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    AthenaWeb, the EU's science media portal, is online with new functionalities and expanded video libraries. Check it out for video summaries of the latest European research activities in the fields of energy, the environment, renewables, biotech and much more. AthenaWeb - July 04, 2007.

    Biopact was invited to attend a European Union high-level meeting on international biofuels trade, to take place on Thursday and Friday in Brussels. Leaders from China, India, Africa and Brazil will discuss the opportunities and challenges arising in the emerging global biofuels sector. EU Commissioners for external relations, trade, energy, development & humanitarian aid as well as the directors of international organisations like the IEA, the FAO and the IFPRI will be present. Civil society and environmental NGOs complete the panorama of participants. Check back for exclusive stories from Friday onwards. Biopact - July 04, 2007.

    China's state-owned grain group COFCO says Beijing has stopped approving new fuel ethanol projects regardless of the raw materials, which has put a brake on its plan to build a sweet potato-based plant in Hebei. The Standard (Hong Kong) - July 03, 2007.

    Blue Diamond Ventures and the University of Texas A&M have formed a biofuels research alliance. The University will assist Blue Diamond with the production and conversion of non-food crops for manufacturing second-generation biofuels. MarketWire - July 03, 2007.

    African Union leaders are to discuss the idea of a single pan-African government, on the second day of their summit in Accra, Ghana. Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is championing the idea, but many African leaders are wary of the proposal. BBC - July 02, 2007.

    Triple Point Technology, a supplier of cross-industry software platforms for the supply, trading, marketing and movement of commodities, announced today the release and general availability of Commodity XL for Biofuels™. The software platform is engineered to address the rapidly escalating global market for renewable energy fuels and their feedstocks. Business Wire - July 02, 2007.

    Latin America's largest construction and engineering firm, Constructora Norberto Odebrecht SA, announced plans to invest some US$2.6 billion (€1.9 billion) to get into Brazil's booming ethanol business. It aims to reach a crushing capacity of 30 million to 40 million metric tons (33 million to 44 million tons) of cane per harvest over the next eight years. More soon. International Herald Tribune - June 30, 2007.

    QuestAir Technologies announces it has received an order valued at US$2.85 million for an M-3100 system to upgrade biogas created from organic waste to pipeline quality methane. QuestAir's multi-unit M-3100 system was purchased by Phase 3 Developments & Investments, LLC of Ohio, a developer of renewable energy projects in the agricultural sector. The plant is expected to be fully operational in the spring of 2008. Market Wire - June 30, 2007.

    Siemens Energy & Automation, Inc. and the U.S. National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center (NCERC) today announced a partnership to speed the growth of alternative fuel technology. The 10-year agreement between the center and Siemens represents transfers of equipment, software and on-site simulation training. The NCERC facilitates the commercialization of new technologies for producing ethanol more effectively and plays a key role in the Bio-Fuels Industry for Workforce Training to assist in the growing need for qualified personnel to operate and manage bio-fuel refineries across the country. Business Wire - June 29, 2007.

    A paper published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Ceramic Society proposes a new method of producing hydrogen for portable fuel cells that can work steadily for 10-20 times the length of equivalently sized Lithium-ion batteries. Zhen-Yan Deng, lead author, found that modified aluminum powder can be used to react with water to produce hydrogen at room temperature and under normal atmospheric pressure. The result is a cost-efficient method for powering fuel cells that can be used in portable applications and hybrid vehicles. More soon. Blackwell Publishing - June 29, 2007.

    An NGO called Grains publishes a report that highlights some of the potentially negative effects associated with the global biofuels sector. The findings are a bit one-sided because based uniquely on negative news stories. Moreover, the report does not show much of a long-term vision on the world's energy crisis, climate change, North-South relations, and the unique role biofuels can play in addressing these issues. Grain - June 29, 2007.

    Researchers at the Universidad de Tarapacá in Arica plan to grow Jatropha curcas in the arid north of Chile. The trial in the desert, is carried out to test the drought-tolerance of the biodiesel crop, and to see whether it can utilize the desert's scarce water resources which contain high amounts of salt minerals and boron, lethal to other crops. Santiago Times - June 28, 2007.

    India and Thailand sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that envisages cooperation through joint research and development and exchange of information in areas of renewable sources of energy like, biogas, solar-thermal, small hydro, wind and biomass energy. Daily India - June 28, 2007.

    Portucel - Empresa Produtora de Pasta e Papel SA said it plans to install biomass plants with an expected production capacity of 200,000 megawatt hours per year at its paper factories in Setubal and Cacia. The European Commission gave the green light for state aid totaling €46.5 million, contributing to Portucel's plans to extend and modernise its plants. Forbes - June 28, 2007.

    Petro-Canada and GreenField Ethanol have inked a long-term deal that makes Petro-Canada the exclusive purchaser of all ethanol produced at GreenField Ethanol's new facility in Varennes, Quebec. The ethanol will be blended with gasoline destined for Petro-Canada retail sites in the Greater Montreal Area. Petro-Canada - June 27, 2007.

    According to a study by the Korean Energy Economics Institute, biodiesel produced in Korea will become cheaper than light crude oil from 2011 onwards (678 won/liter versus 717.2 won/liter). The study "Prospects on the Economic Feasibility of Biodiesel and Improving the Support System", advises to keep biodiesel tax-free until 2010, after which it can compete with oil. Dong-A Ilbo - June 27, 2007.

    Kreido Biofuels announced today that it has entered into a marketing and distribution agreement with Eco-Energy, an energy and chemical marketing and trading company. Eco-Energy will purchase Kreido Biofuels’ biodiesel output from Wilmington, North Carolina, and Argo, Illinois, for a minimum of 3 years at current commercial market prices, as well as provide Kreido transportation and logistics services. Business Wire - June 27, 2007.

    Beijing Tiandi Riyue Biomass Technology Corp. Ltd. has started construction on its new fuel ethanol project in the county of Naiman in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region's Chifeng City, the company's president told Interfax today. Interfax China - June 26, 2007.

