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    Two members of Iowa’s congressional delegation are proposing a study designed to increase the availability of ethanol across the country. Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Ia., held a news conference Tuesday to announce that he has introduced a bill in the U.S. House, asking for a US$2 million study of the feasibility of transporting ethanol by pipeline. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., has introduced a similar bill in the Senate. Des Moines Register - May 30, 2007.

    A new market study by Frost & Sullivan Green Energy shows that the renewables industry in the EU is expanding at an extraordinary rate. Today biofuels and other renewables represent about 2.1 per cent of the EU's gross domestic product and account for 3.5 million jobs. The study forecasts that revenues from renewables in the world's largest economy are set to double, triple or increase even more over the next few years. Engineer Live - May 29, 2007.

    A project to evaluate barley’s potential in Canada’s rapidly evolving biofuels industry has received funding of $262,000 from the Biofuels Opportunities for Producers Initiative (BOPI). Western Barley Growers Association [*.pdf] - May 27, 2007.

    PNOC-Alternative Fuels Corporation (PNOC-AFC), the biofuel unit of Philippine National Oil Company, is planning to undertake an initial public offering next year or in 2009 so it can have its own cash and no longer rely on its parent for funding of biofuels projects. Manila Bulletin - May 27, 2007.

    TMO Renewables Limited, a producer of ethanol from biomass, has licensed the ERGO bioinformatics software developed and maintained by Integrated Genomics. TMO will utilize the genome analysis tools for gene annotation, metabolic reconstruction and enzyme data-mining as well as comparative genomics. The platform will enable the company to further understand and exploit its thermophilic strains used for the conversion of biomass into fuel. CheckBiotech - May 25, 2007.

    Melbourne-based Plantic Technologies Ltd., a company that makes biodegradable plastics from plants, said 20 million pounds (€29/US$39 million) it raised by selling shares on London's AIM will help pay for its first production line in Europe. Plantic Technologies [*.pdf] - May 25, 2007.

    Shell Hydrogen LLC and Virent Energy Systems have announced a five-year joint development agreement to develop further and commercialize Virent's BioForming technology platform for the production of hydrogen from biomass. Virent Energy Systems [*.pdf] - May 24, 2007.

    Spanish energy and engineering group Abengoa will spend more than €1 billion (US$1.35 billion) over the next three years to boost its bioethanol production, Chairman Javier Salgado said on Tuesday. The firm is studying building four new plants in Europe and another four in the United States. Reuters - May 23, 2007.

    According to The Nikkei, Toyota is about to introduce flex-fuel cars in Brazil, at a time when 8 out of 10 new cars sold in the country are already flex fuel. Brazilians prefer ethanol because it is about half the price of gasoline. Forbes - May 22, 2007.

    Virgin Trains is conducting biodiesel tests with one of its diesel engines and will be running a Voyager train on a 20 percent biodiesel blend in the summer. Virgin Trains Media Room - May 22, 2007.

    Australian mining and earthmoving contractor Piacentini & Son will use biodiesel from South Perth's Australian Renewable Fuels across its entire fleet, with plans to purchase up to 8 million litres from the company in the next 12 months. Tests with B20 began in October 2006 and Piacentinis reports very positive results for economy, power and maintenance. Western Australia Business News - May 22, 2007.

    Malaysia's Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Peter Chin Fah Kui announces he will head a delegation to the EU in June, "to counter European anti-palm oil activists on their own home ground". The South East Asian palm oil industry is seen by many European civil society organisations and policy makers as unsustainable and responsible for heavy deforestation. Malaysia Star - May 20, 2007.

    Paraguay and Brazil kick off a top-level seminar on biofuels, cooperation on which they see as 'strategic' from an energy security perspective. 'Biocombustiveis Paraguai-Brasil: Integração, Produção e Oportunidade de Negócios' is a top-level meeting bringing together the leaders of both countries as well as energy and agricultural experts. The aim is to internationalise the biofuels industry and to use it as a tool to strengthen regional integration and South-South cooperation. PanoramaBrasil [*Portuguese] - May 19, 2007.

