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    Taiwan's Feng Chia University has succeeded in boosting the production of hydrogen from biomass to 15 liters per hour, one of the world's highest biohydrogen production rates, a researcher at the university said Friday. The research team managed to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which can be captured and stored) from the fermentation of different strains of anaerobes in a sugar cane-based liquefied mixture. The highest yield was obtained by the Clostridium bacterium. Taiwan News - November 14, 2008.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Malawi's super harvest proves biofuel critics wrong - or, how to beat hunger and produce more oil than OPEC

An army of development 'experts', food aid agencies, NGOs, 'green' journalists and malthusians have tried to wage a war against bioenergy, saying it will impact the food security of the poor, because the planet doesn't have enough land or resources and because markets fail. They often point to countries that are suffering famines to make their case, saying they can never produce both food and fuels.

Now the mother of all examples that completely smashes this static, irrational, malthusian vision comes from Malawi, long seen as a miserable begging bowl in permanent crisis. Anyone who dares to suggest that Malawi, of all places, can grow enough biofuels and food to both feed its entire population while powering its entire economy with green fuels, will be labelled a 'criminal' or a 'psycho'. Well, this year's super harvest in Malawi proves that the psycho is in fact the rational one in the crowd.

This year, Malawi is selling corn to the UN's World Food Program and is exporting hundreds of thousands of tons of corn to its hungry neighbors. Had it decided to turn it into biofuels, it would have replaced all its imported and expensive fossil fuels all at once and become entirely oil independent (Malawi consumes around 5,500 barrels of oil per day).

From begging bowl to major food and virtual fuel exporter... How is this possible? What happened? How come the starving stomachs used so profusely by anti-bioenergy advocates are suddenly so full of food, so full in fact that the country's farmers are swimming in food?

Well, all of this is due to an extremely simple intervention: a moratorium on listening to doomers, World Bank experts, NGOs and other self-declared experts who have a history of advocating disastrous plans. The government of Malawi did the contrary, and finally implemented what rational people with a knowledge of African agriculture have been urging it to do for ages: making available cheap fertilizers. That's it. Nothing more.

We haven't even begun to talk about other very basic interventions, such as providing better seeds, improving infrastructures (road, rail, waterways), making available cheaper fuels (biofuels instead of petrofuels), disseminating basic agronomic insight, improving market access, creating a fair global trade regime, and so on. No, just a single one of these basics makes the difference between starvation and becoming a major regional food exporter.

The effects of this simple intervention have been truly amazing. In Malawi itself, writes Celia Dugger in Ending Famine, Simply by Ignoring the Experts, the prevalence of acute child hunger has fallen sharply. In October, the United Nations Children’s Fund sent three tons of powdered milk, stockpiled here to treat severely malnourished children, to Uganda instead. “We will not be able to use it!” Juan Ortiz-Iruri, Unicef’s deputy representative in Malawi, said jubilantly:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Farmers explain Malawi’s extraordinary turnaround — one with broad implications for hunger-fighting methods across Africa — with one word: fertilizer.

Over the past 20 years, the World Bank and some rich nations Malawi depends on for aid have periodically pressed this small, landlocked country to adhere to free market policies and cut back or eliminate fertilizer subsidies, even as the United States and Europe extensively subsidized their own farmers. But after the 2005 harvest, the worst in a decade, Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s newly elected president, decided to follow what the West practiced, not what it preached.

Stung by the humiliation of pleading for charity, he led the way to reinstating and deepening fertilizer subsidies despite a skeptical reception from the United States and Britain. Malawi’s soil, like that across sub-Saharan Africa, is gravely depleted, and many, if not most, of its farmers are too poor to afford fertilizer at market prices.

“As long as I’m president, I don’t want to be going to other capitals begging for food,” Mr. Mutharika declared. Patrick Kabambe, the senior civil servant in the Agriculture Ministry, said the president told his advisers, “Our people are poor because they lack the resources to use the soil and the water we have.”

The country’s successful use of subsidies is contributing to a broader reappraisal of the crucial role of agriculture in alleviating poverty in Africa and the pivotal importance of public investments in the basics of a farm economy: fertilizer, improved seed, farmer education, credit and agricultural research.

Malawi, an overwhelmingly rural nation about the size of Pennsylvania, is an extreme example of what happens when those things are missing. As its population has grown and inherited landholdings have shrunk, impoverished farmers have planted every inch of ground. Desperate to feed their families, they could not afford to let their land lie fallow or to fertilize it. Over time, their depleted plots yielded less food and the farmers fell deeper into poverty.