    W2 Energy Inc. announces it will begin development of biobutanol from biomass. The biofuel will be manufactured from syngas derived from non-food biomass and waste products using the company's plasma reactor system. Market Wire - June 26, 2007.

    Finland based Metso Corporation, a global engineering firm has received an order worth €60 million to supply two biomass-fired power boilers to Portugal's EDP Producao - Bioeléctrica, S.A. The first boiler (83 MWth) will be installed at Celbi’s Figueira da Foz pulp mill and the second boiler (35 MWth) at Caima’s pulp mill near the city of Constância. Both power plants will mainly use biomass, like eucalyptus bark and forest residues, as fuel to produce together approximately 40 MWe electricity to the national grid. Both boilers utilize bubbling fluidized bed technology. Metso Corporation - June 26, 2007.

    Canada's New Government is investing more than $416,000 in three southern Alberta projects to help the emerging biofuels industry. The communities of Lethbridge, Drumheller and Coalhurst will benefit from the projects. Through the Biofuels Opportunities for Producers Initiative (BOPI), the three firms will receive funding to prepare feasibility studies and business plans to study the suitability of biofuels production according to location and needs in the industry. MarketWire - June 26, 2007.

    U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman is expected to announce today that Michigan State and other universities have been selected to share $375 million in federal funding to develop new bioenergy centers for research on cellulosic ethanol and biomass plants. More info soon. Detroit Free Press - June 26, 2007.

    A Kerala based NGO has won an Ashden Award for installing biogas plants in the state to convert organic waste into a clean and renewable source of energy at the household level. Former US vice president Al Gore gave away the award - cash prize of 30,000 pounds - to Biotech chief A. Saji at a ceremony in London on Friday. New Kerala - June 25, 2007.

    AltraBiofuels, a California-based producer of renewable biofuels, announced that it has secured an additional US$165.5 million of debt financing for the construction and completion of two plants located in Coshocton, Ohio and Cloverdale, Indiana. The Coshocton plant's capacity is anticipated to reach 60million gallons/year while the Cloverdale plant is expected to reach 100 million gallons/year. Business Wire - June 23, 2007.

    Brazil and the Dominican Republic have inked a biofuel cooperation agreement aimed at alleviating poverty and creating economic opportunity. The agreement initially focuses on the production of biodiesel in the Dominican Republic. Dominican Today - June 21, 2007.

    Malaysian company Ecofuture Bhd makes renewable products from palm oil residues such as empty fruit bunches and fibers (more here). It expects the revenue contribution of these products to grow by 10% this year, due to growing overseas demand, says executive chairman Jang Lim Kuang. 95% of the group's export earnings come from these products which include natural oil palm fibre strands and biodegradable mulching and soil erosion geotextile mats. Bernama - June 20, 2007.

    Argent Energy, a British producer of waste-oil based biodiesel, announced its intention to seek a listing on London's AIM via a placing of new and existing ordinary shares with institutional investors. Argent plans to use the proceeds to construct the first phase of its proposed 150,000 tonnes (170 million litres) plant at Ellesmere Port, near Chester, and to develop further plans for a 75,000 tonnes (85 million litres) plant in New Zealand. Argent Energy - June 20, 2007.

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Investigating life in extreme environments may yield applications in the bioeconomy

From the deepest seafloor to the highest mountain, from the hottest region to the cold Antarctic plateau, environments labelled as 'extreme' are numerous on Earth and they present a wide variety of life-forms, with unique features and characteristics.

Investigating life processes in such extreme environments not only can provide hints on how life first appeared and survived on Earth, it can also give indications for the search for life on other planets. Importantly, the understanding of how organisms tolerate and adapt to extreme conditions and ecosystems may help to predict the impacts of current and future global change on biodiversity. Finally, the study of extreme life-forms - called 'extremophiles' - finds many applications in industry, in particular in the emerging bioeconomy and in biotechnology.

Unique enzymes, genes and metabolic processes found in micro-algae or bacteria may lead to new and highly efficient processes for the production of liquid biofuels, biogas or biohydrogen (recent examples are enzymes and genetic info from Sulfolobus solfataricus and Syntrophus aciditrophicus); properties of plants that survive in extreme environments may help in the design of new (energy) crops that are tolerant to drought, saline soils, frost or toxic environments; new phyto- and bioremediation systems may be created based on findings from research on extremophiles; and new products - from medicines and eco-friendly detergents to bioplastics and green polymers - are expected to emerge from unlocking the mysteries of how organisms cope in extreme conditions.

To examine these issues, the European Science Foundation (ESF) announces it has published a 58-page report entitled 'Investigating Life in Extreme Environments – A European Perspective' [*.pdf]. The report looks at how global changes in recent decades have turned some environments into becoming 'extreme' compared to the 'normal' ecosystems they used to be (e.g. acidification of the oceans). It analyses what kind of environments may become extreme in the future, and what this can teach us about the past, both here on Earth as on other planets. The report further looked at the range of useful applications that may be expected from research into extremophiles. Most importantly, the document outlines proposals for a new research framework that will boost scientific activities in this exciting field.

'Investigating Life in Extreme Environments'
resulted from an interdisciplinary ESF inter-committee initiative which considered all types of life forms (from microbes to humans) evolving in a wide range of extreme environments (from deep sea to acidic rivers, polar regions and extra-terrestrial planetary bodies). The initiative held a series of consultations amongst Europe's science institutions in order to find out which type of extreme-environment research they see as most interesting, deserving priority and European funding:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

On the basis of these consultations and two a large-scale interdisciplinary workshops (November 2005 and March 2006), scientists from across Europe issued a series of recommendations for further research, cooperation and funding. They look as follows:

Cross-cutting Scientific Recommendations
  • Identify and agree on i) model organisms in different phyla (a group that has a genetic relationship) and for different extreme environments; and ii) model extreme environments
  • Favour an ecosystem-based multidisciplinary approach when considering scientific activities in extreme environments.
  • Foster the use of Molecular Structural Biology and Genomics when considering life processes in extreme environments
Cross-cutting Technology Recommendations
  • Laboratory simulation techniques and facilities (e.g. microcosms) should be wider developed and made available to the scientific community.
  • Develop of in-situ sampling, measurement and monitoring technologies. The assessment and use of existing techniques is also recommended.
  • Adopt a common approach (specific to research activities in extreme environments) on technology requirements, availability and development.
Structuring and Networking the Science community
  • Favorise interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity approaches between scientific domains and between the technological and scientific spheres.
  • Create as soon as possible an overarching interdisciplinary group of experts to define the necessary actions to build a critical European mass in the field of “Investigating Life in Extreme Environments”
  • Improve the information exchange, coordination and networking of the European community involved in scientific activities in extreme environments.
The report further includes recommendations specific to (1) Microbial life, (2) Life Strategies of plants, (3) Life Strategies of animals and (4) Human adaptation to extreme environments.