    Portugal's Galp Energia SGPS and Petrobras SA have signed a memorandum of understanding to set up a biofuels joint venture. The joint venture will undertake technical and financial feasibility studies to set up a plant in Brazil to export biofuels to Portugal. Forbes - May 19, 2007.

    The Cypriot parliament has rejected an amendment by President Papadopoulos on the law regarding the use of biofuels that contain genetically modified substances. The amendment called for an alteration in the law that currently did not allow the import or use of biofuels that had been produced using GM substances, something that goes against a recent EU Directive on GMOs. Cyprus Mail - May 18, 2007.

    According to Salvador Rivas, the director for Non-Conventional Energy at the Dominican Republic's Industry and Commerce Ministry, a group of companies from Brazil wants to invest more than 100 million dollars to produce ethanol in the country, both for local consumption and export to the United States. Dominican Today - May 16, 2007.

    EWE AG, a German multi-service energy company, has started construction on a plant aimed at purifying biogas so that it can be fed into the natural gas grid. Before the end of the year, EWE AG will be selling the biogas to end users via its subsidiary EWE Naturwatt. Solarthemen [*German] - May 16, 2007.

    Scania will introduce an ethanol-fueled hybrid bus concept at the UITP public transport congress in Helsinki 21-24 May 2007. The full-size low-floor city bus is designed to cut fossil CO2 emissions by up to 90% when running on the ethanol blend and reduce fuel consumption by at least 25%. GreenCarCongress - May 16, 2007.

    A report by the NGO Christian Aid predicts there may be 1 billion climate refugees and migrants by 2050. It shows the effects of conflicts on populations in poor countries and draws parallels with the situation as it could develop because of climate change. Christian Aid - May 14, 2007.

    Dutch multinational oil group Rompetrol, also known as TRG, has entered the biofuel market in France in conjunction with its French subsidiary Dyneff. It hopes to equip approximately 30 filling stations to provide superethanol E85 distribution to French consumers by the end of 2007. Energy Business Review - May 13, 2007.

    A group of British organisations launches the National Forum on Bio-Methane as a Road Transport Fuel. Bio-methane or biogas is widely regarded as the cleanest of all transport fuels, even cleaner than hydrogen or electric vehicles. Several EU projects across the Union have shown its viability. The UK forum was lauched at the Naturally Gas conference on 1st May 2007 in Loughborough, which was hosted by Cenex in partnership with the NSCA and the Natural Gas Vehicle Association. NSCA - May 11, 2007.

    We reported earlier on Dynamotive and Tecna SA's initiative to build 6 bio-oil plants in the Argentinian province of Corrientes (here). Dynamotive has now officially confirmed this news. Dynamotive - May 11, 2007.

    Nigeria launches a national biofuels feasibility study that will look at the potential to link the agricultural sector to the automotive fuels sector. Tim Gbugu, project leader, said "if we are able to link agriculture, we will have large employment opportunity for the sustenance of this country, we have vast land that can be utilised". This Day Onlin (Lagos) - May 9, 2007.

    Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva meets with the CEO of Portuguese energy company Galp Energia, which will sign a biofuel cooperation agreement with Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras. GP1 (*Portuguese) - May 9, 2007.

    The BBC has an interesting story on how biodiesel made from coconut oil is taking the pacific island of Bougainville by storm. Small refineries turn the oil into an affordable fuel that replaces costly imported petroleum products. BBC - May 8, 2007.

    Indian car manufacturer Mahindra & Mahindra is set to launch its first B100-powered vehicles for commercial use by this year-end. The company is confident of fitting the new engines in all its existing models. Sify - May 8, 2007.

    The Biofuels Act of the Philippines has come into effect today. The law requires all oil firms in the country to blend 2% biodiesel (most often coconut-methyl ester) in their diesel products. AHN - May 7, 2007.

    Successful tests based on EU-criteria result in approval of 5 new maize hybrids that were developed as dedicated biogas crops [*German]. Veredlungsproduktion - May 6, 2007.

    With funding from the U.S. Department of Labor Workforce Innovation for Regional Economic Development (WIRED), Michigan State University intends to open a training facility dedicated to students and workers who want to start a career in the State's growing bioeconomy. Michigan State University - May 4, 2007.

