utilize nipah as a feedstock for commercial ethanol production in Perak, Malaysia. A world's first. Nipah has a much higher yield per hectare than corn, sugar beets or sugarcane, says Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Tajol Rosli Ghazali - local municipal chief.

"If we were able to produce ethanol from 110,000ha of nipah, it would be enough to satisfy the world’s [current ethanol] demand," he says:
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He added that a project to produce ethanol would mean additional jobs, with nipah tappers earning between 3,000 and 4,000 (€635-845/US$845-1125) each a month.

The state government, after studying a proposal from the company, agreed to allow it to extract "nira" or nipah sap from 10,000ha of palms along the state’s coastal area. Tajol Rosli said the state would also allocate 400ha of land in Perak Hilir district for a refinery.

"The company would be using home-grown technology to produce the ethanol after having discovered and patented a way to preserve the sap for up to three days instead of the usual six hours," he added.

He also said the company would begin construction of its refinery in April, which would be completed within a few years at a cost of between RM200 million and RM300 million (US$56-84 million).

We will be following these developments closely. Nipah grows in several developing countries where it has colonized thousands of hectares of mangroves and riverbeds. Exploiting this existing resource for ethanol production in a sustainable way may be a great strategy to provide extra income to mangrove communities, who often live in poverty.

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China chooses ethanol, not methanol as oil alternative

Recently, several media jumped on a suggestion that China would consider using non-renewable coal-based methanol as an alternative to oil. The country is indeed looking into the option, but non-expert media exaggerated the news and -- using an unconfirmed source -- twisted it into a story that is out of touch with what's really going on. Some even went so far as to say, incorrectly, that the People's Republic now sees methanol as 'the official liquid fuel of the future'. We contacted several of these news outlets to warn them that they were distorting the real story, and that there is in fact a clear policy movement within the Chinese energy departments that is working against methanol. Earlier, we mentioned a senior Chinese official who firmly dismissded coal-to-liquids and methanol as 'irresponsible and inefficient' (earlier post).

Luckily, the Chinese government is now bringing more clarity into the issue. Li Shizhong, a member of China’s top bioenergy policy-making panel, says he is very unsure about the longterm prospects of methanol - which has no official nor legal backing whatsoever - as the coal-based fuel is toxic and causes pollution. In contrast, he is very sure about biomass-based ethanol as the alternative to oil, which has been promulgated officially as being one of China's fuels for the future. The difference is crucial, because it determines the choice between a green and renewable fuel policy, or a fossil-fuel based, climate destructive future.

Methanol is not an 'official' fuel
Li said methanol’s future as an alternative fuel in China remains uncertain. Used largely as a raw material in the manufacture of products such as resins, plastics and paints, experts have cited methanol’s considerable potential when blended with gasoline due to its comparatively low cost.

But methanol is toxic and can corrode car engines and technological breakthroughs are needed to overcome these problems, Li said. Methanol can also pollute the atmosphere when used as a fuel as one ton of methanol can yield 9.5 tons of carbon dioxide, worsening the air quality in the country, and contributing heavily to climate change, he said.

"The central government hasn’t approved methanol as a legal alternative fuel, but is still studying its proper usage"
Li said. He doubted a recent report by the China Chemical Industry News in November that the government had confirmed methanol as an alternative automotive fuel in a meeting held by the State Council, the country’s Cabinet. "I attended the meeting, but it was not a decision-making meeting - only a discussion with experts," Li said. "Vice-Premier Zeng Peiyan, who chaired the meeting, only said: 'We’ll continue to study the fuel’." The central government is unlikely to give final approval to methanol use in cars by 2010 without better technology becoming available, he said.

Ethanol, the official fuel of the future
Unlike methanol, ethanol is a fuel for which clear official policies and targets exist. “China targets to use ethanol-blended gasoline for 75% of its total gasoline demand by 2010, or around 50 million metric tons out of 70 million tons,“ says Li, who is also the deputy director of the Institute of New Energy Technology under Tsinghua University:

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He says the official goal for ethanol output will be nearly four times as much as domestic production this year. China - the world’s third-largest producer of ethanol fuel after Brazil and the U.S. - will produce 1.3 million tons of ethanol this year, equivalent to 13 million tons of ethanol-blended gasoline. Ethanol is typically derived from cassava, sweet broomcorn, sweet potatos and other crops. China currently blends 10% ethanol with 90% gasoline, which can be used in vehicles without making changes to engines.