Benefits from research into extremophilic organisms
Organisms that live in extreme physico-chemical conditions, in high concentrations of deleterious substances or heavy metals, represent one of the most important frontiers for the development of new biotechnological applications. Actually, the biotechnological applications of extremophiles and their components (e.g. extremozymes) have been the main driving force for the research in this area.

The most direct application of extremophiles in biotechnological processes involves the organisms themselves. Among the most established we can find biomining, in which microbial consortia that operate at acidic pH are used to extract metals from minerals. Similar applications may help in enhancing oil recovery to obtain more petroleum from fields than would be possible by traditional pumping techniques.

Most applications involving extremophiles are based on their biomolecules (primarily enzymes, but also other components such as proteins, lipids or small molecules). The best-known example of a successful application of an extremophile product is Taq DNA polymerase from the bacteria Thermus aquaticus which facilitated a revolution in molecular biology methodology, but also other commercialised products (e.g. ligases, proteases, phosphatases, cellulases or bacteriorhodopsin) have resulted from investigation of extremophiles isolated from different environments.

In order to develop biotechnological processes, it is important to isolate the organism. In addition, the use of new methodologies, such as comparative genomics is helping to sort out the genetic and molecular bases of adaptation to extreme conditions, facilitating the design of improved products by the introduction of appropriate modifications by protein engineering. This approach has been used not only for improving the thermostability of enzymes but to design cryoenzymes for the food industry to operate at low temperatures.

Most microbial communities are complex and currently only a few components can be cultured. Sequence-based approaches to study the metabolism of microbial communities are being used to retrieve genomic information from the community of potential use in biotechnology (metagenomics). Strategies based on the generation of environmental genomic libraries have been developed to directly identify enzymes from the environment with the required specificity or the appropriate operational conditions.

Plants adapted to extreme environments also provide potential economic and societal applications. Extremophilic plants can survive under conditions toxic or harmful to crop plants. Therefore there is the potential to transfer, e.g. by molecular cloning, some of these abilities from extremophiles to crop plants with the aim of producing frost, salt, heavy metal or drought tolerance or enhanced UV stability. Plants can also be useful to remediate polluted areas where life is made difficult or impossible. New energy crops for the production of so-called 'third generation biofuels' offer a field of applications as well. ('Third generation biofuels' are called that way because they rely on crops the properties of which have been engineered in such a way that they match the demands of a specific bioconversion process; e.g. tree crops with low-lignin content, which makes them easier to pulp or to break down for the production of biofuels, have already been developed).

Phytoremediation is an innovative technology that uses the natural properties of plants in engineered systems to remediate hazardous waste sites. Within the phytoremediation technologies, phytoextraction (uptake and concentration of substances from the environment into plant biomass) and phytotransformation (chemical modification of environmental substances as a direct result of plant metabolism) are of applicative interest. Phytoremediation has been effectively used for the decontamination of soils and waters polluted by high concentrations of hazardous organic (e.g. pesticides) or inorganic (e.g. arsenic and mercury) substances. It is also a promising technology for the remediation of atmospheric pollutants (hydrocarbons, ozone). (See also how energy crops can be used for phytoremediation purposes - previous post on phytoremediation of coal-bed methane, on turning brownfields into green fields with energy crops, and more here and here).

Biomedical applications of adaptive mechanisms of animals should also be thoroughly investigated. Such potentialities are real as illustrated by the subantarctic King penguin that has developed the ability to preserve fish in its stomach for three weeks at a temperature of 38°C. With further developments, the antimicrobial and antifungal peptide involved in this conservation process might be used, for example, to fight some nosocomial infections.

In short, extremophile and extreme environment research is an emerging science field working in vast unexplored settings, and may open a whole range of applications beneficial to society.

The 'Investigating Life in Extreme Environments' document was published by the ESF, and its Marine Board (MB-ESF), the European Polar Board (EPB), the European Space Science Committee (ESSC), the Life Earth and Environmental Sciences Standing Committee (LESC), the Standing Committee for Humanities (SCH) and the European Medical Research Councils (EMRC).

European Science Foundation: Investigating Life in Extreme Environments – A European Perspective [*.pdf] - July 2007.

European Science Foundation: Investigating Life in Extreme Environments report gives hints on life - July 4, 2007.

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Celebrity spotting: Marc Van Montagu and GM energy crops

Step aside Presidents, Ministers and Ambassadors. Here comes the Scientist. At the International Conference on Biofuels, we spotted a man who stands above short-term politics and ideologies. However, his work has been controversial and will be even more so in the near future. We are talking about professor Marc Van Montagu, one of the fathers of modern biotechnology.

Van Montagu is the Belgian molecular biologist who, in the 1970s, discovered the gene transfer mechanism between Agrobacterium and plants, which resulted in the development of methods to alter the bacterium into an efficient delivery system for gene engineering. The discovery opened the era of transgenic plants.

The prof developed plant molecular genetics, in particular molecular mechanisms for cell proliferation and differentiation and response to abiotic stresses (high light, ozone, cold, salt and drought) and constructed transgenic crops (tobacco, rape seed, corn) resistant to insect pest and tolerant to novel herbicides. His work with poplar trees resulted in engineering crops with improved pulping qualities. Today, he is working on GM energy crops.