    Researchers from the Texas A&M University have presented a "giant" sorghum variety for the production of ethanol. The crop is drought-tolerant and yields high amounts of ethanol. Texas A & M - May 3, 2007.

    C-Tran, the public transportation system serving Southwest Washington and parts of Portland, has converted its 97-bus fleet and other diesel vehicles to run on a blend of 20% biodiesel beginning 1 May from its current fleet-wide use of B5. Automotive World - May 3, 2007.

    The Institut Français du Pétrole (IFP) and France's largest research organisation, the CNRS, have signed a framework-agreement to cooperate on the development of new energy technologies, including research into biomass based fuels and products, as well as carbon capture and storage technologies. CNRS - April 30, 2007.

    One of India's largest state-owned bus companies, the Andra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation is to use biodiesel in one depot of each of the 23 districts of the state. The company operates some 22,000 buses that use 330 million liters of diesel per year. Times of India - April 30, 2007.

    Indian sugar producers face surpluses after a bumper harvest and low prices. Diverting excess sugar into the ethanol industry now becomes more attractive. India is the world's second largest sugar producer. NDTVProfit - April 30, 2007.

    Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his Chilean counterpart Michelle Bachelet on Thursday signed a biofuel cooperation agreement designed to share Brazil's experience in ethanol production and help Chile develop biofuels and fuel which Lula seeks to promote in other countries. More info to follow. People's Daily Online - April 27, 2007.

    Italy's Benetton plans to build a €61 million wood processing and biomass pellet production factory Nagyatád (southwest Hungary). The plant will be powered by biogas. Budapest Sun - April 27, 2007.

    Cargill is to build an ethanol plant in the Magdeburger Börde, located on the river Elbe, Germany. The facility, which will be integrated into existing starch processing plant, will have an annual capacity of 100,000 cubic meters and use grain as its feedstock. FIF - April 26, 2007.

    Wärtsilä Corporation was awarded a contract by the Belgian independent power producer Renogen S.A. to supply a second biomass-fuelled combined heat and power plant in the municipality of Amel in the Ardennes, Belgium. The new plant will have a net electrical power output of 3.29 MWe, and a thermal output of up to 10 MWth for district heating. The electrical output in condensing operation is 5.3 MWe. Kauppalehti - April 25, 2007.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Carbon negative biofuels: Dynamotive to test biochar to boost crop yields, water quality, and sequester carbon

In a very interesting development, Dynamotive USA, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dynamotive Energy Systems Corporation, an innovative biomass-to-liquids technology developer, announced it is taking part in a project to test biochar, a co-product of the company’s BioOil biofuel, as a soil enhancer to increase fertility, boost crop yields, and sequester carbon. The system results in the production of carbon-negative biofuels that can potentially revolutionise the way we tackle climate change.

Dynamotive develops fast-pyrolysis technologies that turn biomass into a liquid (pyrolysis oil, bio-oil) by heating it rapidly in the absence of air (earlier post and here; on recent innovations in pyrolysis, see here). During the pyrolysis process, a carbon-rich byproduct known as 'black carbon', 'agrichar' or 'biochar' is obtained.

Going carbon-negative
If this biochar, an inert form of carbon, is stored in soils, while the rest of the products are used as fuels, the system results in carbon-negative biofuels (earlier post). As biomass grows, it takes CO2 out of the atmosphere and stores it. When turned into biofuels, carbon-neutral energy is obtained. But if a part of the biomass is turned into an inert form of carbon and stored in soils, the remaining fuels actually become carbon-negative. Contrary to other renewables like wind, solar or nuclear, which are all slightly carbon positive and thus contribute to climate change, only biomass can yield a genuine carbon-negative energy system that allows CO2 emissions from the past to be cleaned up.