“The government is stipulating criteria governing access to the ethanol industry in a bid to encourage investment from both state-owned companies and private Chinese companies,“ Li said, adding that this policy is likely to be approved by the year-end.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official from an ethanol trade company said: “If the government opens the industry to private Chinese companies, then it is likely to make it more efficient and the government can cut subsidies to the sector.“

Li said the government currently grants subsidies of CNY1,373 ($175) a ton of ethanol to producers.

But foreign companies are likely to find their entry to the sector barred for some time as the government strives to nurture the development of the industry, he said.

Big ethanol investments
Chinese state-owned oil and agriculture companies have been actively building ethanol facilities in an effort to corner the growing market.

CNPC, the country’s largest oil producer by capacity, wants to build a plant in the southwestern province of Sichuan by 2010 to produce ethanol from sweet potatoes, with an annual production capacity of 600,000 tons.

China National Cereals, Oils & Foodstuffs Corp., better know as Cofco, China’s largest grain trader, started building a CNY1 billion ($126.6 million) ethanol plant in October in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region with an annual capacity of 400,000 tons. It also plans to invest CNY1.2 billion to build another 300,000-ton ethanol plant in the northern province of Hebei. Cofco’s latest move was the trial operation of a pilot ethanol facility in the northern region of Inner Mongolia this week, Li said.

But the growth of the ethanol industry in China has led to a clash of interests between food security and the need to diversify the country’s energy sources. Li said the use of non-grain crops, such as cassava and sweet broomcorn, will help solve the conflict and the government is encouraging farmers to plant non-grain crops for ethanol production.

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Transgenic switchgrass to double biomass yield

Albert Kausch, a University of Rhode Island plant geneticist, is developing transgenic switchgrass which is seen as a primary feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production. Unlike corn or sugarbeets, which are currently used for the production of 'first generation' ethanol, switchgrass can be grown on marginal soils, is useful as wildlife habitat, and requires little use of fertilizers, insecticides or irrigation.
Switchgrass is a native plant of the tall grass prairies [native to the US]. It grows 12 feet tall in one season and produces 10 tons of plant material an acre [roughly 25 tons per hectare], more biomass per year than most other plants [in the US]. I'm confident my lab can make it produce 20 tons an acre [50 tons per hectare] using the tools and personnel we have right now. And because switchgrass is a perennial plant, it doesn't require replanting year after year. -- Albert Kausch.
Kausch is a world leader in developing transgenic grasses, having spent 20 years genetically modifying turf grasses, rice and corn. He is also an expert on 'gene confinement' now working to create a switchgrass that does not flower or reproduce, thereby ensuring that the genetically modified organisms do not escape into the environment and affect wild switchgrass.

That's a key concern with using genetically modified corn for ethanol, Kausch says, because some of the genes being engineered into corn to make it a better source of ethanol aren't genes we want in the food chain. And without confinement, such as plant sterility, those genes could find their way into the corn that we eat:
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In addition, sterile plants that do not use their energy to produce flowers can use it to produce more biomass as leaves and plant material instead that in turn will produce more ethanol.

Despite having studied corn for many years, Kausch believes it may not be best choice for ethanol production. "Some critics argue that there is not enough good quality arable land available to grow the amount of corn required for biofuels, and all that we produce now is used for food instead of fuel," he said. "Corn is also very expensive to grow compared to switchgrass."

Kausch has launched Project Golden Switchgrass at the University of Rhode Island, which he hopes will develop the variety of enhanced switchgrass that everyone needs. He says that native switchgrass grown commercially today could produce ethanol for approximately $2.70 per gallon [€0.54/$0.71 per liter], but by genetically improving a number of plant traits he believes the production price could get as low as $1 per gallon [€0.19/$0.26 per liter].

"There are several impediments to the process of converting switchgrass to ethanol that would make unaltered switchgrass commercially unprofitable," Kausch said. "We are working with professors at Brown University, for instance, to create better enzymes that will degrade cellulose into sugars for a more efficient conversion to ethanol."

Kausch is now genetically engineering switchgrass that is both sterile and resistant to herbicides, and he has a long list of other traits he hopes to improve as well, including drought tolerance, salt tolerance and cold tolerance. He expects to have test plots of the genetically modified plants on the URI campus within two years, and he hopes the first varieties will be in commercial production by 2011.

