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    Major European bank BNP Paribas will launch an investment company called Agrinvest this month to tap into the increased global demand for biofuels and rising consumption in Asia and emerging Europe. CityWire - June 8, 2007.

    Malaysian particleboard maker HeveaBoard Bhd expects to save some 12 million ringgit (€2.6/US$3.4 million) a year on fuel as its second plant is set to utilise biomass energy instead of fossil fuel. This would help improve operating margins, group managing director Tenson Yoong Tein Seng said. HeveaBoard, which commissioned the second plant last October, expects capacity utilisation to reach 70% by end of this year. The Star - June 8, 2007.

    Japan's Itochu Corp will team up with Brazilian state-run oil firm Petroleo Brasileiro SA to produce sugar cane-based bioethanol for biofuels, with plans to start exporting the biofuel to Japan around 2010. Itochu and Petrobras will grow sugarcane as well as build five to seven refineries in the northeastern state of Pernambuco. The two aim to produce 270 million liters (71.3 million gallons) of bioethanol a year, and target sales of around 130 billion yen (€800million / US$1billion) from exports of the products to Japan. Forbes - June 8, 2007.

    Italian refining group Saras is building one of Spain's largest flexible biodiesel plants. The 200,000 ton per year factory in Cartagena can handle a variety of vegetable oils. The plant is due to start up in 2008 and will rely on European as well as imported feedstocks such as palm oil. Reuters - June 7, 2007.

    The University of New Hampshire's Biodiesel Group is to test a fully automated process to convert waste vegetable oil into biodiesel. It has partnered with MPB Bioenergy, whose small-scale processor will be used in the trials. UNH Biodiesel Group - June 7, 2007.

    According to the Barbados Agricultural Management Company (BAMC), the Caribbean island state has a large enough potential to meet both its domestic ethanol needs (E10) and to export to international markets. BAMC is working with state actors to develop an entirely green biofuel production process based on bagasse and biomass. The Barbados Advocate - June 6, 2007.

    Energea, BioDiesel International and the Christof Group - three biodiesel producers from Austria - are negotiating with a number of Indonesian agribusiness companies to cooperate on biodiesel production, Austrian Commercial Counselor Raymund Gradt says. The three Austrian companies are leading technology solution providers for biodiesel production and currently produce a total of 440,000 tons of biodiesel per annum in Austria, more than half of their country’s annual demand of around 700,000-800,000 tons. In order to meet EU targets, they want to produce biodiesel abroad, where feedstocks and production is more competitive. BBJ - June 6, 2007.

    China will develop 200 million mu (13.3 million hectares) of forests by 2020 in order to supply the raw materials necessary for producing 6 million tons of biodiesel and biomass per year, state media reported today. InterFax China - June 6, 2007.

    British Petroleum is planning a biofuel production project in Indonesia. The plan is at an early stage, but will involve the establishment of an ethanol or biodiesel plant based on sugarcane or jatropha. The company is currently in talks with state-owned plantation and trading firm Rajawali Nusantara Indonesia (RNI) as its potential local partner for the project. Antara - June 6, 2007.

    A pilot project to produce biodiesel from used domestic vegetable oil is underway at the Canary Technological Institute in Gran Canaria. Marta Rodrigo, the woman heading up the team, said the project is part of the EU-wide Eramac scheme to encourage energy saving and the use of renewable energy. Tenerife News - June 6, 2007.

    Royal Dutch Shell Plc is expanding its fuel distribution infrastructure in Thailand by buying local petrol stations. The company will continue to provide premium petrol until market demand for gasohol (an petrol-ethanol mixture) climbs to 70-90%, which will prove customers are willing to switch to the biofuel. "What we focus on now is proving that our biofuel production technology is very friendly to engines", a company spokesman said. Bangkok Post - June 5, 2007.

    Abraaj, a Dubai-based firm, has bought the company Egyptian Fertilizers in order to benefit from rising demand for crops used to make biofuels. The Abraaj acquisition of all the shares of Egyptian Fertilizers values the company based in Suez at US$1.41 billion. Egyptian Fertilizers produces about 1.25 million tons a year of urea, a nitrogen-rich crystal used to enrich soils. The company plans to expand its production capacity by as much as 20 percent in the next two years on the expected global growth in biofuel production. International Herald Tribune - June 4, 2007.

