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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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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Organic farming and local products not always better for the environment - report

Norman Borlaug, the father of the 'Green Revolution' and Nobel laureate, has often said that organic farming is more an ideological statement of scientifically illiterate but wealthy consumers, than an agronomically sensible idea. In an interview with Reason Magazine he explained why:
Reason: What do you think of organic farming? A lot of people claim it's better for human health and the environment.
That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have--the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues--and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.
At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There's a lot of nonsense going on here.
If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive.
The scientist who understands the complexities of food security like no other indicates that introducing organic farming in the developing world would be disastrous for the environment, because it requires more land and extensive forms of agriculture. Instead, and in the name of sustainability, Borlaug advocates classic recipes that have proved to work, and that have brought food security to billions: fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, plant-breeding and crop improvement, biotech research, and if necessary, genetically modified crops. (By the way, Borlaug is working on genetically improving cassava, as part of an effort to produce biofuels in the South, to alleviate poverty and food insecurity - earlier post).

It seems like Borlaug has got it right, at least as far as his critique of organic farming is concerned. In a new study, Britain's environmental protection agency DEFRA (Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs) shows that organic farming is often worse for the environment than classic, intensive farming.

The report, titled "The Environmental Impact of Food Production and Consumption" [*.pdf], concludes that the environmental benefits of organic food production are not clear and that locally-sourced rather than globally-sourced products are not necessarily more energy efficient. It also shows that reduced use of fertilizers requires more, not less, land for agriculture, increasing pressure on natural forests and ecosystems.

Recently, we urged European and American consumers to think more carefully about their consumer actions, as they affect millions of poor farmers, their environment and the biofuels future. Applying the idea of 'food miles', for example, which has become quite fashionable, would in all seriousness require quite complex and refined analyses and comparisons of products, which are currently lacking. The concept has become hip as part of a 'buy local' campaign, but its gratuitous application can have perverse effects, both from an environmental and energetic point of view. It may actually be wiser to import food and biofuels from a country thousands of kilometres away.

More importantly, we think, is the lack of insights into the potentially disastrous socio-economic effects of such campaigns: poor farmers in the South who today produce for the lucrative markets of the North may be kicked back into poverty, just because individuals in the West decide "to do something" about climate change and for sustainability, while in fact they are doing the contrary. And when these farmers lose their markets, they are forced to resort back to extensive, environmentally destructive agricultural practises (earlier post).

This is why the DEFRA report is more than welcome. It may teach consumers in the West that there is no quick-fix to solve climate change, the energy crisis or poverty in the South. Concepts such as 'food miles', 'fair trade', 'carbon footprints' and 'organic' certainly have their merits, but when they are used gratuituously, as marketing labels and picked up by questionable campaigns or trend-driven individuals, they can be very damaging.

DEFRA's report, prepared by the Manchester Business School, is based on the analysis of the full environmental impacts of 150 top-selling food items. Seven food groups were considered: basic carbohydrate foods, fruit and vegetables, dairy products, meat products, fish and other basic protein foods, drinks – alcoholic and non-alcoholic, and mixed products, snacks and other items. Amongst the factors analysed were:
  • the effect on water in the area (both usage and pollution)
  • energy use for cultivation
  • global warming potential
  • impacts arising from nutrient releases
  • processing, refrigeration and packaging impacts
"This is the first time such a comprehensive review of the available evidence has been carried out in the UK, and it highlights some challenging problems that DEFRA will need to consider in their development of policies for sustainable food production and consumption," says project director professor Ken Green:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"If you are concerned about the 'carbon footprint' of foods, there can be good case for importing some of them (eg tomatoes or lamb) even if they can be grown in the UK. The evidence available so far shows that 'local' is not always the best option for the environment.”

The main findings of the report further showed that:

-the environmental benefits of organic food production are not clear-cut
-there is no clear evidence in environmental terms to support locally-sourced rather than globally-sourced shopping. For some foods, global sourcing might be a better option for the environment;
-the impact of car-based shopping by individual consumers is greater than the impact of transport within the food production distribution system
-the impact of packaging on food is difficult to quantify because the disposal of that packaging varies within the UK (eg discard rates by consumers and recycling/ recovery policies in different local authorities)

The authors caution that the report only considers the environmental effects of food production and consumption, and not the social or economic impacts of sourcing agricultural products locally or buying organic. These, in fact, may often be even worse, considering that many products are produced by millions of small-scale farmers in the developing world. If consumers in the West suddenly decide to 'go local' - for whatever obscure reason - these farmers are kicked back into poverty because they lose their markets.

More information:

DEFRA Environmental Protection: Sustainable Consumption and Production. Research programme themes: Theme 4: Impacts of food production and consumption.

Manchester Business School: DEFRA study highlights challenges of “sustainable consumption” - Feb. 4. 2007

Foster, C. et al. (2007) The Environmental Impact of Food Production and Consumption A report to the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs. [*.pdf, 6MB] Manchester Business School. DEFRA, London.

Reason Online: Billions Served: Norman Borlaug interviewed by Ronald Bailey - Apr. 2000.


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