Malawi’s leaders have long favored fertilizer subsidies, but they reluctantly acceded to donor prescriptions, often shaped by foreign-aid fashions in Washington, that featured a faith in private markets and an antipathy to government intervention.

In the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the World Bank pushed Malawi to eliminate fertilizer subsidies entirely. Its theory both times was that Malawi’s farmers should shift to growing cash crops for export and use the foreign exchange earnings to import food, according to Jane Harrigan, an economist at the University of London.

In a withering evaluation of the World Bank’s record on African agriculture, the bank’s own internal watchdog concluded in October not only that the removal of subsidies had led to exorbitant fertilizer prices in African countries, but that the bank itself had often failed to recognize that improving Africa’s declining soil quality was essential to lifting food production.

“The donors took away the role of the government and the disasters mounted,” said Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist who lobbied Britain and the World Bank on behalf of Malawi’s fertilizer program and who has championed the idea that wealthy countries should invest in fertilizer and seed for Africa’s farmers.

Here in Malawi, deep fertilizer subsidies and lesser ones for seed, abetted by good rains, helped farmers produce record-breaking corn harvests in 2006 and 2007, according to government crop estimates. Corn production leapt to 2.7 million metric tons in 2006 and 3.4 million in 2007 from 1.2 million in 2005, the government reported.

“The rest of the world is fed because of the use of good seed and inorganic fertilizer, full stop,” said Stephen Carr, who has lived in Malawi since 1989, when he retired as the World Bank’s principal agriculturalist in sub-Saharan Africa. “This technology has not been used in most of Africa. The only way you can help farmers gain access to it is to give it away free or subsidize it heavily.”

“The government has taken the bull by the horns and done what farmers wanted,” he said. Some economists have questioned whether Malawi’s 2007 bumper harvest should be credited to good rains or subsidies, but an independent evaluation, financed by the United States and Britain, found that the subsidy program accounted for a large share of this year’s increase in corn production.

The harvest also helped the poor by lowering food prices and increasing wages for farm workers. Researchers at Imperial College London and Michigan State University concluded in their preliminary report that a well-run subsidy program in a sensibly managed economy “has the potential to drive growth forward out of the poverty trap in which many Malawians and the Malawian economy are currently caught.”

Farmers interviewed recently in Malawi’s southern and central regions said fertilizer had greatly improved their ability to fill their bellies with nsima, the thick, cornmeal porridge that is Malawi’s staff of life.

In the hamlet of Mthungu, Enelesi Chakhaza, an elderly widow whose husband died of hunger five years ago, boasted that she got two ox-cart-loads of corn this year from her small plot instead of half a cart.

Last year, roughly half the country’s farming families received coupons that entitled them to buy two 110-pound bags of fertilizer, enough to nourish an acre of land, for around $15 — about a third the market price. The government also gave them coupons for enough seed to plant less than half an acre.

What this means for bioenergy
Malawi's progress is just an example of what Biopact has been saying all along: basic, minimal interventions in agriculture have the capacity to unlock an enormous food and fuel potential. Malawi's example can, and should be replicated in the majority of African countries, who have plenty of land and excellent agro-climatic conditions, which should make them huge food and biofuel exporters, instead of remaining miserable food and oil dependent begging bowls.

There is no lack of agricultural or natural resources limiting food and biofuel production for the world's populations and energy markets. Everyone who says this, refuses to look at the science.

Many analyses about the world's sustainable bioenergy potential show that the planet can sustain a very large amount of green fuels. Researchers from the International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 40 have estimated it to be around 1400 Exajoules of biofuels and bioenergy by 2050. That is 7 (seven) times more energy than all the oil currently consumed by the entire world.

This potential is explicitly sustainable, meaning all the food, fiber, fodder and forest products needs of growing populations are met, and without deforestation.

The largest potential can be found in Africa, where hundreds of millions of hectares of land are not used, and where agricultural productivity can be vastly improved with relatively simple means (as in the Malawian example).

Now the question is: how to unlock this potential further still? The answers are fairly straightforward: we need investments in basic, modern infrastructures (road, rail, waterways, ports - all of which are absent in Africa); we need investments in critical but ultra-basic agricultural inputs, like fertilizers (see the call made during last year's Africa Fertilizer Summit, or another example of the amazing effects of micro-dosages), herbicides, better seeds, mechanised harvesting, and basic agronomical science (all of this is absent in Africa, but can readily be transferred from high tech agricultural nations); we need basic investments in land, in market access and marketing, in export capacity and in a removal of market barriers. We need a fair global trade regime.