    China and the US will soon sign a biofuel cooperation agreement involving second-generation fuels, a senior government official said. Ma Kai, director of the National Development and Reform Commission, said at a media briefing that vice premier Wu Yi discussed the pact with US Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and other US officials during the strategic economic dialogue last month. Forbes - June 4, 2007.

    German biogas company Schmack Biogas AG reports a 372% increase in revenue for the first quarter of the year, demonstrating its fast growth. Part of it is derived from takeovers. Solarserver [*German] - June 3, 2007.

    Anglo-Dutch oil giant Royal Dutch Shell PLC has suspended the export of 150,000 barrels per day of crude oil because of community unrest in southern Nigeria, a company spokesman said. Villagers from K-Dere in the restive Ogoniland had stormed the facility that feeds the Bonny export terminal, disrupting supply of crude. It was the second seizure in two weeks. Shell reported on May 15 that protesters occupied the same facility, causing a daily output loss of 170,000 barrels. Rigzone - June 2, 2007.

    Heathrow Airport has won approval to plan for the construction of a new 'green terminal', the buildings of which will be powered, heated and cooled by biomass. The new terminal, Heathrow East, should be completed in time for the 2012 London Olympics. The new buildings form part of operator BAA's £6.2bn 10-year investment programme to upgrade Heathrow. Transport Briefing - June 1, 2007.

    A new algae-biofuel company called LiveFuels Inc. secures US$10 million in series A financing. LiveFuels is a privately-backed company working towards the goal of creating commercially competitive biocrude oil from algae by 2010. PRNewswire - June 1, 2007.

    Covanta Holding Corp., a developer and operator of large-scale renewable energy projects, has agreed to purchase two biomass energy facilities and a biomass energy fuel management business from The AES Corp. According to the companies, the facilities are located in California's Central Valley and will add 75 MW to Covanta's portfolio of renewable energy plants. Alternative Energy Retailer - May 31, 2007.

    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.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Scientists patent synthetic life - promise for 'endless' biofuels

Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute have applied for a U.S. patent on the techniques and biological building blocks needed to create the world's first synthetic life-form, a minimal bacterial genome. According to the patent application, this is "a minimal set of protein-coding genes which provides the information required for replication of a free-living organism in a rich bacterial culture medium."

Dr Craig Venter himself is not named in the patent, but he is the brain behind the synthetic form of life. The man who led the private sector effort to sequence the human genome, has been working in the field of synthetic biology for years to create a man-made organism. The J. Craig Venter Institute's U.S. patent application now claims exclusive ownership of a set of essential genes and a synthetic "free-living organism that can grow and replicate" made using those genes.

Interestingly, defending the patent application, Dr Venter immediately pointed out these artificial life forms could be designed to make 'endless' biofuels and absorb carbon dioxide to mitigate climate change. The effort could result in "designer microbes" that produce biofuels by converting biomass in a highly efficient way into ethanol, biogas and biohydrogen. They could also be engineered to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

The publication of the patent application has angered some environmentalists. The Canada-based ETC group, which monitors developments in biotechnology, called on patent offices to reject applications on synthetic life forms. Its press release sounds alarmist, using terms like "Microbesoft," evoking Dolly the cloned sheep and naming the organism Synthia.

Jim Thomas, of ETC Group: "These monopoly claims signal the start of a high-stakes commercial race to synthesise and privatise synthetic life forms."
"For the first time, God has competition. Venter and his colleagues have breached a societal boundary, and the public hasn't even had a chance to debate the far-reaching social, ethical and environmental implications of synthetic life." - Pat Mooney of the ETC Group.
The J. Craig Venter Institute's has filed an international application at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) which names more than 100 countries where the institute may seek monopoly patents.