Van Montagu was one of the members of the DOE Joint Genome Institute's team that recently decoded the world's first tree genome, namely that of the poplar. The effort was explicitly placed in the context of the development of future energy crops (earlier post, more here). The vision for so-called 'third generation' biofuels is to design these crops in such a way that their properties conform to one particular or a series of bioconversion processes, which results in higher conversion efficiencies and in the potential to integrate them into true biorefineries. Van Montagu's experience with engineering trees with improved pulping qualities is a serious step towards this development.

GM crops and the developing world
But Van Montagu is an interesting figure for another reason. The professor sees vast potential in the capacity of GM crops to help meet the rapidly growing food and fuel needs of the world's poor. He is actively developing genetically modified crops for them and with them. In order to further this vision, Van Montagu founded and presides over the Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries (IPBO). The center is located at Ghent University, Belgium, an institution with a strong tradition in development work and assistance.

It is this combination of curricula, world leading expertise and interests which make Van Montagu such an important personality in the emerging bioeconomy. In the corridors of the biofuels conference in Brussels, we heard the father of biotech commenting on some of the speeches delivered by the politicians: "They were all very careful to avoid the issue of genetically modified energy and food crops." The silence on the topic was indeed so deafening, that it seemed as if everyone either agreed that GM crops will play a big role in the future of energy agriculture or that they are an eternal taboo. At the Biopact, we have not touched on the issue much, but maybe it is time to start looking into it more thoroughly:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The resistance to GM crops is large, especially in the EU and amongst environmentalists. However, at the Biopact, we are not entirely sure of what position to take in this vastly complex debate. Global issues like climate change, rapid population growth in the South, and the depletion of oil resources may well tilt the argument in favor of GM crops.

Consider the following: biofuels and bioenergy offer the only realistic option to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally by replacing fossil fuels. But these green fuels require land to grow and may impact the food security of some groups of people. GM crops could yield both improved energy and food crops, that could help solve the intertwined issues of food insecurity, climate change and energy scarcity. Rapidly growing populations in the Global South, with rising demands for energy and food, add some urgency to the issue.

Moreover, climate change is already irreversible and will impact the developing world most, even if biofuels are used on a large scale to mitigate the worst effects of global warming. Some affected regions on the planet could benefit greatly from crops that are climate-resilient. And indeed, major international efforts are now underway to engineer such crops, by, amongst others, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) - the body that fathered the 'Green Revolution' (earlier post).

In a GM scenario, developing countries with a large potential for biofuels, would become early adopters of GM energy crops, which would guarantee that we get the most out of the land that is allocated to biofuel crops. High-yielding GM crops would reduce the land needed, allow extra incomes to farmers (now biofuel producers and exporters), and reduce pressures on the environment (e.g. less forest-land would have to be cleared for land expansion). The same would apply to food crops, already widely grown in the Global South.

On the other hand, the long-term risks posed by such a GM future remain largely unknown. These risks include unknown impacts on biodiversity, questions about biosafety, dependence of farmers on GM crops (seeds of which they have to buy each year again) and on the multinationals that market them, and the loss of traditional farming knowledge. Moreover, ongoing scientific research produces results that continuously shift the debate. An example: recently, researchers found that GM-field trials consistently underestimate the risks of cross-pollination, an issue that seemed to be largely resolved. But then again, a very authoritative study published recently in Science shows that genetically modified crops may contribute to increased productivity in agriculture that can genuinely be called 'sustainable'; the research analysed, for the first time, environmental impact data from field experiments all over the world, involving corn and cotton plants with a Bt gene inserted for its insecticidal properties (earlier post).

The EU's role
A recent debate organised by Friends of Europe, an EU policy think-tank, explored the role of the EU in the GMO debate, and asked whether our resistance to the crops is preventing developing countries from investing in potentially lifesaving technologies. The positions expressed during the debate sum up some of the different ways one can look at GMs in the developing world, and as they are positioned in the world's trade regime.

Danish Environment Minister Connie Hedegaard said that the EU should not dismiss all GMOs automatically, because the technology could help to solve developing countries' hunger problem. "In a global world, the EU's actions impact on other countries," she said, explaining that developing countries' inability to export to the EU discourages them from investing in and producing GMOs. She believes that the scepticism in Europe about genetic engineering in agriculture stems from the fact that few GMOs "have brought unquestionable benefits to the European table". But she underlined the fact that the EU must assess each GMO on its own merits, because crops that can resist diseases and insects can be grown in the third world. "Like it or not, GMOs are here to stay," she said, adding that the EU has a special role to play in the debate because it can contribute to ensuring that GMOs are used in a safe and beneficial way for consumers by, for example, investing public research in this field.

Per Pindstrup-Andersen, Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), stressed: "Not a single person has died or become sick because of GM foods." Nevertheless, he agreed that more studies should be carried out on for example, allergies. "The EU could have generated a lot of information on GMOs during the moratorium, but it simply sat on its hands," he complained. Although he conceded that Europeans have the right to know about the benefits and risks, he criticised the EU's dogmatism in refusing all GMOs.

"The debate in Europe is very one-sided," he said, adding: "If millions of farmers in India and China are willing to break laws to get genetically engineered food, there must be a reason." He underlined the importance of understanding the risk-benefit trade-off for developing countries, saying that for many the question is not "Is genetic engineering the best solution?" but rather "Is there any other solution?"

For the moment, he said, Europe is standing in the way of developing countries solving their own problems because of its straight-out rejection of GMOs. "Developing countries are scared of losing their export market to Europe if they start cultivating GM crops," he said. But, he agreed that Europe has an important role to play in encouraging the development of biosafety regulations, which are often very weak in developing countries.

Simon Barber, Director of External Relations, EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries, said that the public had "very limited knowledge" about GMOs and about agriculture in general. He accused green groups of spreading unfounded rumours, saying: "After ten years of GM plants, what negative effects have ever been seen?" He added: "Many other plant-breeding technologies are just as scary and do not only produce benefits…To categorically say that the technology should not be used is not ethical."

