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    One of India's largest sugar companies, the Birla group will invest 8 billion rupees (US$187 million) to expand sugar and biofuel ethanol output and produce renewable electricity from bagasse, to generate more revenue streams from its sugar business. Reuters India - April 9, 2007.

    An Iranian firm, Mashal Khazar Darya, is to build a cellulosic ethanol plant that will utilise switchgrass as its feedstock at a site it owns in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The investment is estimated to be worth €112/US$150 million. The plant's capacity will be 378 million liters (100 million gallons), supplied by switchgrass grown on 4400 hectares of land. PressTv (Iran) - April 9, 2007.

    The Africa Power & Electricity Congress and Exhibition, to take place from 16 - 20 April 2007, in the Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa, will focus on bioenergy and biofuels. The Statesman - April 7, 2007.

    Petrobras and Petroecuador have signed a joint performance MOU for a technical, economic and legal viability study to develop joint projects in biofuel production and distribution in Ecuador. The project includes possible joint Petroecuador and Petrobras investments, in addition to qualifying the Ecuadorian staff that is directly involved in biofuel-related activities with the exchange of professionals and technical training. PetroBras - April 5, 2007.

    The Société de Transport de Montréal is to buy 8 biodiesel-electric hybrid buses that will use 20% less fuel and cut 330 tons of GHG emissions per annum. Courrier Ahuntsic - April 3, 2007.

    Thailand mandates B2, a mixture of 2% biodiesel and 98% diesel. According to Energy Minister Piyasvasti Amranand, the mandate comes into effect by April next year. Bangkok Post - April 3, 2007.

    In what is described as a defeat for the Bush administration, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled [*.pdf] today that environmental officials have the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that spur global warming. By a 5-4 vote, the nation's highest court told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its refusal to regulate carbon dioxide and other emissions from new cars and trucks that contribute to climate change. Reuters - April 2, 2007.

    Goldman Sachs estimates that, in the absence of current trade barriers, Latin America could supply all the ethanol required in the US and Europe at a cost of $45 per barrel – just over half the cost of US-made ethanol. EuroToday - April 2, 2007.

    The Kauai Island Utility Cooperative signed a long-term purchase power agreement last week with Green Energy Team, LLC. The 20-year agreement enables KIUC to purchase power from Green Energy's proposed 6.4 megawatt biomass-to-energy facility, which will use agricultural waste to generate power. Honolulu Advertiser - April 2, 2007.

    The market trend to heavier, more powerful hybrids is eroding the fuel consumption advantage of hybrid technology, according to a study done by researchers at the University of British Columbia. GreenCarCongress - March 30, 2007.

    Hungarian privately-owned bio-ethanol project firm Mabio is planning to complete an €80-85 million ethanol plant in Southeast Hungary's Csabacsud by end-2008. Onet/Interfax - March 29, 2007.

    Energy and engineering group Abengoa announces it has applied for planning permission to build a bioethanol plant in north-east England with a capacity of about 400,000 tonnes a year. Reuters - March 29, 2007.

    The second European Summer School on Renewable Motor Fuels will be held in Warsaw, Poland, from 29 to 31 August 2007. The goal of the event is to disseminate the knowledge generated within the EU-funded RENEW (Renewable Fuels for Advanced Powertrains) project and present it to the European academic audience and stakeholders. Topics on the agenda include generation of synthetic gas from biomass and gas cleaning; transport fuel synthesis from synthetic gas; biofuel use in different motors; biomass potentials, supply and logistics, and technology, cost and life-cycle assessment of BtL pathways. Cordis News - March 27, 2007.

    Green Swedes want even more renewables, according to a study from Gothenburg University. Support for hydroelectricity and biofuels has increased, whereas three-quarters of people want Sweden to concentrate more on wind and solar too. Swedes still back the nuclear phase-out plans. The country is Europe's largest ethanol user. It imports 75% of the biofuel from Brazil. Sveriges Radio International - March 27, 2007.

    Fiat will launch its Brazilian-built flex-fuel Uno in South Africa later this year. The flex-fuel Uno, which can run on gasoline, ethanol or any combination of the two fuels, was displayed at the Durban Auto Show, and is set to become popular as South Africa enters the ethanol era. Automotive World - March 27, 2007.

    Siemens Power Generation (PG) is to supply two steam turbine gensets to a biomass-fired plant in Três Lagoas, 600 kilometers northwest of São Paulo. The order, valued at €22 million, was placed by the Brazilian company Pöyry Empreendimentos, part of VCP (Votorantim Celulose e Papel), one of the biggest cellulose producers in the Americas. PRDomain - March 25, 2007.

    Asia’s demand for oil will nearly double over the next 25 years and will account for 85% of the increased demand in 2007, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) officials forecast yesterday at a Bangkok-hosted energy conference. Daily Times - March 24, 2007.

    Portugal's government expects total investment in biomass energy will reach €500 million in 2012, when its target of 250MW capacity is reached. By that date, biomass will reduce 700,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. By 2010, biomass will represent 5% of the country's energy production. Forbes - March 22, 2007.

    The Scottish Executive has announced a biomass action plan for Scotland, through which dozens of green energy projects across the region are set to benefit from an additional £3 million of funding. The plan includes greater use of the forestry and agriculture sectors, together with grant support to encourage greater use of biomass products. Energy Business Review Online - March 21, 2007.

    The U.S. Dep't of Agriculture's Forest Service has selected 26 small businesses and community groups to receive US$6.2 million in grants from for the development of innovative uses for woody biomass. American Agriculturalist - March 21, 2007.

    Three universities, a government laboratory, and several companies are joining forces in Colorado to create what organizers hope will be a major player in the emerging field of converting biomass into fuels and other products. The Colorado Center for Biorefining & Biofuels, or C2B2, combines the biofuels and biorefining expertise of the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the Colorado School of Mines, and the Colorado-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Founding corporate members include Dow Chemical, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell. C&EN - March 20, 2007.