The project, initially involving 14 tons of Dynamotive-produced biochar, is centered in Iowa’s Corn Belt, and aims to replicate ancient Amazonian Indian and West African soil fertilization practices known as 'terra preta' (black earth), which are considered among the most fertile in the world.
“Because the biochar does not readily break down, it could sequester, apparently for thousands of years, nearly all the carbon it contains, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Crucially, we expect it to boost agricultural productivity significantly through its ability to retain nutrients and moisture and host beneficial soil micro-organisms.” - Dr. Desmond Radlein, Dynamotive’s chief scientist behind the company’s proprietary fast-pyrolysis technology.
The project is led by Heartland BioEnergy LLC, based in Webster City, Iowa. Heartland proposes to build a biorefinery in central Iowa that would include a BioOil and biochar plant developed in partnership with Dynamotive and several agriculture equipment companies:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Heartland works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Soil Tilth Laboratory, Iowa State University and Iowa Soybean Association in studies coordinated by the Prairie Rivers of Iowa RC&D, an organization that addresses regional environmental issues and economic development opportunities.

“Not only has Dynamotive’s biochar the potential to raise high-yield rates of corn another 20%, but we believe there is a real possibility the char trial could also result in evidence that could point the way to dramatic improvements in water quality, which could have far-reaching beneficial consequences,” said Dr. Lon Crosby, of Heartland BioEnergy.

President of Dynamotive USA, Andrew Kingston, said: “By enhancing productivity of the land and crop yields, sequestering carbon by putting it back into the soil, and producing alongside ethanol and biodiesel our BioOil that displaces hydrocarbon fuel use in industrial applications, we aim to show, with our partners, a virtuous circle of land, crop, fuel and environment management. The Amazonian Indians created the most fertile soils in the world, and today we may be able to benefit from adopting their land management methods.”

Dr. Crosby said the field trials will involve three strips of corn crop land 800 feet long and 30 feet wide. One strip will have no char applied, but the second one will have 2.5 tons of char applied per acre, and the third one will have 5 tons. Further tests will follow.

For several decades, scientists have recognized that the most productive soils in Europe have a char base, classifying these lands as “black carbon” based. The role of char was poorly understood and believed to be an indirect effect, resulting from the routine burning of crop residues from naturally productive soils over centuries. Recent research from South America has shown that the application of char to low productivity soils can turn them into highly productive soils.

Dr. Crosby continued: “Subsequent research has shown that the char, per se, is playing an active role in changing bulk density, modifying soil structure, regulating water storage ability and loosely binding soil nutrients so they are retained and released for plant growth. Outside of the black carbon soils of Europe and the terra preta soils of South America, biochar is a minor soil constituent. However, when scientists have looked, they have found it, suggesting that char was, at one point, an important soil constituent in many soils. It has been found at low levels in native prairie soils in the U.S. and Canada. This suggests that char application can significantly enhance soil productivity.”

Heartland BioEnergy’s proposed biorefinery is expected to serve as the prototype for a series of biorefineries strategically located across the Corn Belt that would use up to 17% of the 10 million dry tons of annually available cornstalk biomass within a 50-mile radius. Cornstalks represent the single largest source of annually renewable energy in the U.S., and Iowa will produce over 40 million tons of cornstalks harvestable on an annual and sustainable basis.

About BioOil
BioOil is an industrial fuel produced from cellulose waste material. When combusted it produces substantially less smog-precursor nitrogen oxides (‘NOx’) emissions than conventional oil as well as little or no sulfur oxide gases (‘SOx’), which are a prime cause of acid rain. BioOil and BioOil Plus are price-competitive replacements for heating oils #2 and #6 that are widely used in industrial boilers and furnaces. They have been EcoLogo certified, having met stringent environmental criteria for industrial fuels as measured by Environment Canada’s Environmental Choice Program. BioOil can be produced from a variety of residue cellulosic biomass resources and is not dependent on food-crop production.

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Ethanol prices in Brazil plummet, government considers increasing blend from 23 to 25%

Quicknote biofuel economics
The Brazilian government is mulling the hike of an obligatory 23% ethanol mix in all gasoline to 25% with increased urgency as local prices plunge, an Agricultural Ministry official told Dow Jones Newswires Brasil. The União das Indústrias de Cana-de-Açúcar (UNICA) had already announced [*Portuguese] the possibility of such a move last week.

Average Sao Paulo mill ethanol prices for hydrous ethanol, a gasoline substitute, on Friday plummeted to their lowest point in two years in nominal terms, according to the local Cepea-Esalq index.