Ethanol is a form of alcohol that burns much more cleanly than gasoline, so it results in far lower emissions when used to power automobiles and other vehicles. Since a majority of the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming come from transportation sources, Kausch believes that switching from gasoline to 100 percent ethanol is an important step toward halting climate change. "It won't entirely solve the problem, but it sure will help," he said. "And the reduced CO2 that comes from your tailpipe is then absorbed by the plants that are then turned into ethanol again, so it becomes a natural cycle."

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Malaysia working towards 'sustainable' expansion of palm oil plantations

Expansion of the palm oil industry — which many hope will provide the fuel of the future — must be sustainable, environmentally-friendly and protect local communities, Malaysia's deputy prime minister said in a speech at the launch of the International Biofuel and Alternative Energy Conference in Kuala Lumpur.

Since the 1990s, the area under palm oil cultivation globally has increased by 43 percent, mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia, the world's number 1 and 2 exporters of palm oil respectively. "Based on current trends, the oil palm industry is set to continue to grow to satisfy global demand," Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a speech prepared for him at the biofuel conference. "However, it is important that the expansion be sustainable."

Malaysia is projecting one million tonnes in biofuel production next year for exports, more than double the production of 400,000 tonnes this year. Speaking at the same event, Datuk Sabri Ahmad, chairman of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA), says biofuel demand in Europe and the United States was expanding rapidly in line with the requirement for more environmentally friendly energy. Sabri says that by 2012, Europe would require 10 million tonnes of biodiesel compared to four million tonnes currently. He hopes Malaysia will become a main supplier.

The top five plantation companies in Malaysia would have the capacity to produce the projected one million tonnes of biofuel next year, he said at the media briefing. Sabri said this year, 72 companies were involved in biodiesel projects with a total investment of 7.01 billion ringgit (€1.47/1.97 billion), of which 4.87 billion ringgit came from local companies and the balance of 2.14 billion ringgit from foreign companies.

Increasing efficiency, towards 'sustainability'?
Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry's Parliamentary Secretary Senator Datuk Dr S. Vijayaratnam said in line with the robust demand for biofuel, Malaysia would step up efforts to increase production and efficiency yields in plantation crops, in order to make the sector more sustainable.

"We will not focus on increasing land hectarage but on increasing the yield or efficiency level by engaging in research and development, and utilising high quality seeds to produce better crop," he said. "We target an oil extraction rate of 25 percent and a production yield of 35 tonnes per hectare per year," he added. [Note: current extraction rates are around 20% on average for 19 tonnes of fruit bunches per year - see the 2005 data at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board.]

Vijayaratnam said there have been criticisms that Malaysian oil palm plantations were adversely affecting the habitat of the orang utan and environment, affecting Malaysia's reputation as one of the major palm oil producers to some degree, but these were not based on facts. To underscore the seriousness of its self-defined efforts towards more 'sustainability', Malaysia is taking several measures and lines of thought to embellish the image of the palm oil sector:

1. It launches a Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund with an anticipated outlay of 20 million ringgit (€4.2/US$5.6 million). It will fund ideas and proposals to enhance biodiversity linked to palm oil production worldwide:
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2. Increasing the use of palm biomass: biomass utilisation is gaining momentum in recent years largely due to global concerns over environmental pollution. The vast biomass resources available in the industry have not been fully exploited until now. “The Government would like the industry to tap all the available biomass and come up with value-added products that will enhance the industry's growth, competitiveness and sustainability,” Najib says.

3. Most of the oil palm plantations were and will be located on former rubber estates or plantations of other crops which switched to oil palm as it was more commercially profitable.

4. In the case of Indonesia, the oil palm plantations were located on land formerly used for logging, which means the land is used productively twice - so the argument goes.

It takes two to tango: EU/US imports surge
Sabri said palm oil exports to Europe and the US was growing steadily. The 10 percent growth in exports next year was achievable based on previous trends, he added.

According to the Malaysian Palm Oil Promotion Council website, exports of palm oil to the European Union from January to October 2006 stood at 2,078,988 tonnes, up from 1,832,273 tonnes in the same period last year. Palm oil exports to the US from January to October 2006 amounted to 549,646 tonnes, an increase from 462,345 tonnes in the same period last year. The council's chief executive officer Tan Sri Dr Yusof Basiron said demand for palm oil in the US food industry was expected to go up, especially with the increasing consumer demand for food with less trans fatty acid.

Palm biofuels to dominate market
Because bio-fuels emit 80 percent less emissions than fossil fuels, "the future is becoming clear," Najib said in his speech. "As oil prices continue to soar and supplies become depleted, bio-fuels are looking more appealing as an alternative transport fuel."