Furthermore, he said that imposing a ban on GMOs was not feasible anyway as "the international trading system simply cannot segregate crops on a 100% basis".

Fouad Hamdan, director of Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE), believes that it is an exaggeration to say that GMOs can save developing countries, because there are only four types of GM crops: soy, maize, oilseed rape and cotton. The majority of these crops are destined for feeding animals, not people, in rich countries.

Furthermore, he said, GM crops only benefit large farmers, not small ones who cannot afford expensive patented seeds. And, as for the environment, he said that the use of pesticides has actually increased in Europe following the introduction of GMOs. He refuted the argument that NGOs were stirring up fear on false pretences, saying: "I still believe that the benefits of GM food are almost nil... NGOs are working with independent scientific facts, not with biotech-industry funded research." Therefore, he concluded: "The EU can with a lot of confidence tell developing countries to be cautious too. The organic market is the future.”

A South African participant said that most Africans don’t have the luxury of choice of what to eat and what not to eat. "If genetic engineering can bring some relief to this food insecurity, then let it be. And if it is too risky, then come up with another solution."

The Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries
Whatever position one takes in this debate, GM bioenergy crops would not enter the food chain, which is a small step forward towards taking away some of the risks associated with engineered crops. But the issue of economic dependence and the threats to biodiversity remain key topics that must be addressed more thoroughly.

Back to professor Van Montagu. We should give the eminent scientist's Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries the benefit of the doubt, at least on a purely conceptual level. The Biopact is not science-averse, on the contrary, and in principle favors all means to help reduce poverty in the Global South. With Van Montagu's expertise and his committment to assisting developing countries through high science, we have an excellent partner for a debate. In the coming months, we will be exploring the potential role of GM energy crops more thoroughly, by exploring the professor's points of view.

For now, let us conclude with an overview of the IPBO's goals. The institute has three specific objectives that will be initiated over the next five years:
  • Strengthening the training of plant biotechnology scientists and plant breeders in developing countries
  • Enabling the implementation of science-based biosafety policies in developing countries
  • Acting as a focal point and internode to promote and leverage the biotechnology platform of Flanders
The program described is the product of the expertise and reputation that IPBO has built in the international plant biotechnology arena through its activities, publications and participation in international debate. This expertise is the basis for proactive measures to ensure that the agricultural biotechnology programs of developing countries bring tangible results.

Given the dynamics of the global plant biotechnology sector, it is likely that ongoing events, particularly in the field of biosafety and regulatory affairs, will evolve rapidly. With that in mind, the IPBO's goals are a projection of the activities planned for the next 5 years. But specific details of events may differ significantly to those described because the debate and the policies change continuously. In addition, because the IPBO intends to significantly enhance its integration into the local Flemish 'biotech hub', the inputs and influences of the organizations with which it intends to collaborate on specific projects will alter the eventual outcome of these projections.

The vision of IPBO is to resolve the constraints and leverage the opportunities presented by the challenge to translate new discoveries in plant sciences into successes in agriculture for the benefit of the poor of the world.

According to the institute, there is an urgency to enable this vision and broaden the sphere of influence that IPBO already exerts at multiple levels since there is growing concern in the international community that without a major commitment to enhancing agricultural productivity, we are unlikely to halve the number of people living on less than a dollar a day by 2015.

Van Montagu was professor and director of the Laboratory of Genetics at the faculty of Sciences at Ghent University (Belgium) and scientific director of the Genetics Department of the Flanders Interuniversity Institute of Biotechnology (VIB). He is president of the European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB) and of the Public Research Responsibility Initiative (PRRI).

Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries, website.

EurActive: Are EU GMO rules starving the poor? - May 21, 2007.

Friends of the Earth, Europe: Biotechnology Programme and European GMO campaign - ongoing.

Biopact: CGIAR developing climate-resilient crops to beat global warming - December 05, 2006

Biopact: Anthropological study explores the effects of genetically modified crops on developing countries - January 27, 2007

Biopact: Scientists: GM crops can play role in sustainable agriculture - June 10, 2007

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Sweden calls for the creation of a 'biopact' with the South - Highlights from the International Conference on Biofuels (Day 1, part 2)

Today's second session at the International Conference on Biofuels focused on the development of international trade in biofuels. The chief of staff of Brazil's President, India's Minister of New and Renewable Energies, the Ukraine's Vice-Prime Minister of Energy and Transport, and European Commissioner for Trade Peter Mandelson presented the many challenges ahead for the creation of a global biofuels market.

They include technical issues like standardisation of fuels, the elimination of tariffs and import duties, a reassessment of farm and biofuel subsidies, a new trade status for the renewable fuels, and the creation of a set of sustainability criteria without these rules becoming new barriers to trade.

Sweden's Minister for Trade, Sten Tolgfors, was most outspoken on what needs to be done (full speech). His country is Europe's greenest economy and the fastest growing user of biofuels. Sweden has also become the largest European importer of bio-ethanol from Brazil, which supplies 75% of ethanol used in the country.

Tolgfors outlined the advantages of what we call a 'Biopact' with the South. And to back up the fact that Sweden is committed to such a pact, it has set a target to decrease its use of fossil fuels in motor vehicles to 50% of current usage by 2020 made possible by importing biofuels from poor countries - a stark difference from the binding EU target of 10%.

So what makes such a Biopact the most logical option for countries in the North? According to the minister, biofuels only make sense when they are produced in such a way that they help contribute to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Countries in temperate climates do not have the agro-ecological resources to produce such fuels, but the Global South does. The energy and GHG balance of ethanol produced in Brazil is many times better than biofuels made in the North. The natural competitive advantages leading to this situation, must therefor be exploited to the fullest.

Consumers, producers and the climate benefit from biofuel trade
Tolgfors stressed that both tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers in the EU make biofuels for European consumers much more costly than they have to be. When imported from the South, consumers in the North benefit, as testified by the fact that ethanol from Brazil costs less than half that of the same fuel made in Europe. Sweden's imports as well the country's automakers' development of flex-fuel vehicles, are responsible for the sudden success of biofuels there. Swedish consumers have started buying flex-fuel cars, because they know the imported bio-ethanol is affordable, and hasn't been subsidised.