"With this fall of prices, the ministers that make up the Inter-ministerial Council of Sugar and Ethanol, or Cima, are already talking about the possibility of raising the mix back to 25%," said Alessandre Strapasson, the general coordinator at the Agricultural Ministry's sugar and ethanol department.

However, Strapasson added that he had no forecast yet for when the obligatory ethanol mix might be pushed back to 25%. "It's possible it will be in June," he said. The higher mix would help the domestic market consume an additional 40 million liters of ethanol monthly, or just under 500 million liters of ethanol per year, sustaining prices.

Record sugar cane harvest
This month alone, local prices have fallen roughly 30% for both hydrous and anhydrous ethanol, with the onset of Brazil's enormous 2007-08 sugarcane harvest (May-April) and increased ethanol output, said a spokeswoman at the Center for Advanced Studies in Applied Economics, or Cepea.

On Friday, hydrous ethanol prices [*Portuguese] at the Sao Paulo mill gate averaged just under 0.61 reais per liter (€0.23/US$0.31) without taxes, down 10.5% from the week before. Anhydrous ethanol prices also dropped to 0.76 reais per liter (€0.29/US$0.39) without taxes, down 13.7% from the week before. In gasoline equivalent terms, a liter of hydrous ethanol without taxes now costs €0.29/liter, anhydrous ethanol €0.38/liter (hydrous ethanol: US$1.52/gallon, anhydrous ethanol: US$1.92/gallon).

Export boost
Local traders and analysts generally note that there is a bright side to tumbling local prices: the export market has perked up in recent weeks, with buyers from the U.S., European Union and Asia once again looking for deals:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

On the local ethanol market, meanwhile, slipping Sao Paulo ethanol prices at the mill gate have not yet reached the consumer at the gas station, which has kept demand stable for the moment, said traders.

Despite the big fall so far, "there is space - though not much - for prices to fall still further," said Julio Maria Borges, the director of local sugar consultancy JOB Economia. Borges forecasts ethanol output from Brazil in the 2007-08 season to hit a record 20.5 billion liters, up 14.9% from the year-ago period.

Brazil's Agricultural Ministry forecasts ethanol output at over 20 billion liters this harvest, with about 3.8 billion or 4 billion liters destined for the export market, said Strapasson. Brazil is the world's leading ethanol exporter, but No. 2 ethanol producer after the U.S.

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Petrobras to build $200 million ethanol plant in Niger Delta to help alleviate crisis

The Brazilian government has urged the new president of Nigeria to include a biofuel development plan for the troubled Delta region in his program. President Umaru Yar´Adua, who takes office today, has indeed done so and has announced that solving the social crisis in the Niger Delta is his priority.

Oil companies and local elites extract vast oil wealth from the Delta, whereas the local population lives in dire poverty. This has caused a social and political crisis, with youngsters and local militias turning against the oil companies, often in violent clashes. Kidnappings of oil workers have become a routine, and local 'volunteer armies' have warned for 'total war'. The crisis has so far led to a reduction of as much as 25% of Nigeria's crude oil output, with a spike in global petroleum prices as a result.

Biofuels for development
Now, in a very interesting turn of events, Brazil's state-owned oil company Petrobras is taking the courageous step to build an ethanol plant right in the middle of this troubled region [*Portuguese]. According to Brazil's state news agency, the aim is to make biofuel from sugar cane and to boost prices for the crop grown by the local people. By strengthening the incomes of local farming communities and by providing jobs, the company hopes it can contribute to solving the Delta crisis, mainly driven by poverty.

Petrobras signed the agreement with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation to build a US$200 million ethanol plant on the shore of the Niger River. The goal is to supply the local market and help Nigeria to introduce 10% ethanol in its gasoline supply.

Brazil and Nigeria have seen a boost in their bilateral relations over the past years. Energy production and energy security form the kernel of the good relations, with Nigeria being Africa's largest oil producer, whereas Brazil is the world's largest biofuel producer. Both flows are now being joined in what is seen as a mutually beneficial relationship. Brazil's ambassador in Abuja, Pedro Luiz Rodrigues, says the agreement is yet another step towards the creation of a strong energy relationship.