The government introduced a National Biofuel Policy in 2005, aiming to reduce gasoline imports and to shore up palm oil prices during periods of low export demand. The diesel-palm oil blend has been used in recent years to power selected electricity generators in Malaysia. Palm-oil blended diesel is a technologically proven fuel for transport.

Officials announced last week that three Malaysian government-linked palm oil companies planned to merge to create the world's biggest palm oil business worth around 31.4 billion ringgit (
€6.5 billion/US$8.66 billion). Shareholders have yet to approve the proposal.

More information:
Bernama: M'sia Projects One Mln Tonnes In Biofuel Production In 2007 - December 5, 2006
International Herald Tribune / AP: Malaysia calls for sustainable expansion of palm oil plantations - Dec. 5, 2006
The Star: RM20mil Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund launched - Dec. 5, 2006

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CGIAR developing climate-resilient crops to beat global warming

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in consultation with the global environmental change science community, is refining a comprehensive climate change agenda that is already generating climate-resilient innovations, including crops bred to withstand heat, salt, waterlogging and drought, and more efficient farming techniques to help poor farmers better use increasingly scarce water and fragile soil. Researchers are also focusing on boosting agriculture's role in reducing climate-altering greenhouse gases.

An overview of initiatives (more in-depth coverage of new crops and approaches):

Managing greenhouse gases

Satellite imagery helps poor farmers participate in carbon markets
Researchers at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) are using satellite data and advanced measurement techniques to help developing-country farmers participate in and receive fair payment for carbon-removal programs. Poor farmers are among the world's largest producers of sequestered carbon, yet they are unable to calculate or verify how much they are removing from the atmosphere and, thus, are ill-equipped to participate in carbon sequestration programs. The carbon stored in trees is derived from carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases responsible for global climate change. Scientists believe that removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in trees is one of the best ways to reduce global warming. It's also one of a limited number of options available to industries that need to offset carbon dioxide emissions under the Kyoto Climate Change Protocol or that have decided voluntarily to reduce their emissions. The new measurement technology, developed by researchers from Michigan State University and ICRAF, can remotely calculate and verify the carbon being stored across millions of square kilometers of agricultural land and forests thousands of kilometers away. The new technique, which is highly accurate, greatly reduces the need for expensive on-the-ground verification. With fair payment, ICRAF believes that millions of dollars in carbon credits could begin flowing to the world's rural poor by 2007, providing an infusion of cash into rural economies and facilitating sustainable development in many of the world's poorest countries.

Breeding climate-resilient crops
New technology helps scientists identify "stay-green" genes to help sorghum cheat the heat

Crops such as sorghum and millet--staple cereal grains and fodder crop grown by subsistence farmers in the hottest, driest regions of sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent--are the most heat- and drought-hardy crops addressed by CGIAR breeders. Their treasure chest of stress tolerance genes may someday be unlocked to benefit other crops, through the marvel of "comparative genomics" research underway within the CGIAR's Generation Challenge Programme. For this dream to be realized, the valuable genes have to be mapped and their functions understood. Researchers at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) -- who recently started using sorghum as an ethanol feedstock to help rural communities gain extra income (earlier post) -- are using a technique known as marker-assisted selection (MAS) to identify and isolate genes in sorghum that display the "stay-green" characteristics that allow the plant to mature normally in low-moisture, high-heat areas. MAS accelerates classical breeding by locating desired genetic traits on the chromosomes, setting the stage for plant breeders to transfer those genes into popular but drought-susceptible varieties or, eventually, into other cereal crops. "Stay-green" genes delay the premature death of leaves and plants, help the normal grain filling, and reduce the incidence of plants "lodging," or falling over on the ground:
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Reducing plants' thirst at the molecular level
Drought reduces annual worldwide maize yields by as much as 15 percent, representing losses of in excess of 20 million tons of grain. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is using conventional breeding to develop maize for small farmers in Southern Africa that withstands drought and infertile soils and produces yields 30 to 50 percent greater than traditional varieties. CIMMYT scientists are working to achieve even greater gains by using tools from molecular biology. With the aid of a genomic map that combines data for different types of tropical maize in diverse environments, they are identifying genetic "hot spots" in maize, that is, areas of the crop's chromosomes that confer drought tolerance. This work is critical in light of a recent study that says climate change could inflict a 10 percent reduction in maize yields in Africa and Latin America during the coming decades.