According to the trade minister, it has become untenable to keep a 54% tariff on imported ethanol, when the tariff on polluting (and costlier) gasoline is only 5%. These and other trade distortions must be abandoned in order to create a win-win situation for both the South and the North.

The advantages of such a 'Biopact' are manifold: producers in the developing world can enjoy their competitive advantages (abundant land and crops under suitable agro-ecological conditions), and can finally enter a market with a product that will not face price collapses, as has been the case with traditional commodities; demand for the product can only increase when oil prices remain high and when efforts to mitigate climate change are stepped up; finally, consumers in the North as well as in the developing world benefit from less costly fuels - an important aspect in a world in which access to mobility has become a crucial social good. Large-scale production of biofuels in the South - if implemented in a socially inclusive way - offers opportunities for poverty alleviation in countries with large rural populations.

Ending 'resource nationalism'
For all these reasons, Sweden, followed by the Netherlands, has launched a formal request for a study by the OECD on how to get rid of the current trade distortions, to which it objects (we reported on this earlier). If necessary, Tolgfors said, the EU should abandon these distortions alone, without waiting for the US:
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The Minister referred to European Trade Commissioner Mandelson and his recent proposal to lower taxation and tariffs on so-called 'environmental goods and services': if a proposal for lower duties on these products and services has become an official position of the EU's trade commissioner, then biofuels must follow. Tolgfors calls for the total abolishment of all forms of trade taxation and protectionist measures for ethanol and biodiesel.

The implementation of such trade reforms must however be accompanied by the creation of mechanisms that measure the sustainability of biofuels. Few developing countries will experience an immediate boost in biofuel production, because they often lack technological and agronomic expertise. This leaves time to help them devise policies that ensure social and environmental sustainability. But for countries that already have a working and sustainable biofuels industry, like Brazil, the abandonment of tariffs and trade barriers would only be fair.

Temporal synergy
In the meantime, as developing countries make the transition from the status of agricultural importer (the result of farm subsidies and trade barriers in the US/EU) to that of biofuel exporter, the European Union's producers will make progress on the development of next-generation biofuels. In Sweden, such fuels are already being produced from cellulose.

In short, it becomes possible to think of a synergy between two developments: the time needed for the developing world to become a large biofuel exporter, will be long enough for the EU to become more competitive via cellulosic ethanol. Over the short term, the EU will have to import biofuels from the South in order to reach its 10% target, but in the longer term, its degree of self-sufficiency will rise because of more efficient next-generation fuels. At the end of this cycle (15 years from now), cellulosic bioconversion technologies can be transferred to the South, to increase the energy and GHG balance of fuels there even further.

The Swedish minister's logic comes close to that of the Biopact, as it was expressed in an opinion piece over at EurActiv.

European Commissioner for Trade, Peter Mandelson, largely agreed with his Swedish collegue, and added that the EU is the best actor when it comes to helping the developing world creating biofuels industries that respect the social wellbeing of the farmers as well as the environment. The EU has the technological and scientific expertise needed to achieve this.

However, Mandelson tried to balance the importance of environmental sustainability against 'resource nationalism', and concluded that sustainability criteria are crucial but should not become barriers to trade aimed at protecting European farmers.

Jonas Van Den Berg & Laurens Rademakers, Biopact, 2007, cc.

Picture: Sweden's Minister for Trade, Sten Tolgfors.

Government Offices Sweden: Sten Tolgfors, Minister for Foreign Trade: Speech International Conference on Biofuels, Brussels 05 July 2007.

(Check against delivery)

EurActiv: 'Towards a bioenergy pact with the global south' - Feb. 15, 2007.

Biopact: Sweden looks to Indonesia for green fuels - June 01, 2007.

In a next piece, we zoom in on the points presented by Brazil's President Lula, by the President of the European Commission, and by the new President of the European Union.

Tomorrow, on day two of the conference, focus will shift to the opportunities and risks of producing biofuels in developing countries (session 1) and on the latest scientific and technological developments in bioenergy, in the EU and abroad (session 2).

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Highlights from the International Conference on Biofuels (Day 1)

The European Commisson's Directorate-General (DG) for External Relations organised its first high-level International Conference on Biofuels, taking place today and tomorrow in Brussels. The event comes at a time when most developed countries are implementing biofuel policies, whereas the potential from the Global South is gradually being recognized.

Biopact was amongst the non-governmental organisations invited to attend. Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, hosted the conference, which on its first day attracted some 200 experts from around the world and political leaders from African, Asian and Latin-American countries as well as civil society organisations from the South. This is part 1 in a series of exclusive articles with highlights from the event.

Opening the conference, Benita Ferrero-Waldner outlined the topics for debate: the fact that biofuels are becoming an internationally traded commodity with a large potential, which requires the creation of new trade rules and sustainability frameworks. Current global patterns of energy consumption are untenable in their current form, as they trigger climate change and threaten the security of energy supplies for most countries. Ferrero-Waldner stressed that the EU will be affected by climate change to a much lesser extent than the developing world. Therefor, a new generation of leaders must ensure that the tension between economic development in the South and climate change is overcome. Sustainable development through biofuels offers a key to such a strategy. (Ferrero-Waldner's full speech can be found here).

Security of energy supplies and climate change
Andris Piebalgs, European Commissioner for Energy, then introduced the first session on 'Biofuels policies in the EU and Other Countries', by sketching the main reasons behind the EU's ambitious biofuels targets (10% by 2020). First of all, Europe is the world's largest importer of energy, and oil dependence on foreign sources currently stands at around 50 per cent. The transport sector is dependent on oil for 98 per cent. Europe produces less and less oil, whereas the trend to declining reserves can be observed globally as well. An ever smaller group of countries supplies an ever growing need. In short, the security of petroleum supplies is increasingly difficult to guarantee and new geostrategic risks arise. This calls for short and medium term alternatives. Currently, biofuels are the only realistic option to subsitute oil on a large scale.