Second life, Synthetic life
Dr Venter's team intends to construct an organism with a "minimal genome" that can then be inserted into the shell of a bacterium. By removing genes, one by one, from a bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium they identified the minimum number of genes required for this particular organism to replicate, or reproduce, in its controlled environment.

They have been able to remove 101 of its 482 genes without killing the bacterium, meaning that 381 were required for replication. But generating a man-made living organism from the bottom up requires much more than just its minimal genome. For example, in order to get the genes to do something, there have to be chemicals to translate the genes into messenger RNA and proteins:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Scientists around the world have been wrestling with the task of generating a so-called free-living synthetic organism for years.

In order to push the effort forward, Dr Craig Venter founded Synthetic Genomics, Inc., a company developing the new scientific processes to enable industry to design and test desired genetic modifications. The synthetically produced organisms with reduced or reoriented metabolic needs under development will enable new, powerful, and more direct methods of bio-engineered industrial production - so Venter thinks.

But designing an entirely new synthetic organism aimed at performing specific tasks is something else. When asked whether the world's first synthetic bug was thriving in a test tube, Dr Venter said: "We are getting close."

Earlier this year, scientists from Virginia Tech, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and the University of Georgia announced they had successfully used techniques from synthetic biology to create a combination of 13 enzymes never found together in nature and that can completely convert polysaccharides (C6H10O5) and water into biohydrogen when and where that form of energy is needed (earlier post).

Image: M. genitalium, one of the bacteria used in Venter's "minimal genome" project.

More information:

United States Patent Application: 20070122826, Glass; John I. et al., "Minimal bacterial genome", May 31, 2007.

For an interesting view on 'minimal genomes', see the Genome News Network: Another Minimal Genome: Microbe Needs Just 271 Genes - April 18, 2003.

Wired: Scientists Apply for First Patent on Synthetic Life Form, June 7, 2007.

BBC: Patent sought on 'synthetic life' - June 8, 2007.

ETC Group: Patenting Pandora's Bug - Goodbye, Dolly...Hello, Synthia! J. Craig Venter Institute Seeks Monopoly Patents on the World's First-Ever Human-Made Life Form - June 7, 2007.

The Age: Designer bug holds key to endless fuel - June 10, 2007.

Biopact: Boost to biohydrogen: high yield production from starch by synthetic enzymes - May 23, 2007

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Researchers: 'Food miles' too simplistic - 'green' needs 'red'

Earlier we reported about small farmers in the South who are getting confused about what they see as trendy but problematic concepts such as 'food miles', 'environmental footprints', and certified fair trade products. Consumers in the North need to take on a broader perspective on the world's food system. Buying local food may be beneficial from a local perspective, but new research indicates this may actually be bad for the planet's environment as a whole.

Organic not best for environment
Criticism on some of these ideas is increasingly coming from scientists in the wealthy countries themselves. First of all, organic fruit and vegetables may be healthier for the dinner table, but not necessarily for the environment, a new University of Alberta study shows.

The study, conducted by a team of student researchers in the Department of Rural Economy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, showed that the greenhouse gas emitted when the produce is transported from great distances mitigates the environmental benefits of growing the food organically. “"f you’re buying ‘green’, you should consider the distance the food travels. If it’s travelling further, then some of the benefits of organic crops are cancelled out by extra environmental costs," said researcher Vicki Burtt.

Burtt and her fellow researchers compared the cost of ‘food miles’ between organic and conventionally grown produce, and found that there was little difference in the cost to the environment. This was already established by other scientists (earlier post).

Food miles simplistic
But the concept of 'food miles' itself is highly simplistic and should not be used alone to point consumers to green products. Food miles are defined as the distance that food travels from the field to the grocery store.

Consumers need more in-depth information about the environmental impact of food to make eco-friendly choices, according to researchers Dr Fairchild (University of Wales Institute in Cardiff) and colleague Andrea Collins at Cardiff University, who have carried out a detailed analysis of the ecological costs associated with food production. In their study published in the Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, they argue that the focus on "food miles" is missing the bigger picture and may be counter-productive.

