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    The 16th European Biomass Conference & Exhibition - From Research to Industry and Markets - will be held from 2nd to 6th June 2008, at the Convention and Exhibition Centre of FeriaValencia, Spain. Early bird fee registration ends 18th April 2008. European Biomass Conference & Exhibition - February 22, 2007.

    'Obesity Facts' – a new multidisciplinary journal for research and therapy published by Karger – was launched today as the official journal of the European Association for the Study of Obesity. The journal publishes articles covering all aspects of obesity, in particular epidemiology, etiology and pathogenesis, treatment, and the prevention of adiposity. As obesity is related to many disease processes, the journal is also dedicated to all topics pertaining to comorbidity and covers psychological and sociocultural aspects as well as influences of nutrition and exercise on body weight. Obesity is one of the world's most pressing health issues, expected to affect 700 million people by 2015. AlphaGalileo - February 21, 2007.

    A bioethanol plant with a capacity of 150 thousand tons per annum is to be constructed in Kuybishev, in the Novosibirsk region. Construction is to begin in 2009 with investments into the project estimated at €200 million. A 'wet' method of production will be used to make, in addition to bioethanol, gluten, fodder yeast and carbon dioxide for industrial use. The complex was developed by the Solev consulting company. FIS: Siberia - February 19, 2007.

    Sarnia-Lambton lands a $15million federal grant for biofuel innovation at the Western Ontario Research and Development Park. The funds come on top of a $10 million provincial grant. The "Bioindustrial Innovation Centre" project competed successfully against 110 other proposals for new research money. London Free Press - February 18, 2007.

    An organisation that has established a large Pongamia pinnata plantation on barren land owned by small & marginal farmers in Andhra Pradesh, India is looking for a biogas and CHP consultant to help research the use of de-oiled cake for the production of biogas. The organisation plans to set up a biogas plant of 20,000 cubic meter capacity and wants to use it for power generation. Contact us - February 15, 2007.

    The Andersons, Inc. and Marathon Oil Corporation today jointly announced ethanol production has begun at their 110-million gallon ethanol plant located in Greenville, Ohio. Along with the 110 million gallons of ethanol, the plant annually will produce 350,000 tons of distillers dried grains, an animal feed ingredient. Marathon Oil - February 14, 2007.

    Austrian bioenergy group Cycleenergy acquired controlling interest in Greenpower Projektentwicklungs GmbH, expanding its biomass operational portfolio by 16 MW to a total of 22 MW. In the transaction Cycleenergy took over 51% of the company and thereby formed a joint venture with Porr Infrastruktur GmbH, a subsidiary of Austrian construction company Porr AG. Greenpower operates two wood chip CHP facilities in Upper and Lower Austria, each with an electric capacity of 2 MW. The plants have been in operation since the middle of last year and consume more than 30,000 tonnes of wood chips and are expected to generate over €5 million in additional revenue. Cycleenergy - February 6, 2007.

    The 2008 edition of Bioenergy World Europe will take place in Verona, Italy, from 7 to 10 February. Gathering a broad range of international exhibitors covering gaseous, liquid and solid bioenergy, the event aims to offer participants the possibility of developing their business through meetings with professionals, thematic study tours and an international forum focusing on market and regulatory issues, as well as industry expertise. Bioenergy World Europe - February 5, 2007.

    The World GTL Summit will take place between 12 – 14th May 2008 in London. Key topics to be discussed include: the true value of Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) projects, well-to-wheels analyses of the GTL value chain; construction, logistics and procurement challenges; the future for small-scale Fischer-Tropsch (FT) projects; Technology, economics, politics and logistics of Coal-to-Liquids (CTL); latest Biomass-to-Liquids (BTL) commercialisation initiatives. CWC Exhibitions - February 4, 2007.

    The 4th Annual Brussels Climate Change Conference is announced for 26 - 27 February 2008. This joint CEPS/Epsilon conference will explore the key issues for a post-Kyoto agreement on climate change. The conference focuses on EU and global issues relating to global warming, and in particular looks at the following issues: - Post-2012 after Bali and before the Hokkaido G8 summit; Progress of EU integrated energy and climate package, burden-sharing renewables and technology; EU Emissions Trading Review with a focus on investment; Transport Climatepolicy.eu - January 28, 2007.

    Japan's Marubeni Corp. plans to begin importing a bioethanol compound from Brazil for use in biogasoline sold by petroleum wholesalers in Japan. The trading firm will import ETBE, which is synthesized from petroleum products and ethanol derived from sugar cane. The compound will be purchased from Brazilian petrochemical company Companhia Petroquimica do Sul and in February, Marubeni will supply 6,500 kilolitres of the ETBE, worth around US$7 million, to a biogasoline group made up of petroleum wholesalers. Wholesalers have been introducing biofuels since last April by mixing 7 per cent ETBE into gasoline. Plans call for 840 million liters of ETBE to be procured annually from domestic and foreign suppliers by 2010. Trading Markets - January 24, 2007.