    The city of Rome has announced plans to run its public bus fleet on a fuel mix of 20 per cent biodiesel. The city council has signed an accord that would see its 2800 buses switch to the blended fuel in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution. A trial of 200 buses, if successful, would see the entire fleet running on the biofuel mix by the end of 2008. Estimates put the annual emission savings at 40,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. CarbonPositive - March 19, 2007.

    CODON (Dutch Biotech Study Association) organises a symposium on the 'Biobased Economy' in Wageningen, Netherlands, home of one of Europe's largest agricultural universities. In a biobased economy, chemistry companies and other non-food enterprises primarily use renewable materials and biomass as their resources, instead of petroleum. The Netherlands has the ambition to have 30% of all used materials biobased, by 2030. FoodHolland - March 19, 2007.

    Energy giants BP and China National Petroleum Corp, the PRC's biggest oil producer, are among the companies that are in talks with Guangxi Xintiande Energy Co about buying a stake in the southern China ethanol producer to expand output. Xintiande Energy currently produces ethanol from cassava. ChinaDaily - March 16, 2007.

    Researchers at eTEC Business Development Ltd., a biofuels research company based in Vienna, Austria, have devised mobile facilities that successfully convert the biodiesel by-product glycerin into electricity. The facilities, according to researchers, will provide substantial economic growth for biodiesel plants while turning glycerin into productive renewable energy. Biodiesel Magazine - March 16, 2007.

    Ethanol Africa, which plans to build eight biofuel plants in the maize belt, has secured funding of €83/US$110 million (825 million Rand) for the first facility in Bothaville, its principal shareholder announced. Business Report - March 16, 2007.

    A joint venture between Energias de Portugal SGPS and Altri SGPS will be awarded licences to build five 100 MW biomass power stations in Portugal's eastern Castelo Branco region. EDP's EDP Bioelectrica unit and Altri's Celulose de Caima plan to fuel the power stations with forestry waste material. Total investment on the programme is projected at €250/US$333 million with 800 jobs being created. Forbes - March 16, 2007.

    Indian bioprocess engineering firm Praj wins €11/US$14.5 million contract for the construction of the wheat and beet based bio-ethanol plant for Biowanze SA in Belgium, a subsidiary of CropEnergies AG (a Sudzucker Group Company). The plant has an ethanol production capacity of 300,000 tons per year. IndiaPRWire - March 15, 2007.

    Shimadzu Scientific Instruments announced the availability of its new white paper, “Overview of Biofuels and the Analytical Processes Used in their Manufacture.” The paper is available for free download at the company’s website. The paper offers an overview of the rapidly expanding global biofuel market with specific focus on ethanol and biodiesel used in auto transportation. It provides context for these products within the fuel market and explains raw materials and manufacturing. Most important, the paper describes the analytical processes and equipment used for QA testing of raw materials, in-process materials, and end products. BusinessWire - March 15, 2007.

    Côte d'Ivoire's agriculture minister Amadou Gon has visited the biofuels section of the Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris, one of the largest fairs of its kind. According to his communication office, the minister is looking into drafting a plan for the introduction of biofuels in the West African country. AllAfrica [*French] - March 13, 2007.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

An in-depth look at Brazil's "Social Fuel Seal"

Even though the Brazilian biofuels revolution has been a scientific, agronomic and technological success, it has not been a very equitable one. Professor Ignacy Sachs, economist at the EHESS, green geopolitical thinker, éminence grise of development economics, and expert [*.pdf] on the social effects of Brazil's ethanol industry, is formal: the sector has strengthened an age-old tradition with roots going back to the colonial era, in which the increasing concentration of capital, land and power, and the commodification of rural labor go hand in hand. Segments of Brazil's civil society share Sachs' vision on the ethanol industry (amongst them Brazil's socially engaged Catholic Church) and are calling for stronger interventions by the left-leaning Lula government.

Sugarcane ethanol as it is currently produced may well be environmentally sustainable and highly efficient (earlier post), doubts clearly remain over its equally important social sustainability (earlier post): labor conditions for sugarcane cutters and planters are poor (even though new laws on safety are changing this situation), wage levels are basic (but here too, new minimum wages have seriously improved the fate of the workers) and the industry stimulates seasonal labor and internal migrations. On the other hand, increased mechanisation - 1 in 3 plantations are now harvested mechanically - takes away the chance for many rural poor to make a living alltogether, and transforms them from rural into urban migrants who join the millions of poor living in the favelas of Brazil's mega-cities.

The left-leaning Brazilian government is now trying to create a rupture in this complex situation by implementing unique legislation that offers the opportunity to make biofuels the motor of a process in which the redistribution of wealth and the fight against rural poverty are key, and which provides secure livelihoods to poor farmers. The goal is to create a win-win synergy between industrial biofuel producers' needs to be competitive and small family-run farms whose livelihoods are otherwise threatened. Mind you, the policy is new and concrete results still have to prove its viability. But at first sight, the compromise looks promising.

'Social fuel'
The core of the new policy is the so-called 'Social Fuel Seal' - an instrument that gives biodiesel producers incentives to source their raw materials from smallholders and family farmers. The farmers in turn receive technical assistance and agricultural training, organised by an extension service financed by the biofuel producer that goes beyond mere feedstock production and that enhances food production and security. Under the Social Fuel Seal both biodiesel producers and family farmers can tap into special credit lines, whereas small farmers enjoy a strong body of social rights that empower them during contract and price negotiations. They are assisted and stimulated to create 'Family Farmer Cooperatives' that act as the intermediary between the smallholders and the biodiesel producers. In fact, the system itself contains a mechanism that makes biodiesel producer prefer to work with such cooperatives.

The Social Fuel Seal is tied to Brazil's new National Biodiesel Program, and was crafted precisely to break with the problems inherent in the older Bioethanol Program. The Seal is quite refined and directly intervenes in the most crucial aspect of biodiesel production: feedstock costs and modes of production. The system takes into account regionally determined social inequalities and the geographically specific agro-ecological potential for biodiesel feedstock production. It can become a model for other developing countries aiming to launch biofuel programs.