Some food stores in Europe have announced that they will label products that have been transported by air. But according to the researchers, only around 2% of the environmental impact of food comes from transporting it from farm to shop. The vast majority of its ecological footprint comes from food processing, storage, packaging and growing conditions. Food grown locally could have a considerably bigger footprint than food flown halfway around the world, according to the scientists. Consumers who make their choices on air miles alone may be doing more environmental harm, they think.

Putting the red in the green
"I'm a bit worried about the food miles [debate] because it is educating the consumer in the wrong way. It is such an insignificant point," says Ruth Fairchild at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff.

A better system, she argues, would be one that considers all environmental impacts from farm to dinner plate. One option is ecological footprint analysis, which takes into account the amount of land needed to provide the resources to produce food, both directly on the farm and indirectly from the energy that goes into growing, harvesting, processing, packaging and transporting it. A food's impact is measured in "global hectares", the notional land area needed to produce it. But she thinks that consumers are not yet ready for ecological footprint labelling and the science behind it is not yet watertight.

But even the concept of ecological footprints is incomplete. The global food-system is an integrated system that links farmers from the South to those in the North. On a 'flat', globalised planet, trade distances are no longer important (transport literally constitutes only around 2% of the environmental footprint of food). What matters - for the environment too - is social equity:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

In case European and American consumers were to analyse the environmental impact of the food they buy, they should include the potential social effects of their refusal to buy food grown in the South. Consumer action based on first-order environmental criteria (such as the ecological footprint), may result in negative second-order social effects for the millions of small farmers in developing countries who export to wealthy markets.

These negative social impacts are in themselves an environmental issue, because the risk of farmers falling back into poverty because of 'green' consumer behavior in the West would have disastrous effects on the ecosystems of the South. There, poverty is by far the single biggest factor driving such problems as deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil depletion and pressures on wildlife. Export earnings - from food flown to Europe and the US - allow farmers in the South to invest in more environmentally friendly agriculture.

In short, the consumer in the wealthy West needs a far more complex, integrated and global perspective on the food system which must include social sustainability factors. It is imperative to ensure that small farmers in the South can maintain a reasonable level of prosperity, so that they are not forced to fall back to environmentally destructive farming practises such as low yield slash and burn agriculture.

Green needs to be accompanied by some 'red'. But the question is whether consumerist cultures are ready to deal with complexity.

More information:
Collins, A. and Fairchild, R. (forthcoming): "Sustainable food consumption at a sub-national level: an ecological footprint, nutritional and economic analysis", Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, see Dr Andrea Collins' webpage at the Center for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society.

Eurekalert: Organic Food Miles take toll on environment - June 6, 2007.

The Guardian: The eco-diet ... and it's not just about food miles - June 4, 2007.

Biopact: Message to Euro-Americans: eat local food, buy global biofuels - February 22, 2007

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Thailand to mandate 2% palm oil biodiesel next year

Thailand will enforce the mandatory use of 2% palm oil based biodiesel for all diesel vehicles fuelling at 10,000 service stations nationwide next April 1, the minister of energy told reporters today. "Initially we will make B2 mandatory for the whole country by April 1, 2008," said Energy Minister Piyasvasti Amranand.

'Twenty in Five'
As part of Thailand's ambitious efforts to reduce oil imports and assist in cutting carbon emissions and global warming, the kingdom plans to replace not less than 20 per cent of its vehicle fuel consumption with renewable energy sources such as ethanol and palm oil within the next five years.
"Our target is to cut our consumption of gasoline and diesel by 20 per cent within five years, substituting them with ethanol and palm oil. That is better than the US target of 20 per cent replacement by renewable energies in ten years." - Energy Minister Piyasvasti Amranand
After making B2 mandatory in April next year, Thailand will thereafter push petrol pumps and vehicle owners to accept B5, or a 5 per cent palm oil biodiesel - 95 per cent diesel mix, soon thereafter.