The agreement with Petrobras was negotiated in february, with outgoing president Olusegun Obasanjo. The country's new leader, Yar´Adua, has welcomed the deal. The Nigerians will own a 70% stake in the venture, but Petrobras has announced this is just a first step in its plans to expand ethanol production in Nigeria. Over the coming months, the company will export ethanol from Brazil to Nigeria, to kickstart local blending and keep facilities operational until the new project comes online.

Roberto Giannetti da Fonseca, of the Relações Internacionais e Comércio Exterior da Federação da Indústria do Estado de São Paulo (Fiesp), who helped negotiate the deal, says this first step will allow Nigeria to blend 10% of ethanol in its gasoline supply, as planned. Even though Nigeria is the sixth largest crude oil exporter, it imports all of its gasoline because it has no refinery. Blending gasoline with locally produced ethanol will make the fuel cheaper to Nigerians:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Brazil wants to use ethanol as a weapon in the fight against poverty and violence in the world's most troubled regions. Staring with the Niger Delta is an extremely courageous step. In one year, 150 foreign oil workers have been kidnapped by militias who claim that the local government and elites have allied with the oil companies and refuse to share wealth with the local populations.

For the militias, oil companies are synonymous with poverty. They say oil and gas production destroys their environment and has ruined one of the people's only guarantees for income, the fishery industry. The government has not invested in the region which means people have no access to the most basic of goods, such as electricity nor kerosene, even though they live in one of the planet's most energy rich regions.

Brazil getting serious in Africa
The courageous step by Petrobras comes at a time when Brazil is making its goal of using biofuels for development more and more concrete.

Recently, the country established an Africa cell of its state-run tropical agronomy institute EMBRAPA in Ghana, Accra. From there, the world's top experts will assist African countries in food and biofuel production.

Likewise, a consortium of research organisations and companies has announced plans to create a 'Biofuel Town' near Lagos, Nigeria, in order to kickstart a biofuels industry in the country.

Brazil has also signed a host of bilateral and trilateral biofuel cooperation agreements with African and European countries, to help sub-Saharan Africa tap its vast bioenergy potential. Brazil wants to share biofuel technologies and knowledge, in order to help African countries alleviate poverty by investing the establishment of green fuel industries. So far, agreements have been signed with Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Angola and Mozambique, with others to follow soon.

Petrobras is rapidly becoming the most creative of all large energy companies. Besides its oil and gas operations, it invests in socially responsible biofuel production, involving communities and cooperatives of smallholders. Poverty reduction and social development are top of its agenda. When it comes to technological innovations, the company is a world leader in the development of new types of biofuel, amongst them 'H-Bio' (biodiesel) and cellulosic ethanol. Last year, the company was voted 8th most respected corporation in the world, but the kind of couregeous initiatives it is now undertaking in Nigeria may boost that ranking.

Image: armed militia patrolling the Niger River in the troubled Delta.

More information:

Agência Estado: Petrobras vai construir usina de US$ 200 milhões na Nigéria - May 30, 2007.

Último Segundo: Petrobras vai construir usina de álcool na Nigéria - May 30, 2007.

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Mexican farmers switch from agave to maize because of ethanol boom

Mexican farmers who grow blue agave for the production of tequila have been plagued by low prices for years. As maize (corn) prices are booming because of the ethanol market in the U.S., they are now abandoning the blue agave en masse, to jump on the opportunity to grow maize.

Authorities in the country say as much as 25 to 35 percent of the cactus plantations may be turned over to maize [*Spanish]. Seeding less of the cactus plant means prices will increase in the coming years. "They choose the crop that brings in most returns" says Ismael Ramirez, director of agriculture of the Tequila Regulation Council.

This logic demonstrates well the fact that farmers are set to benefit from biofuels globally. They can now play on two markets and diversify their crops according to the price outlook for a given agricultural product.

The blue agave (Agave tequilana azul) grows on high and barren soils and takes around eight years to mature. In order to make an agave field available for maize, farmers often put fire to the plantation and remove the crop's roots. Tequila, the world famous liquor that got its name from a town in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, contains around 51% of alcohol derived from the cactus, whereas the remainder comes from maize or sugar cane. The sugar rich sap from the agave is obtained from its pineapples:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Production of blue agave grew rapidly at the beginning of the decade, when prices reached all time highs. But in spite of accelerated consumption, especially in Europe and the US, overproduction caused a fall of prices for the past few years. Many agave farmers have therefor chosen to switch to maize, which has become more lucrative.