Fine-tuning a plant's internal clock
Sorghum and millet breeders at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) are focusing new attention on photoperiod-sensitive breeding stocks that give farmers an added tool to adapt to rainfall variability. Plants, like humans and other organisms, have internal clocks that tell them when to flower by taking cues from the length of daylight. During the Green Revolution, breeders of many grains eliminated photoperiod sensitivity so that plants could be grown anywhere, anytime. The catch was that these non-photoperiod-sensitive plants required ideal growing conditions�sufficient water and the right temperature. In many sorghum-growing regions, the onset of the rainy season�always unpredictable�may become even more so as the climate changes. So breeders have had to "program" the crop to mature at the time of year when conditions are most likely to be favorable for grain development, regardless of when they are planted. Photoperiod-sensitive sorghum and millet will catch up or slow down so their flowering and grain filling occurs at a roughly constant calendar date, which tends to be the period when the rains are winding down but there is still enough water in the soil to complete grain development.

Alternatives to slash and burn: Income from tree products
Every year approximately 130,000 square kilometers of humid tropical forest are destroyed, accounting for up to 25 percent of net annual carbon dioxide emissions. The devastation is caused in part by poor farmers who often have no other option for feeding their families than slashing and burning a patch of forest, growing crops until the soil is exhausted, and then moving on. The Alternative to Slash and Burn (ASB) Program, a CGIAR system-wide initiative, is working with farmers to provide them with livelihood options that would reduce the incidence of forest burning. The program has identified "best-bet" alternatives for slash-and-burn farmers, including integration of trees into farming�agroforestry. Researchers are working with farmers to reduce the pressure on forests by providing them with a nearby, convenient source of food, fuel wood, and timber for construction and fences. By improving products from the vast and largely untapped genetic wealth of trees found in tropical forests, researchers are also demonstrating to farmers the income-generating potential of tree products such as fruits, nuts, oils, resins, medicines, cosmetics, fibers, fodder, and dyes.

Ray guns and African grasses help farmers reduce harmful nitrous oxide emissions
Nitrogen is one of the keys to healthy plant growth, which is the very reason that farmers the world over apply nitrogen fertilizer to their crops. Yet these fertilizers also increase a process called denitrification in which microbes convert nitrogen in the soil into nitrate and nitrous oxide�a greenhouse gas with 310 times the warming power of carbon dioxide. Researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) are using two different approaches to reduce nitrogen emissions. A new hand-held infrared sensor is being calibrated at CIMMYT to help developing-country wheat and maize farmers maintain their yields using far less fertilizer. Held above the young, growing wheat plants, the sensor measures how much light is reflected in two different wavelengths�red and invisible infrared�which then helps the farmers determine precisely how much fertilizer should be applied. Scientists from CIAT and the Japan International Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS) are working to exploit a chemical released from the roots of an African grass grown widely in South American pastures that naturally triggers biological nitrification inhibition (BNI). BNI slows the conversion of ammonium�the form of nitrogen in most fertilizers�first into nitrite and then into nitrate and nitrous oxide. Nitrate is crucial to crop growth, but much of it leeches away, and nitrous oxide has a dual negative effect on the environment�it is a powerful greenhouse gas, and it contributes to depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, making humans more vulnerable to UV radiation. Slowing nitrification to a rate compatible with good crop growth would reduce fertilizer needs and lessen agriculture's impact on the environment.

Improving resource-use efficiency
Providing local water management authorities with a low-cost eye in the sky
Planners and policy makers in poor countries often lack the data to manage their regional water resources effectively. The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has created low-cost satellite imaging techniques that interpret publicly available satellite images to give an accurate picture of water and land resources at global and local levels. IWMI recently released a global irrigated-area map (see http://www.iwmigiam.org) that provides data and products on irrigation at various resolutions of sub-national to national levels. These remote sensing tools complement traditional methods for tracking water availability and measuring the productivity of water used in agriculture. Because they often use high�quality, public-domain satellite images that are available free of charge from reliable sources such as United States Geological Survey and the (U.S.) National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), this approach offers developing countries a low-cost way to improve water management. The satellite images help local water management authorities determine (e.g., http://www.iwmidsp.org) where there is available water in a river basin at various times of the year; where water is reaching�or not reaching�crops in an irrigation system; spatial distribution of irrigated areas and their cropping intensities; areas affected by droughts and their intensities; and the interaction between the water and the plant in natural vegetation and agricultural areas.