Piyasvasti, who was on a tour of palm oil plantations and factories in Krabi, which accounts for 40 per cent of the country's palm oil supply, revealed that all major automobile dealers in Thailand had agreed last week to provide warranties on new cars despite the fact that all vehicles will be forced to use B2 biodiesel by April, 2008:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

A similar government effort to force petrol stations and auto users to switch to gasohol (an ethanol - gasoline blend) in January, this year, failed because the automotive industry refused to provide warranties on their autos if they were using gasohol in their tanks, said Piyasvasti. This has led to overproduction of the biofuel (earlier post)

But the situation is improving for gasohol too. The minister said that the fuel, a mix of 95 per cent petrol and 5 per cent ethanol, was becoming more popular among consumers since the government had reduced its price by 10 per cent at petrol stations last March.

Sufficient supplies
More than 60 per cent of Thailand's vehicles use diesel, because of the popularity of the one-ton pickup truck. By April 1, 2008, palm oil will account for 1 million liters of the 50 million liters of diesel now consumed by motorists.

The energy ministry is convinced that palm oil producers will be able to provide sufficient supplies to meet demand by the April deadline.

"Currently we have sufficient raw materials to produce 0.8 million liters of palm oil, but by the end of the year it will be up to 1.2 million," said Panich Pongpirodom, director-general of the department of alternative energy development and efficiency.

Thailand's palm oil industry has less of a bad reputation amongst conservationists than some other countries, because it is an established industry that is no longer linked to deforestation. Yield increases in the country are being obtained mainly by replanting old plantations with new, high yield trees. Thailand may thus become self-sufficient in sustainably produced palm oil to achieve its first biodiesel targets, but this will undoubtedly increase pressures on palm oil prices which are driven by global dynamics (because the product is a commodity). This in turn may lead to expansion of the sector in other countries, where environmental rules are less strict.

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Switch to ethanol can alleviate sugar crisis in India

The sugar sector in India, the world's second-biggest producer of the sweetener, is battling falling prices as output is likely to reach a record 28 million tonnes in the year to September 2007. India's annual need is pegged at 19 to 20 million tonnes.

To help alleviate this overproduction crisis, the Indian government plans to allow production of ethanol from sugarcane juice, which would help mills cut losses by reducing sugar inventories. The move would also make the production of biofuel more affordable, trade officials say. Some expect production costs for ethanol made from Indian sugarcane to be as low as 20 rupees (€0.36/US$0.49) per liter .

Farm Minister Sharad Pawar said the government plans to allow sugar mills to process ethanol from sugarcane juice. So far, the government was wary of allowing ethanol to be made directly from cane juice but had permitted the manufacture of the fuel from molasses, a thick syrup byproduct from sugar production.

"It is a positive move in the interest of sugar industry," said Prakash Naiknavare, managing director, Maharashtra Federation of Co-operative Sugar Factories. "The dire need is to reduce sugar output at least in the next crushing season. Diverting cane for ethanol production certainly achieves this goal", he added

With this flexibility, sugar mills can follow the method adopted in Brazil where sugar factories switch to ethanol or sugar depending on the price of commodities, traders said.

Pawar said on Thursday government was thinking of raising the level of ethanol in petrol to 10 percent from the current 5 percent. In order to achieve this ambitious goal, India will need 1.12 billion litres of ethanol annually to blend 10 percent of the alternative fuel with petrol:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

In this respect, the sugar sector believes it would be economical to produce ethanol from cane juice rather than molasses, said Deepak Desai, chief consultant with EthanolIndia.

"From 100 tonnes of cane we get 10 tonnes sugar and 4 tonnes of molasses. From the molasses we can produce 1,080 litres ethanol. But, if we crush 100 tonnes sugarcane directly, we can get 7,500 litres of ethanol."

Besides, mills spend 500-700 rupees (€9.18 - 12.86 / US$12.28 - 17.19) to produce one tonne of sugar, while the cost to produce one litre of ethanol was just 20 rupees, he said.

India is likely to produce 322.93 million tonnes of sugarcane in 2006/07, up 15 percent from last year. Cane output is expected to rise further in 2007/08, industry officials say.

"There are no guaranteed buyers for sugar. The stocks may be remaining unsold for next two to three years," said Madan Bhosale, chairman of an co-operative sugar mill. "But for ethanol there are guaranteed buyers."

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