Besides the security of energy supplies, climate change is the major driver of the EU's efforts to promote renewable fuels. The transport sector is currently responsible for one third of the EU's carbon dioxide emissions, and growth in the sector is negating reductions made in other economic sectors (industrial and domestic). Without alternatives to oil, growth in the EU's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be dominated by the transport sector, which will contribute up to 60% of all new emissions.

There are only two options to change this situation: increasing the efficiency of transport and utilizing more biofuels. For Piebalgs, biofuels offer advantages in that they bring rural development, new markets and jobs, as well as opportunities for scientific work and technological development which will result in newer generations of cleaner fuels. But their potential to reduce GHG emissions remains the main reason for their support.

Importantly, Piebalgs stressed that, contrary to previous goals (5.75% by 2010), the EU's new biofuel targets are binding, that is, each member state must reach them. The Commissioner then touched a subject other speakers focused on as well: the EU cannot meet these goals alone, and will rely on imports. This calls for the creation of an international market for biofuels:
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However, the Energy Commissioner left the debate of how to organise such a market to other speakers (amongst them EU Commissioner for Trade, Peter Mandelson), and instead focused on the sustainability of such internationally traded green fuels.

Biofuels are not automatically sustainable. And not all biofuels are born equally. When they are grown on new land for which forests are cleared, they may lose much of their potential to reduce GHGs. However, most biofuels as they are produced today, can be labelled as environmentally sustainable; new expansion of the sector makes the issue more problematic.

Sustainability criteria
For this reason the European Commission is working on a framework for biofuels sustainability criteria, to be presented to the European Parliament which will decide on the matter in September, and later to the European Council.

The framework will be part of the EU's broader package on renewable energy, because biofuels cannot be seen outside of the context of efforts on the front of efficiency, research, and trade. The new legislation's sustainability scheme will in all likeliness contain the following provisions:
  • a minimal set of sustainability criteria must be met by all biofuels in the EU
  • only these biofuels will count for the 10% target the EU member states must reach by 2020
  • and only these fuels are eligible for European support (subsidies, tax incentives, etc...)
  • finally, the minimal criteria apply to imported biofuels as well
However, Piebalgs noted that 'sustainability' as such is a descriptive concept, open to debate. The EU wishes to help define it in the context of biofuels, fully aware of the fact that such criteria cannot constitute new barriers to trade.

Trade and solidarity
Intergovernmental and international efforts are needed to streamline and help the convergence of biofuel standards. Several initiatives on international standardisation are currently underway, which will improve the tradeability of the fuels.

The Energy Commissioner ended his presentation with two important thoughts. First, the EU is fully committed to creating an international market for biofuels - it does not want to rely on domestic production alone because this would require new land (set-aside land) to be taken in production, which is not desirable as it impacts biodiversity. But closing off the market is not desirable for another reason: biofuels offer a unique lever for global solidarity. Countries in the South have competitive advantages (land, sun, climate, crops) but often lack the technological and financial means to create biofuel industries. The EU can help transfer technologies, encourage investors to go South, and learn from countries like Brazil. Moreover, the sector will boost international cooperation in a range of fields - from biotech and agronomy, to bioconversion technologies and cooperation in the field of infrastructures.

Most importantly, in the era of problems like climate change and growing oil scarcity - which are truly global -, biofuels trigger a world-wide sense of responsibility: successful policies and the use of biofuels in one country, positively impact all citizens of the globe. (Piebalg's full speech can be found here).

Session One: Policies in the EU and other countries
The first session of the conference, moderated by Claude Mandil, executive director of the International Energy Agency, saw Xiong Bilin, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission of China, Purnomo Yusgiantoro, Indonesia's Minister for Mineral Resources and Energy, Salvador Namburete, Mozambique's Minister of Energy, C. Boyden Gray, U.S. Ambassador to the EU, and Javier de Urquiza, Argentina's Secretary for Agriculture present their respective countries' current policies, projections about the biofuels potential, and the challenges and opportunities in the sector.

Minister Yusgiantoro outlined Indonesia's biofuels plan, as we have discussed it here before. Interestingly, a new initiative called 'Energy Self-Sufficient Villages' aims to help around 1000 poor and remote villages to 'leapfrog' beyond the oil era. Indonesia counts over 70,000 villages, 45% of which have living standards below the poverty line. One of the key reasons of this situation is the lack of access to modern energy.

Even though petro-based fuels are heavily subsidised in Indonesia, a large number of these villages only have access to extremely expensive gasoline and diesel fuel. Creating local biofuel cottage industries will help them become less dependent on outside supplies. The 'Energy Self-Sufficient Villages' are a pilot group that will have to demonstrate the feasibility of producing modern energy in a decentralised manner. Funding for the program does not only come in the form of cash, but in material aid: seeds, machinery, education. Small and medium enterprises developing from this new market will benefit local economies and make the project self-funding over the medium term.

Indonesia stresses the social dimension of its ambitious biofuels and bioenergy program (5% of all energy by 2020; between 7 and 10% biofuels in transport by 2010). The program is expected to bring 3.5 million new jobs to the rural poor. Some 5.25 million hectares of land will be allocated for crops such as jatropha and palm oil (for biodiesel) and sugarcane and cassava (for bioethanol). A special biofuels trade zone will be established that must become a hub for global trade.

An impressive list of existing and planned biofuel factories in Indonesia was followed by an interesting overview of power plants utilizing solid biomass and liquid biofuels as feedstocks. Around 70MW of bioenergy is currently produced in these large plants, with a much larger potential for the future.

Mozambique's Minister
Salvador Namburete opened his sketch with a strong point: all African countries, no matter whether they are oil importers or producers and exporters, suffer under high oil prices. Liquid fuels are crucial for the economy at large, as they are used in all productive sectors. When prices rise, indeed, all these sectors are affected - especially in African countries whose economies are energy intensive.