If these transformations are made, and they can be made if we decide to do so, the world can overcome Peak Oil easily, and produce many times more oil than OPEC, sustainably, and in a renewable way - that is, year after year, without depleting the resource.

It is time the so-called 'experts', World Bankers, NGOs and malthusians start to listen to science and reason. Then it will become clear to them that there is no inherent conflict between food and fuel. On the contrary, both food and fuel production can boost each other, especially in poor, oil dependent countries.

Picture: Women in the Dezda district of Malawi pounding corn to make nsima, the thick cornmeal porridge that is the national staple. Malawi's government ignored experts and supplied fertilizer subsidies to farmers, contributing to record-breaking corn harvests.Credit: New York Times.


New York Times: Ending Famine, Simply by Ignoring the Experts - December 2, 2007.

Biopact: IEA study: large potential for biomass trade, under different scenarios - May 13, 2007

Biopact: A look at Africa's biofuels potential - July 30, 2006

Biopact: Harvard Center for International Development: "Biofuels can match oil production" - November 06, 2007

Biopact: Fertilizers boost crop production amongst smallholders in Zimbabwe - April 13, 2007

Biopact: Experts meet to boost African farm yields - June 11, 2006


Blogger Josie said...

The content of this article demonstrates a staggering lack of awareness of the history of the past 30 years.

The World Bank, IMF and, until recently, aid agencies like DFID have for 30 years been enthralled by free market fundamentalist doctrines. They forced African countries under structural adjustment programmes to dismantle their cheap fertilizer programmes and other agricultural supports because they 'distort trade' and 'crowd out' private investors. The result- African agriculture stagnated and sometimes collapsed.

Name ONE NGO that supported this please?

The 'doom mongers' and 'NGOs' and 'green' journalists you despise were the VERY ONES campaigning against this for years and years.
Saying, that markets fail. Campaigning for the very kinds of things that Malawi implemented so successfully.

Now I think that biofuels are very complex and there are good arguments on both sides. But it does not bode well if you have such an incredible lack of understanding of the political background to this. It is PRECISELY the 'doom mongers' about markets who were right about the need for state support of agriculture in Africa, as is now, at last, being recognised.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Josie said...

On reflection maybe there are some right wing NGOs. Although I tend to think of NGOs as things like Oxfam, I don't know the precise definition. Is the Adam Smith institute an NGO?
Anyway, main points remain the same.

11:48 AM  
Anonymous Jonas said...

Josie, you are confusing things.

The World Bank and the IMF discouraged subsidies, which means subsidized fertilizer plans were abandoned - with catastrophic consequences.

The 'NGOs' the article refers to discouraged fertilizers, and encourage organic, small-scale, non-intensive farming. This has resulted in equally catastrophic consequences.

So the WB/IMF discourage subsidies, and the NGOs discourage fertilizers.

The combined result is the disaster we see in Africa.

Have you read former UK Chief Scientist Sir David King's recent speech titled "Green Activists Keeping Africa Poor"? You should read it. It shows the point we make in the article, very well.

Africa needs Green Revolution recipes (preferrably those making up the so-called "Greener" Revolution - i.e. keeping the interventions that worked in the former Green Revolution, and dumping those that didn't.)

Sir David King's view that "Green Activists are Keeping Africa Poor" can be found here.

10:09 PM  
Blogger Josie said...

Okay, I misunderstood.

However in David King's attitude is a similar piece of historical revisionism to the one that I thought you were saying - that the West's attitude towards Africa has been this cosy one of 'upholding tradtion' and this is to blame for Africa's problems.

Surely the most dominant influence of the West in Africa over the past 30 years has been through the IFI's nearly completely running their ecnomomies? Is this a secret that it is so rarely discussed?

The IMF/World Bank have had exactly the opposite approach to that which David King blames for Africa's failure to develop- force countries to start privatising the land to replace traditional forms of land ownership, force the government to adopt free market principles, try to make everything 'efficient' and damn the vulnerable and the precious things that get trashed in the process. Now that these policies have been a failure even on their own terms, people like David King argue for more of the same, while pretending that the whole problem has been the environmentalists and sentimental types who would rather 'uphold Africa's traditions'. Yes the IFI's took away the fertiliser, but that was not because they are sentimental environmentalists, but because of their free market paradigm. So are the right causes being attributed here?

7:34 PM  

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