What follows is an in-depth look into this social policy, based on the original legislation. The Biopact team translated the most significant texts in its series of Biofuel Policy Documents, which can be downloaded for free (see below).

Incentives: tax breaks
The idea behind the Social Fuel Seal is simple: biodiesel producers receive tax breaks if they source feedstocks produced by small farmers. The progressive tax breaks are determined by (1) the kind of farmer the producer sources from, (2) by the region in which the farmers produce their oil-rich crops, (3) by the specific crop (this distinction is made because investments in particular crops - like castor or jatropha which grow well in semi-arid zones - logically imply investments in particular regions associated with these agro-ecological conditions; the same regions are correlated with social inequality levels) and (4) by the share of feedstocks sourced from the particular categories of farmers as a percentage of the total amount of raw materials used by the biodiesel producer.

Depending on the combination of these categories, the tax breaks are progressive and can be represented in the following matrix (which is just one example):

The table shows that biodiesel producers who conform to the criteria of the Social Fuel Seal and who source from the poorest category of farmers in the most problematic regions can enjoy a full tax exemption. The breaks in question apply to the following taxes:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

  • The federal social security contribution, levied on the gross revenue of the biodiesel company ("Cofins"), which is fixed at 7.6%.
  • The federal social inclusion contribution, part of a Social Integration Program ("PIS/PASEP"), equally levied on the company's gross revenue, fixed at 1.65%.
More information on the Brazilian system of social contributions and taxes can be found in this basic overview [*.pdf].

In practise, and as things stand today, this comes down to the following numbers per cubic meter of biodiesel: a producer without the Social Fuel Seal, who doesn't source from either kind of regionally categorised small farmers, pays R$39.65 PIS/PASEP and R$182.55 COFINS (or US$19.2 and US$88.4, or a total of around US$110 per ton). If he sources from the best category, he saves US$ 110 per ton - which is a highly attractive proposition.

Several major biodiesel producers in Brazil have joined the program. Testimony to the fact that the Social Fuel Seal's regionally and socially determined tax break scheme is quite refined, can be found in a map which shows the regional distribution of biodiesel producers who joined the program in 2006 (click to enlarge).

Obtaining the Social Fuel Seal
But there are costs involved for the biodiesel producer - he will have to weigh them off against the benefits of the tax break. If a biodiesel producer wants to obtain the Social Fuel Seal, he must adhere to the following strict criteria:
  • he must enter into formal contracts with the feedstock producers and follow a strict contract negotiation procedure
  • he must allow the presence of a rural union representative during all negotiations; this representative can be delegated by the Family Farmers Cooperative, or, in case the producer sources from individual farmers, by a government-recognised rural union appointed for this task (note that the biodiesel producer will prefer to negotiate with Cooperatives, in order to cut back on red tape and cumbersome contract negotiations with individual producers; this system stimulates the creation of Family Farmer Cooperatives)
  • he must provide clearly described extension services, technical assistance and agricultural training aimed at helping the farmer increase production, not only of biofuel feedstocks, but of an integrated fuel-and-food production system; he can organise this himself, but in that case an easy but strict procedure must be followed that guarantees high quality services to the family farmers; alternatively, he can outsource these tasks to trustworthy (and certified) institutions.
  • his must allow a yearly evaluation of the project by external agencies, managed by the Ministry of Rural Development
A relatively complex calculus proves that, as biodiesel prices (tied to oil prices) and consequent profits stand today, the biodiesel producer will choose for the Social Fuel Seal and the costs that go with it (extension services, training, etc...), as the highly fined-tuned tax break system makes the option attractive.

The Social Fuel Seal further breaks down the amount of feedstock the producer must minimally source from small farmers, relative to the geographical zone he operates in and sources from. The zones are refined and correlate strongly with socio-economic indicators (such as income inequality, poverty, educational and health status, etc...). Three broad regions are identified (and further refined by the PRONAF - see below). The quantities involved can be expressed both as a percentage of the value of the crops, or in absolute numbers, as a metric quantity (tons). The methods depend on which crops are involved and the combination of feedstocks the biodiesel manufacturer wishes to use.
  • The semi-arid North and the Nordeste - this is by far Brazil's poorest region and has been the subject of many attempts to create policies that effectively fight poverty here; if the producer wants to obtain the Social Fuel Seal and the best tax breaks, he must source 50% of his biodiesel feedstocks from (small farmers) from this zone
  • The South-East and South: fertile but relatively poor regions; if the producer wants to obtain the Social Fuel Seal and the best tax breaks, he must source 30% of his biodiesel feedstocks from (small farmers) from this zone
  • The North and Center-West region - Brazil's most fertile regions for the biodiesel crops covered by the legislation; if the producer wants to obtain the Social Fuel Seal and the best tax breaks, he must source 10% of his biodiesel feedstocks from (small farmers) from this zone
External controls on the feedstock 'traffic' are enhanced by relying on highly sophisticated sampling techniques, on field research (yield prognoses and risk assessments) and on satellite data, all carried out by some of Brazil's most prestigious agronomic institutions (such as EMBRAPA).

All feedstock sales and acquisitions are carefully registered by both parties, biodiesel producer and small farmer.

The producer's project is evaluated on a yearly basis but is normally granted the Social Fuel Seal for a period of five years. A simple concession, evaluation, renewal and cancellation procedure has been created. Additionally, he must inform the agricultural cadaster of his activities (related to land use and raw material sourcing), which installs a certain level of transparency.

Who are the small farmers?
The farmers who are the subject of the policy are clearly defined: they are registered within a framework called "Programa Nacional de Fortalecimento da Agricultura Familiar" - "National Program to Strengthen Family-run Agriculture" (PRONAF), managed by the Ministry of Rural development. A well organised data-stream identifies each farmer, the contracts he entered into, his social position and his training needs.

A clear profile of each farmer is thus available, which allows the administration to classify him according to a particular category. This category is then used to calculate the tax breaks for the biodiesel producer.