Maize prices have reached all time highs on ethanol production in the U.S. According to Arnulfo del Toro of the Ministry of Agriculture, the switch to maize by Mexican farmers, in combination with a plague of TMA that destroys agave, may lead to shortages of the tequila plant by mid 2008. This would prop up prices again, benefitting the remaining agave farmers.

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Despite promises, rich nations cut aid to Africa - study

Despite big pop concerts and promises to dramatically boost aid, rich nations have cut contributions to Africa and ignored vows to improve trade conditions for the continent, according to a study released on Tuesday.

Knowing this, some are beginning to call for an exit strategy for Africa, drawing on the continent's own forces and resources. One of the most important strategies to do so, say NGOs, is to push for increased access to rich agricultural markets, which will benefit Africans more than aid that doesn't trickle down. This immediately brings up the continent's potential as a major biofuel producer (earlier post). However, increasing access to agricultural and bioenergy markets requires the abandonment of unfair tariffs, non trade barriers and subsidies in the US and the EU.

Declining aid
African Monitor, an independent group formed in 2005 to track pledges made by the Group of Eight (G8) industrialised countries after what was dubbed "the Year of Africa", said real aid inflows began to decline as early as 2006 (a fact that was already observed by others).

"Donors who have promised to double aid to the continent are largely not fulfilling that promise. In 2007 and 2008 aid is expected to drop even further," Cape Town Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, who founded African Monitor, told a Johannesburg news conference. "Promises have been made to Africa. The time to act is now."

The report comes as G8 countries vow again to put Africa on the agenda at their annual summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, next month. The meeting will be headed by Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country also holds the current EU presidency.

At the G8's 2005 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, British PM Tony Blair announced a commitment from world leaders to double development aid to Africa by 2010 as well as to boost African access to markets, particularly in agriculture. Live 8 concerts were organised by icons such as Bob Geldof with many a celebrity joining the calls for more aid. But Ndungane said a detailed study now shows the rich nations' promises have turned out to be hollow, once again.

Excluding debt relief - a growing category of Western help for Africa - official development assistance to Africa from 22 rich Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries fell from US$106 billion in 2005 to US$103 billion in 2006, the study said.

It added that OECD aid money fell to an average 0.3 percent of gross national income (GNI) in 2006 from 0.33 percent in 2005, despite a G8 promise to increase development assistance budgets to 0.7 percent of each country's (GNI) by 2015. Table 1 (click to enlarge) shows the latest OECD figures per country for 2006. Only a handful of them has reached the 0.7 percent mark:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Donor darlings
The African Monitor report said 55 percent of overall aid to Africa went to just 10 countries - "donor darlings" that often have strategic rather than humanitarian claims to Western help.

Nigeria, a key source of oil for many rich economies and the continent's primary beneficiary of debt relief efforts, received 18 percent of aid to Africa in 2005, while other top recipients included Ethiopia, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Lesotho, one of Africa's poorest nations and gripped by one of the world's worst AIDS pandemics, was among the countries receiving the least aid assistance, the report said.

"If vulnerability is not a dominant criteria for choosing (aid) beneficiaries, it is worthwhile to consider what motivates donors to select a particular country," it said.

Access to agricultural markets
Moreblessings Chidaushe of AFRODAD, a non-governmental group that looks at African debt issues, said slow progress in the flow of aid showed Africa could not wait for handouts from rich nations.

"Africa needs to start working on an exit strategy," she said. "Aid will not take Africa out of this quagmire."

The African Monitor study indicated that, despite steady growth in oil and other African exports, the continent struggled for access to rich markets, particularly for agricultural goods that have a more direct impact on the lives of most Africans.

Ndungane said the G8 should focus on reviving the Doha round of global free trade talks, saying Africa's farmers still face crippling export barriers and unfair competition from subsidised Western producers.

"If the G8 countries are serious, they should drop subsidies, drop tariffs and create market access for Africa," he said.

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