Drip irrigation: Increasing crop yields while saving water
In Africa and South Asia, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) is working with local partners to scale up simple "bucket and drip" irrigation system for poor farmers. For as little as USD$5, this technology allows farmers to apply limited amounts of water to their crops in a way that saves water and increases yields. In drip irrigation, water flows from a raised bucket through a filter into special drip pipes with emitters located at different locations throughout the plot. Water is discharged through the emitters directly into the soil near the plants through a special slow-release technology. IWMI's efforts focus on countries such as South Africa where large numbers of small farmers are already feeling the bite of climate change-induced water scarcity.

Microdoses of fertilizer allow plants to use precious water
Much of the limited precipitation that occurs in low-rainfall regions is, paradoxically, wasted from a farming point of view. This precious resource flows right by the crop and the farmer because it often comes in flood surges, it cannot be absorbed by the degraded soils, or the crops themselves are malnourished and thus unable to draw water efficiently from the soil. Researchers at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) are remedying the situation by rectifying the soil's severe phosphorus and nitrogen deficiency with minute applications of fertilizer�about a soda-pop bottle capful per plant, just one-sixth of the amounts used in developed countries. This practice, called "microdosing," causes the roots to shoot out early and capture water and nutrients that otherwise would have gone to waste. Even with African fertilizer costs approximately three times higher than in those in the developed world, microdosing is profitable and has resulted in yield increases averaging around 50 percent in thousands of trials with millet, sorghum, and maize in West and Southern Africa.

Doing more with less: No-till agriculture mitigates greenhouse gases
Using data on soil nutrients and carbon emissions�and equipped with tractors--researchers at the Rice-Wheat Consortium (RWC), convened by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), are helping farmers in India and elsewhere radically transform agriculture while mitigating the release of gases that cause global warming. Much of soil's carbon content is released into the atmosphere when it is plowed, or tilled, which farmers do with tractors up to 12 times per planting season. Tilling not only contributes to atmospheric carbon buildup, but it also increases the need for fertilizer as the soil is depleted of the carbon needed to maintain nutrients essential to healthy crop production. In India's Indo-Ganges region, an increasing number of farmers now plant wheat seeds directly into the stubble remaining from the just-harvested rice on a single tractor pass or on the drastically reduced till fields�not the 12 they are accustomed to. On each hectare of land, farmers save 50-60 liters of diesel and approximately 1 million liters of irrigation water. Using a conversion factor of 2.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide per liter of diesel burned, this represents about a quarter-ton fewer emissions per hectare of carbon dioxide, the principal contributor to global warming. A study has revealed that zero till (ZT) agriculture-induced water savings (in 3 million hectares, the current acreage of ZT wheat in South Asia) may be close to 1.18 billion m3 of irrigation water. In financial terms, ZT practice on 3 million hectares has resulted in a net income increase of USD$23 million per season, comprising a "cost-saving effect" of USD$146 million and "yield effect" of USD$92 million. Annual diesel fuel savings would amount to a half-billion liters--equivalent to a reduction of nearly 1.3 million tons in carbon dioxide.

Water harvesting: Learning from desert dwellers
In dryland regions, meager seasonal rainfall is diffused over such a wide area that it is of little benefit to plants before it runs off or soaks into the soil. For hundreds, even thousands of years, farmers in West Asia and North Africa, some of the driest regions on earth, have diverted rainfall from large areas into smaller parcels where the precious moisture can benefit crops or trees. While the technique, known as water harvesting, is neither high-tech or new, researchers at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) are working to compile details on scores of traditional systems to help farmers refine them and introduce them to new communities. For example, on the dry steppes of Jordan and elsewhere in the region, gentle hillsides resemble large checkerboards covered with a series of diamond-shaped plots, called negarim, which are bordered by low earthen ridges. Sprouting from the downhill tip of the diamond, where the slope's run-off collects, are trees--almond, olive, apricot, and pistachio. Researchers have helped make negarim even more efficient by working with farmers to line the pits with polymer sheets to minimize evaporation from soil surface, and to use polymers to increase the storage capacity of the soil so sufficient run-off is kept for the harshest days of the long, dry summer. In North Africa, farmers build terraced stone and earth walls, called tabias, across the beds of steep wadis�dry gullies that flood during rain�to collect and retain soil and water that otherwise would be washed down the wadis. The tabias retain enough moisture in the captured soil to grow olives and barley, the traditional crops, and sometimes apples, apricots, and chickpeas. In Syria, degraded rangelands benefited from water harvesting by mechanizing the construction of the traditional microcatchment ridges using a specialized plow. Shrubs' survival rate was increased, and the plants survived prolonged drought.

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