The farmers are assisted and stimulated into joining their forces by creating Family Farmer Cooperatives. It is reasonable to assume that the biodiesel producer prefers to negotiate with such a Cooperative: what he pays in terms of losing a bit of his negotiation power, he wins in cutting red tape and in time lost by contracting with individual farmers.

The farmers in question are typically smallholders who own between 1 and 4 hectares of land, often just enough to support themselves. With training and better inputs - foreseen under the program - they improve their food security while producing biofuel feedstocks on the side. What is more, they are stimulated to acquire more land, given the fact that they enjoy minimum prices and well defined, advantageous supply contracts, which strengthens their capacity to plan over a longer term, make better informed decisions on what to grow, and ultimately to invest savings into more land.

There are examples of biodiesel producers using the Social Fuel Seal, who have actively negotiated better land deals for the small farmers they contract.

Farmers from Brazil's poorest, semi-arid region, the Nordeste, are the main beneficiaries of the program. It is here that biodiesel crops like jatropha and castor thrive well and require relatively low inputs. Importantly, these crops are highly suitable for small, integrated systems that strengthen food production. Since they are perennial crops, they can act as shades for legumes. Clear scientific evidence has established that win-win synergies appear when intercropping schemes are used (to go short and to stick with just this example: the perennial crops in question produce and enhance fungi growth, which is beneficial for legume cultivation, whereas legumes fix nitrogen which stimulates the growth of the perennial shrubs).

The biodiesel producer's extension service focuses on such integrated systems. The different crops and their implied potential for integration in food-and-fuel systems, is clearly described in the legislation. It is one more - albeit implicit - criterion used to determine the level of the tax break.

Credit lines
Both the small farmers and the biodiesel producer can tap special credit lines and low interest loans from designated banks and financial agents. For the small farmer, a system of micro-credits was created for the production of oil-rich crops (the lines are crop-specific) within the framework of the PRONAF. This institution already offers credits to assist small farmers in their normal agricultural activities; the new credit-line does not compete with the existing one.

PRONAF is integrated in a broader set of highly effective social programs aimed at reducing rural poverty (see below).

Advantages of the system
Besides the attractive tax-breaks, the Social Fuel Seal can be used by the biodiesel producer as a marketing instrument. Even though there are no studies yet on the appeal of the 'brand' and the concept, it is reasonable to assume that it offers a great marketing advantage.

We do have some references in this regard: studies on the value of sustainably produced palm oil, in which 'sustainable' was explicitly illustrated with references to small integrated food-and-fuel systems used by typical smallholders, show that the concept has a considerable marketing strength. Experts predict that as biofuels from the tropics and the developing world become more important, the commercial value of such a label will increase likewise. This provisional evidence was produced by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil - an ongoing dialogue between civil society and industry - and its smallholder taskforce. See this study - Towards better practice in smallholder palm oil production - [*.pdf] and more specifically the chapter on smallholders and biofuels.

For the farmers, the advantages of the Social Fuel Seal are obvious as well:
  • they receive clearly negotiated supply contracts, with a clearly indicated time-frame and prices
  • their contracts are negotiated collectively (via the Cooperative) and in the presence of experienced social actors (a rural union representative)
  • they enjoy mandatory extension services and training;
  • they can rely on the protection of a sophisticated registration, monitoring and evaluation system;
Moreover, the training and technical assistance obligation is crafted in such a way that food and income security are strengthened beyond the more incomes obtained from biofuel feedstock production.

Finally, the system strengthens the creation of cooperatives, and consequently offers the advantages inherent in this organisation form: a democratic decision making process, low entrance and membership barriers and stronger positions during negotiations.

In short, at first sight, the Social Fuel Seal has found an interesting and fine balance between on the one hand the many criteria that need to be fulfilled in order to be able to speak of biofuels that are genuinely 'socially sustainable', and on the other hand, the need for biodiesel producers to remain competitive.

Professor Sachs, with who we opened this article and who inspired the Lula government, has given careful thumbs up for this program. As a leading figure in the analysis of the relationships between the world food and energy system, and of the social effects of rapid agro-industrial expansion in the Global South, his fiat is important (some of Sach's publications are classics in development economics; they include Brazilian Perspectives of Sustainable Development of the Amazon Region, Global Ecology: Transition Strategies for the Twenty­-first Century, and Food and Energy: Strategies for Sustainable Development.)

In Sach's mildly philosophical view, biofuel production, like agriculture, is centered around resources and modes of production that are so primordial to man that they embed a kind of 'social memory', not only of capitalism and colonialism but of pre-capitalist and pre-colonial modes of production. Collective land tenure, nature, farming and social and territorial 'rootedness' form the core of this archetypal order of things. Man's relationship with these material conditions is 'primordial' in the sense that if a 'disaster' ever were to strike a society, a community's resilience and survival depends on these conditions.

Sachs thinks that, precisely for this reason, the biofuels future may open the doors to a radically alternative development paradigm, - pointing to explicitly post-capitalist and post-colonialist modes of production - in which cooperation between social actors, forms of communal land ownership, a redistribution of wealth and sustainability are central. Such a paradigm leads to more social equality and the de-commodification of (rural) labor.

The question obviously is: is the 'Social Fuel Seal' really a first, small step towards such a future? And will such a mechanism ever be strong enough to counter a purely economic, market-driven logic of production and accumulation? It remains an open question.

To complement this brief analysis of the Social Fuel policy, we quickly want to look at existing efforts to fight poverty in Brazil, and especially in the regions where it is traditionally and explicitly prevalent - the Nordeste - and for different classes of people - in this case, small, family operated farms and their poor owners. These efforts are tightly linked to the social biofuels program.

The broader context: Brazil's poverty alleviation programs
The Brazilian government has created several socio-economic programs aimed at re-anchoring small farmers in their environment and at reintegrating poor populations into the formal economic fabric of the country. These programs, such as the “Bolsa Familia” (Family Allowance) and the “Salario Familia” (Family Wage) are much more effective tools to fight poverty and reduce income inequality than classic recipees such as raising the minimum wage, according to a recent study by the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA). It is interesting to quickly look at these programs, because they are the building blocks for Brazil's 'Social Fuel Seal'.