Mozambique chooses to utilize its huge biofuel potential for classic reasons: to cut dependence on imported fuels, to grab the opportunity biofuels offer to make use of existing infrastructures, to mitigate climate change and ensure low-carbon development, and to supply neighboring countries as Mozambique has a large potential for green fuels and demand in Southern Africa, with its 250 million inhabitants, is growing rapidly. But most importantly, biofuels offer a unique chance to boost employment opportunities in rural areas and to supplement the Mozambican government's poverty alleviation efforts.

International exports to the EU are obviously one important way to acquire income that can be spend on such important areas as education, health, social policies and poverty alleviation. Current imports of refined oil products cost Mozambique dearly and have decreased funds that can be spent on these services; biofuels can turn this situation around.

Minister Namburete briefly discussed Mozambique's vast biofuel potential: the country only utilizes around 5% of all land available for agriculture, and an additional 41.5 million hectares of degraded land can be used for the production of crops like jatropha. Farmers can for the first time tap these marginal lands to make a profit from them - this was not possible with any other type of crops.

Biofuel projects in Mozambique come under the guise of of private, private-public partnerships, cross-sectoral cooperation and Kyoto Mechanisms (such as the Clean Development Mechanism).

A preliminary biofuels regulation is in place in the country, but a two-phase project - first assessing the bottlenecks and opportunities, then outlining the long-term potential - is underway that will lead to the adoption of a national policy. This is important in order to attract foreign investments. Some challenges have already been identified, such as the need for the creation of monitoring mechanisms that must ensure land allocation rules are strictly adhered to.

Current projects are few in number (7 biodiesel plants and 4 ethanol plants), but, according to Namburete, Mozambique's potential is "enormous". The country will attract investors by showing off its stable political situation, its interesting investment climate, and its agro-ecological advantages. The biofuel campaign aimed at bringing in foreign investors will draw on the slogan that 'Mozambique will become the Brazil of Africa'.

The United States
U.S. Ambassador C. Boyden Gray was brief: the explosive growth in America's biofuels sector has been almost entirely market-driven. Silicon Valley money is in, and this will lead to technology developments that ensure the efficient production of next-generation, cellulosic biofuels. Gray devoted his presentation to 'debunking' some myths about corn-based ethanol: ethanol from corn does have a positive energy balance and helps clean the air. He attributed the U.S.'s far lower health burden from air pollution to the introduction of ethanol.

Speaking about the WTO's Doha trade round, Gray said that prices for global farm commodities will strengthen in such a way that both the EU and the US may find it easier to cut tariffs and other trade barriers, as well as lower farm subsidies. Doha can thus be 'saved' by biofuels.

Javier de Urquiza,
Argentina's Secretary for Agriculture, was the first to touch on this issue of trade barriers and tariffs, a theme that would pop up many times during the rest of the conference. The Secretary had a series of objections to the current state of things: ethanol tariffs in the US and the EU, import duties for biodiesel, subsidies European farmers and energy crops, technical rules for biodiesel based on certain crops (such as soybeans)... all these will have to go if the EU and the US are serious about creating a truly global market for biofuels.

De Urquiza therefor stressed the need to create a mechanism for multi-lateral negotiations on both the standardisation of biofuels and on the trade rules for the new market.

Claude Mandil wrapped up the first session by repeating the many social, economic and environmental benefits of biofuels, but he urged everyone to remain realistic. In the medium term, biofuels will not contribute more than 5, 7, maybe 10% of global liquid fuel demand. Second-generation fuels may allow a more significant share. But in all cases, this remains a petroleum-driven world.

Referring to ambassador Gray, Mandil noted that the discourse on 'market-driven' development cannot obscure the fact that both the U.S. and the E.U. lavishly subsidise their farmers, their biofuels sectors and protect their market against foreign competition.

According to Mandil, the key question remains that of sustainability: should there be a global framework with criteria, should such rules be compulsory, or will this be contrary to the committment to encourage free trade?

Finally, the IEA Chief stressed that his organisation's outlook on biofuels is extremely positive when it comes to the many opportunities the green fuels bring, but they remain only one of a much broader range of options to reduce oil consumption or to make its use less of a burden for the environment.

Jonas Van Den Berg & Laurens Rademakers, Biopact, 2007, cc.

Part 2 of this series of articles will appear shortly. It will include the staunchest defense of a sort of 'biopact' - the view that the North must import biofuels from the South - as it was expressed by Sweden's Minister for Trade. Part 3 will highlight the keynote speeches of the three portuguese speaking presidents who attended the conference: President Lula from Brazil, President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, and President of the European Union, José Socrates (PM of Portugal). Check back soon.

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Petrobras and Galp Energia form joint-venture to produce and distribute biofuels

The first EU-Brazil Summit held yesterday in Lisbon, an initiative of Portugal which took over the rotating Presidency of the European Council from Germany, brought President Lula and a host of Brazilian biofuel business representatives to Europe. At the Summit, the EU signed a strategic partnership with one of the world's largest emerging economies, putting Brazil on an equal footing with countries like China, India and Russia.

In the ambit of the Summit, state-owned Petrobras and Portugal's largest energy company Galp Energia signed a term of commitment aimed at the production of 600,000 tons of vegetable oils per year in Brazil and at biodiesel marketing and distribution in the Portuguese and/or European markets. The agreement is the outcome of the Memorandum of Understandings (MOU) the two companies signed last May, in Lisbon (earlier post).

To carry this project out, the companies will create a joint venture - in which both companies will hold 50% (fifty percent) of the joint stock - to produce:
  • 300,000 tons of vegetable oils to produce second generation biodiesel at Galp Energia's refineries (earlier post on Galp's H-Bio)
  • 300,000 tons of vegetable oil to produce biodiesel to be exported to Portugal and/or other European countries
This agreement is in line with the goals set forth by Petrobras' Strategic Plan, as it boosts the company's participation in both the domestic and international biofuel market. Additionally, this association with Galp is promising since the biodiesel expected to be produced in Brazil in 2008 will generate nearly immediate export availability. The Portuguese market, on the other hand, will require the fuel, in 2010, to comply with the regulatory mark that determines the use of 10% biofuels as of that year [entry ends here]
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