When it comes to fighting extreme poverty, the Family Allowance program is seven times more efficient than increasing the minimum wage, points out Paulo Mansur Levy, Director of Macroeconomic Studies at IPEA and coauthor of “An Agenda for Economic Growth and Poverty Reduction in Brazil.” In other words, the Family Allowance program has a similar impact on extreme poverty as an increase in the minimum wage, but uses 85 percent less resources. Levy added that the program’s impact on moderate poverty is 2.5 times more efficient than wage increases.

In terms of income inequality, the Family Allowance cash transfer program is 5 times more effective than a minimum wage increase. Likewise, the Family Wage is also clearly superior to minimum wage increases in all these scenarios, though its impact is smaller than that of the Family Allowance program, Levy said.

The limited effectiveness of using minimum wage increases as a social policy is not all that surprising, according to Levy, given that minimum wage increases apply to everyone; they are not focused specifically on target populations. The fact is that less than 15 percent of poor families have at least one family member working at the minimum wage rate.

Another reason that minimum wage increases do not reach many people living in poverty is that less than 10 percent of workers with incomes close to the minimum wage rate live in extremely poor families, and only 22 percent of workers earning the minimum wage are heads of poor households, according to the study.

Social policies are more effective at fighting poverty due to integration with other policies and their specific focus, Levy said, referring to both programs, which take into account individual income and the number of children in the household.

To eradicate poverty, poor families must become capable of meeting their basic needs autonomously, Levy said. Social programs such as the Family Allowance and Family Wage programs create conditions that allow poor families to take advantage of opportunities to improve their skills and to make the most of them.

Although many families living in poverty probably could not cover their basic needs without the help of these social programs, the support is not intended to be permanent. Rather, it provides an incentive to get out of poverty and helps them learn how to support their families on their own.

The social sustainability of biodiesel production has become the object of legislation and of concrete projects in Brazil. The policy draws on insights obtained from other poverty alleviation programs.

Whereas the by now widely known ProAlcool program symbolises the past, with its vast industrially run monocultures and its armies of impoverished sugarcane cutters, the new Biodiesel Program symbolises a new era: one of small-scale agriculture and cooperatively run production units, tightly linked to improving the material conditions of the country's poorest.

Ultimately, a convergence between the two modes of production might emerge in the future and result in an ideal order of things that takes into account all conflicting factors that drive large-scale biofuel production.

The land area that is currently up for the social experiments is around 1.5 million hectares and will supply a mandated mixture of 2% biodiesel to the Brazilian market. This pales in comparison with the ethanol program and expansion.

Besides state-run oil company Petrobras, several private companies are already participating in the Social Fuel Seal system. Amongst them the Companhia Refinadora da Amazônia, Brasil Ecodiesel, Soyminas Biodiesel Derivados e Vegetais Ltda, who, together, are cooperating with more than 20,000 rural families registered in the scheme, many of whom are united in 'Family Farmers Cooperatives'.

It is too early to assess the merits of this recently developed system. We do however think it represents an elegant balance between the many conflicting factors at play in producing biofuels in the tropics. Brazil's deep-running social inequalities and contemporary conflicts stemming from its complex history which traditionally opposed large landowners and small farmers, will not be solved by the Social Fuel scheme. But it might offer a first step. If concrete results show the system's effectiveness, Brazil has one more field of expertise to share with developing countries in a South-South relationship.

Jonas Van Den Berg & Laurens Rademakers, CC

More information
The Biopact Team has been collecting a set of some of the most interesting policy documents and legislative texts dealing with biofuel production in the developing world. Brazil's experiences and experiments are of particular interest, because of the country's long-running and large-scale programs.

For this article, we drew on three documents that outline the Social Fuel Seal policy. Translations of the official texts can be freely downloaded. They are:

-Decreto N° 5.297, de 6 de Dezembro de 2004: Dispõe sobre os coeficientes de redução das alíquotas da Contribuição para o PIS/PASEP e da COFINS incidentes na produção e na comercialização de biodiesel, sobre os termos e as condições para a utilização das alíquotas diferenciadas, e dá outras providências [*.pdf], English translation [*.pdf]

-Ministério do Desenvolvimento Agrário: Instrução Normativa no. 01, de 05 de Julho de 2005: Dispõe sobre os critérios e procedimentos relativos à concessão de uso do selo combustível social [*.pdf], English translation [*.pdf]

-Ministério do Desenvolvimento Agrário: Instrução Normativa no. 02, de 30 de Setembro de 2005: Dispõe sobre os critérios e procedimentos relativos ao enquadramento de projetos de produção de biodiesel ao selo combustível social [*.pdf], English translation [*.pdf]

Note: these are working translations.

Ignacy Sachs, "Biofuels are coming of age", [*.pdf] Keynote address at the International Seminar "Assessing the Biofuels Option", IEA Headquarters, Paris, IEA / UN Foundation / Brazilian Government, June 20, 2005

Miguel Clüssener-God and Ignacy Sachs, Brazilian Perspectives of Sustainable Development of the Amazon Region, Man and the Biosphere Series.

Brazil's official website on the Programa Nacional de Produção e Uso de Biodiesel.

A handy leaflet outlining the biodiesel program, in English [*.pdf].

Basic overview of the Selo Combustível Social scheme [*Portuguese].

Website of the PRONAF - "Programa Nacional de Fortalecimento da Agricultura Familiar" - (National Program to Strengthen Family-run Agriculture), with which the small farmers are registered and which manages part of the scheme and its dedicated credit lines; the PRONAF's biodiesel section.

The second part of the documentary "Biocarburants: la révolution brésilienne"/"Sprit aus Zucker", which we discussed earlier, is entirely devoted to the Social Fuel Seal. It shows a 'Family Farmers Cooperative' at work in the arid Nordeste, cultivating Jatropha as a biodiesel feedstock, in an intercropping system with legumes.

Article continues

Space-breeding and nuclear techniques to improve cassava as an energy crop

The Spring issue of Universitas Helsingiensis has a feature on how the latest biotech and nuclear techniques are being used to improve cassava, identified as a promising biofuel crop. The text is an abriged version of a lecture delivered by S. Mohan Jain at the Plenary Session of the 1st International Conference on Cassava Breeding, organised by Brazil's Ministry of the Environment and the University of Brasilia (1–5 December 2006, Brasilia, Brazil).

The author works at the Plant Breeding and Genetics division of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and was awarded a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize certificate for his work as a member of staff of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.

Mohan Jain outlines different breeding techniques - from classic plant tissue culture and somatic embryogenesis over innovative breeding techniques in space to nuclear techniques for inducing useful mutations - and indicates why cassava makes for an ideal bioenergy feedstock. Earlier we already referred to a program by the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute, where Norman Borlaug, father of the 'Green Revolution' is sequencing the crop's genome, in order to improve it with an eye on bioenergy production (earlier post). Improved cassava is set to make vast parts of the developing world prime biofuel producers.

A tropical root crop
Cassava (Manihot esculenta) is a perennial root crop, cultivated all over the tropics for its starchy tuberous roots as a valuable source of calories, and is planted on about 16 million hectares of land. The crop adapts well to a variety of soil and climatic conditions, is drought tolerant and has the ability to be grown on depleted and marginal soil.

The total annual cassava root production worldwide is 184 million tonnes, out of which 50% production is in Africa, 30% in Asia and 20% in Latin America. The average yield varies widely, e.g. 7–10 tonnes/ha in Ghana, which is far below, for example, that of India (26 tonnes/ha) and Thailand (37 tonnes/ha). The low yield in cassava-growing countries is due to poor fertilisation, drought, severe infection of the planting material (stem cuttings) with African cassava mosaic virus (ACMV), East African cassava mosaic virus (EACMV), and the newly identified virus named South African cassava mosaic virus (SACMV), diseases, poor-quality cultivars and the short shelf-life of tuber roots. Yields in these regions can be substantially improved. Cassava is an important source of carbohydrate in adverse climatic conditions. The crop is valued in many areas as a food staple.

In Accra, Ghana, the President launched the President’s Special Initiative (PSI) under which the government will promote cassava starch. The cassava project will create a ready market for 25,000 farmers, and about 70,000 jobs would be created. In Nigeria, a similar project is underway, also called the Presidential Cassava Initiative (earlier post).

In addition, the tuberous roots of cassava can be left in the ground for several years prior to harvesting, providing security against famine. Cassava also has the highest rate of CO2 assimilation into sucrose of any plant measured, and has great potential for enhancing carbohydrate allocation to sink tissues. It is also increasingly being used in processed food and fodder products and by the chemical, pharmaceutical, paper and textile industries.

Cassava nutrition
Cassava is poor in providing sufficient nutrition to its consumers. The tubers are the main source of carbohydrates (35%), and provide a negligible amount of proteins. Fresh leaves have a much higher amount of proteins (7%) than tuber flesh (0.5–1.5%). Starch is the main carbohydrate source in root tubers, and is present in very low levels in fresh leaves. Future efforts are needed to improve cassava nutrition both in root tubers and fresh leaves by using mutagenesis and the latest biological tools, such as molecular biology. The selection of appropriate genetic material should be made from the natural and induced germplasm for the development of new cassava varieties high in nutritional values so that malnutrition and related diseases, e.g. Konzo, could be addressed. Konzo is a neuro-logical disorder and leads to spastic paralysis of the legs; and is attributed to high levels of dietary cyanide in cassava.

Cassava as a biofuel crop
In Brazil, sugar cane is a major bioenergy crop and has made this country a world leader in bio-ethanol production. Cassava has the potential to become another major bio-energy crop together with sugar cane. It is an attractive fuel crop because it can give high yields of starch and total dry matter in spite of drought conditions and poor soil. Energy requirements of cassava represent only 5–6% of the final energy content of the total biomass, showing an energy profit of 95%, assuming complete utilisation of the energy content of the total biomass:
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Alcohol production from cassava has an overall efficiency of 32%. Cassava could become an industrial crop by developing cultivars with different starch compositions. Useful variations in native starch quality – altering the proportion of amylase to amylopectin, for instance, which changes the physiochemical properties of the polymer – could open new market niches at better prices. Molecular tools would be of great value in identifying the genes responsible for starch synthesis.

Dr. Li’s research group, Beijing, China, has developed a new sweet sorghum mutant variety Yuantian No. 1 by seed irradiation with gamma radiation. This variety has 20% more sugar than the parental lines and is an excellent source both as a feed and as a bio-energy crop, or a bio-ethanol producer.

In Thailand, a research group reported the official release of a new Thai cassava cultivar Rayong 9 with improved starch and ethanol yields. This cultivar is a successful plant type, producing good-quality stakes with a high rate of germination, as well as a large number of stakes from each plant. In Brazil, a new class of cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz) has been identified and their storage roots show unusual free sugar accumulation and novel starch, and accumulate over 100 times more free sugar (mainly glucose) than commercial varieties.

A group in the USA suggested that transportation biofuels such as synfuel hydrocarbons or cellulosic ethanol, if produced from low-input biomass grown on agriculturally marginal land or from waste biomass, could provide much greater supplies and environmental benefits than food-based biofuels. They found that ethanol, produced from corn, yields 25% more energy than the energy invested in its production, whereas bio-diesel produced from soybeans, yields 93% more. Cassava can grow under harsher climatic conditions, and would be ideal for transport biofuel.

Plant tissue culture refers to the growing and multiplication of cells, tissues and organs of plants on defined solid or liquid media under aseptic and controlled conditions. The micro-propagation technique for rapid shoot proliferation can be achieved from any part of the plant such as the shoot tip, tiny stem cuttings, roots, and auxiliary buds. Normally, commercial companies use micro-propagation extensively in large-scale plant multiplication. However, the high cost of in vitro plant production, the low volumes produced, the degree of labour intensiveness, and tissue-culture-derived plant variations all hinder the rise in profits of commercial enterprises, and therefore it is highly desirable to modify the techniques to overcome these problems for the supply of high-quality planting material to small and large commercial cassava growers.

Somatic embryogenesis
Somatic embryogenesis is an ideal technique for the clonal propagation of woody and fruit plants and genetic gain can now be achieved through it. The formation of somatic embryos from somatic cells by a process resembling zygotic embryogenesis is one of the most useful features of plants and offers a potentially large-scale propagation system for superior clones. Normally, the initiation of embryogenic cultures is done by culturing immature zygotic embryos, sometimes with mature zygotic embryos, and offshoots. The maintenance of embryogenic cultures is critical for preventing tissue-culture-derived variation. Also, it is critical to cryopreserve immediately after embryogenic cultures are initiated to prevent variation and preservation of elite germplasm. Well-developed somatic embryos are germinated to regenerate plants (somatic seedlings), which are acclimatised, and then finally transferred to the field. Somatic embryogenesis is highly genotypic dependent, and it would be useful to modify the culture medium accordingly. For large-scale production of somatic embryos, a ‘bioreactor’ system works well, e.g. the ‘temporary immersion system’ (RITA bioreactor). The low cost of production of somatic embryos and the high germination rate are highly desirable for large-scale production in a bioreactor. This system has yet to be tried in cassava.

Nuclear techniques for mutagenesis
Nuclear applications in food and agriculture have contributed greatly to enhancing agricultural production of seed and vegetative propagated crops (see IAEA). Even though nuclear technology has greatly benefited agriculture, it still has immense potential in the genetic improvement of cassava and other crops. More than 2300 mutant varieties have officially been released in many countries (see the joint FAO/IAEA database on mutant varieties.).

Both chemical and physical mutagens are used to induce mutations. Among them, gamma rays and ethyl-methane sulphonate (EMS) are widely used for mutation induction. Fine embryogenic cell suspension cultures are most suitable for inducing mutations by transferring the cultures onto filter paper and then plating them on agar-solidified culture medium for gamma irradiation. Initially the LD50 (lethal dose) dose is determined, which is used as an optimal dose for mutation induction. Irradiated cells are further cultured in the fresh medium for the development, maturation, and germination of mutated somatic embryos. This approach provides mutated somatic seedlings in a short period of time and also prevents chimeras, which otherwise requires the plants to be multiplied up to the M1V4 generation for chimera dissociation. Alternatively, shoot tip or bud wood can be irradiated and the plants multiplied up to the M1V4 generation to produce pure mutants by dissociation of chimeras.

Sung and Somerville (USA), working on Arabidopsis thaliana, have discovered a mutation, called “pickle”, in plants that mimics what happens in seeds, which typically is the accumulation and storing of proteins and oils. This mutation in plants causes the accumulation of large amounts of oils, proteins, and starch in the taproot. This finding could also make possible the creation of more nutritious root crops with a better balance of oil, protein, and starch, e.g. in cassava and other root crops.

Space-breeding concept
Space conditions can induce mutations of plant seeds, and can be helpful in accelerating crop breeding. It may be possible to obtain rare mutants that may make a significant breakthrough in important economic characteristics of crops, such as yield and quality, which are difficult to get using other breeding methods on the ground. The plant seeds are sent into space in a space rocket, and when the rocket is back on earth, the plant seeds or in vitro shoot cultures or microspores are studied to ascertain the influence of cosmic rays on the generation of new mutants.

There are only a few countries involved in this type of work, and China is one of them. Since 1987, 13 recoverable satellites have been used by Chinese scientists and researchers to carry more than 80 kilograms of plant seeds belonging to over 70 species, involving their main cereal, fibre, oil, vegetable, and melon and fruit crops. Through ground planting and selecting experiments by breeders in more than 50 research units covering more than 20 provinces, cities and regions in China, good results have been achieved. More than 20 mutant varieties have been developed and officially released. In rice, a new variety EYH No. 1 has been released that gave a total yield 14.5 tonnes/ha.

Space breeding involves a big investment and good technological support. The opportunities for conducting a space experiment are very limited. It is important to simulate on the ground the conditions of space in order to conduct research work which would reveal how space-induced mutations occur and then to apply the mechanism to plant breeding.

Future prospects
Cassava mutants could be developed to produce value-added biomass for cost-effective production of bio-ethanol. The use of this crop as a source of bio-energy would generate employment, enhance the economic status of its growers, protect the environment, and most likely cut the consumption of fossil fuel. Arable land for growing cassava may have to be increased for bio-energy production, as would the export of bio-ethanol to energy-hungry countries such as China and India. Brazil has already started producing bio-ethanol from cassava. African countries should also follow Brazil and they could become a major source of bio-ethanol production. This can be achieved through biotechnology and mutation, and also the exploitation of natural cassava germplasm/genetic variation for breeding. Biotechnology is an additional tool to assist plant breeders, and can be helpful in reducing the time to develop a cultivar.

To date, a lack of communication between plant breeders and biotechnologists has hindered crop improvement; however, as growers are now faced with maintaining sustainable crop production under climate change conditions and an ever-growing human population such cooperation becomes essential.

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Vinod Khosla predicts exponential growth of biofuels, to replace 25% of world fuel demand

Top venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, the founder of SUN Microsystems and a major investor in both Brazilian biofuels (earlier post) and cellulosic ethanol (earlier post), says that the biofuels industry is poised for exponential growth and that biofuels made from cellulose appear to be the most promising alternative fuels over the long-term. Cellulose, one of the most abundant organic materials on earth, can be converted into liquid fuels either via a biochemical or a thermochemical conversion process.

During keynote speeches at the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing, Khosla echoed the analysis made by Dr. Jens Riese of McKinsey & Co. who highlighted the significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions achievable with cellulose-based biofuels.

In a speech titled “The Role of Venture Capital in Developing Cellulosic Ethanol,” Khosla outlined the range of technologies currently being commercialized to convert cellulosic biomass to transportation fuels. Khosla said that the U.S. Department of Energy’s recent grants to cooperatively fund biorefineries that produce ethanol from cellulose is an acknowledgment that the technology is moving faster than expected. He said that a 100 percent replacement of petroleum transportation fuels with biofuels is achievable, and predicted that ethanol from cellulose technology will be cost competitive with current ethanol production by 2009.

Khosla also stated that ethanol from cellulose can significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions, even achieving a net gain in greenhouse gas reduction. Khosla is the head of Khosla Ventures, a company that actively invests in breakthrough scientific work in clean technology areas, such as biorefineries for energy and bioplastics, solar, and other environmentally friendly technologies.

Dr. Jens Riese of McKinsey & Co. also addressed the World Congress plenary session with a speech titled “Beyond the Hype: Global Growth in the Biofuels Industry.” Riese predicted that global annual biofuel capacity would double to 25 billion gallons over the next five years and could reach 80 billion gallons – meeting 10 percent of world transportation fuel demand, enough to replace the annual oil production for fuel of Saudi Arabia – by 2020. According to McKinsey & Company’s model, biofuels can economically replace 25 percent of transportation fuel with crude oil above $50 per barrel. He concluded that the race is on to build a biofuels industry and that companies should invest now:
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Further, Riese pointed out that ethanol from cellulose is the most cost-effective way of achieving greenhouse gas reductions, following measure to reduce demand for energy. Riese is a partner at McKinsey & Co., a leading global management consulting firm and is a top expert in industrial biotechnology.

“We are excited to see industry leaders echo our long-held enthusiasm and optimism about the exciting opportunities presented by ethanol from cellulose,” said BIO’s Brent Erickson. “Indeed, we are optimistic about the opportunities presented from multiple sources of ethanol as a means to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and our environmental footprint.” BIO supports the production of ethanol from all feedstocks. Agricultural biotechnology is helping to increase corn yields, while industrial biotechnology is helping to convert corn starch and crop residues into ethanol more efficiently. With ongoing advances in biotechnology, biofuels can help America meet nearly half its transportation-fuel needs by the middle of this century.

The World Congress is hosted by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the American Chemical Society, the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council, the European Federation of Biotechnology, BIOTECanada and EuropaBIO.

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Lack of fuel may limit nuclear power expansion - MIT

The debate over bioenergy must be seen as part of the broader discussion on climate change and energy security. The most primitive of fuels - biomass - has become interesting because of its relative low costs compared to fossil fuels and renewables like wind or solar (earlier post). But the main argument in favor of a move towards green and sustainable energy is of course the urgent need to lower carbon dioxide emissions.

With these arguments in mind, some environmentalists have begun to look at nuclear energy once again. In some European countries, phase-out plans for nuclear power plants are up for discussion again. Wouldn't it be better to keep our reactors running for a bit longer, given high fossil fuel prices and climate change? In other countries, most notably Germany, the nuke-stop is final, and the country has started investing massively in renewables to make the transition to a post-nuclear energy landscape.

The complex discussion may hinge on the sheer economics of nuclear fuel. According to Thomas Neff, a research affiliate at MIT's Center for International Studies and uranium market expert, limited supplies of uranium for nuclear power plants may thwart the "nuclear renaissance".

Over the past 20 years, safety concerns dampened all aspects of development of nuclear energy: no new reactors were ordered and there was investment neither in new uranium mines nor in building facilities to produce fuel for existing reactors. Instead, the industry lived off commercial and government inventories, which are now nearly gone. Worldwide, uranium production meets only about 65 percent of current reactor requirements.

That shortage of uranium and of processing facilities worldwide leaves a gap between the potential increase in demand for nuclear energy and the ability to supply fuel for it. This is especially true in the United States.

"Just as large numbers of new reactors are being planned, we are only starting to emerge from 20 years of underinvestment in the production capacity for the nuclear fuel to operate them. There has been a nuclear industry myopia; they didn't take a long-term view," Neff says.

Only a few years ago uranium inventories were being sold at US$10 per pound; the current price is US$85 per pound. Uranium has become the most expensive primary energy resource:
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Neff has been giving a series of talks at industry meetings and investment conferences around the world about the nature of the fuel supply problem and its implications for the so-called "nuclear renaissance," pointing out both the sharply rising cost of nuclear fuel and the lack of capacity to produce it.

Currently, much of the uranium used by the United States is coming from mines in such countries as Australia, Canada, Namibia and, most recently, Kazakhstan. Small amounts are mined in the western United States, but the United States is largely reliant on overseas supplies. The United States also relies on Russia for half its fuel, under a "swords to ploughshares" deal that Neff originated in 1991. This deal is converting about 20,000 Russian nuclear weapons to fuel for U.S. nuclear power plants, but it ends in 2013, leaving a substantial supply gap for the United States.

Further, China, India and even Russia have plans for massive deployments of nuclear power and are trying to lock up supplies from countries on which the United States has traditionally relied. As a result, the United States could be the "last one to buy, and it could pay the highest prices, if it can get uranium at all," Neff said. "The take-home message is that if we're going to increase use of nuclear power, we need massive new investments in capacity to mine uranium and facilities to process it."

Mined uranium comes in several forms, or isotopes. For starting a nuclear chain reaction in a reactor, the only important isotope is uranium-235, which accounts for just seven out of 1,000 atoms in the mined product. To fuel a nuclear reactor, the concentration of uranium-235 has to be increased to 40 to 50 out of 1,000 atoms. This is done by separating isotopes in an enrichment plant to achieve the higher concentration.

As Neff points out, reactor operators could increase the amount of fuel made from a given amount of natural uranium by buying more enrichment services to recover more uranium-235 atoms. Current enrichment capacity is enough to recover only about four out of seven uranium-235 atoms. Limited uranium supplies could be stretched if industry could recover five or six of these atoms, but there is not enough processing capacity worldwide to do so.

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