    Toyota Tsusho Corp., Ohta Oil Mill Co. and Toyota Chemical Engineering Co., say it and two other firms have jointly developed a technology to produce biodiesel fuel at lower cost. Biodiesel is made by blending methanol into plant-derived oil. The new technology requires smaller amounts of methanol and alkali catalysts than conventional technologies. In addition, the new technology makes water removal facilities unnecessary. JCN Network - January 22, 2007.

    Finland's Metso Paper and SWISS COMBI - W. Kunz dryTec A.G. have entered a licence agreement for the SWISS COMBI belt dryer KUVO, which allows biomass to be dried in a low temperature environment and at high capacity, both for pulp & paper and bioenergy applications. Kauppalehti - January 22, 2007.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Doubling food production in Sub-Saharan Africa is easy: just add lime

When the biofuels debate turns acidic, just add lime. Agriculture and development experts know there is a vast potential for the sustainable production of both food and biofuels in the developing world. However, critics of green energy never refer to this potential. Instead, they rely on a static view on development, and push the conventional idea that land devoted to biofuels takes away land for food. Nothing is further from the truth. Matters are slightly more complex and counter-intuitive. As many social scientists and agriculture experts have now said, biofuel production can in fact boost food production, end hunger, lower pressures on the environment and make more land available for agriculture.

This is so because of basic development economics: biofuels open a new market that allows the world's poor - 70 percent of who make a living in agriculture - to sell more farm products at better prices. Gone are the days when millions of poor farmers were kept in deep poverty because of low commodity prices; gone are the days when world markets were saturated and poor cash cropping farmers despaired because of a lack of opportunities; gone are the days of the need for American and European farm subsidies which have kept millions of ruralites in abject poverty.

The new market at last offers hope for better farm incomes for the bulk of the world's poor. This money is crucial as it will be used to modernise agriculture and make it far more efficient. Modernisation of developing world agriculture means more sustainable production and lower pressures on the environment. It also means more land becomes available for energy crops, because it is well known amongst agricultural economists that if, for example, all African farmers were to adopt the most basic of modern farming techniques, they could triple, quadruple, even quintuple their output with ease.

They would not need to take new land into production, but could use the same plot to boost their production again and again. Later on, they can (1) reclaim the vast depleted land resources they abandonded long ago, and (2) invest in the enormous land resources that remain untapped today (most Sub-Saharan African countries use less than 20 percent of their potentially arable land; very large countries like the DRCongo, the Central African Republic or Angola use less than 10 percent). It is this dynamic that makes any attempt to re-introduce Malthusian perspectives into the current world agriculture debate, futile.

When we discuss agricultural modernisation in the South, we are not talking about high-tech interventions, precision agriculture or top-notch biotechnologies. We are talking about real basics. African farmers use hoes and axes, not tractors; they do not use fertilisers because these are too expensive; irrigation is out of reach of most; they don't have access to quality seeds; they cannot afford simple pest and herbicide management practises. But if they could, the world of agriculture would radically transform and millions would be lifted out of poverty. The new biofuels market could well be the trigger that initiates this transformation and launches Africa's much-anticipated Green Revolution.

As the chief of the World Food Program (WFP) recently said, in the context of rising global prices for agricultural commodities:
More food will be produced. Farmers will respond, and maybe there'll be investment in the African farmer for the first time, for example, in many decades. - Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program
This is the basic economic logic. Biofuels will unlock the vast potential for agriculture in Africa and across the developing world, by attracting funds for rural development. This new interest in agriculture will result in many spill-over effects (improved infrastructures, access to inputs, new and attractive markets, access to basic farm tools and technologies). Farmers in the developing world can respond to the new market conditions relatively easily, because their starting point is one of hyper-inefficiency. With minor interventions, poor countries can turn themselves from being food aid dependent begging bowls forced to rely on the WFP's handouts, to self-sufficient food exporters and bioenergy producers - instantly.

The example of Malawi's super harvests is now well known and completely debunks both the food-versus-fuel debaters and the neo-Malthusians (more here). By simply making available a bag of fertilisers to the country's rural population, Malawi became a net-food exporter in a single season's time. The year before it relied on hundreds of thousands of tonnes of corn and wheat from the US and the EU for its survival. Now it exports hundreds of thousands of tonnes of maize to its neighbors; it even hands out the food to other countries for free. Had Malawi turned the excess maize into ethanol, it would have become oil independent in one stroke. Now this most basic of interventions - improving access to basic inputs - can be replicated across the continent. The FAO has taken Malawi's success story as a symbol to show how other African countries can respond to the new conditions of the world food market.

The bulk of Sub-Saharan African countries should be major food and biofuel exporters, instead of dependent on food aid and catastrophically costly imported petroleum products. The fact that they aren't is one of the biggest scandals of our time. We know who is responsible for this situation: local elites and satrapes who prefer to deal with foreign food and agribusiness conglomerates while denying the existence of their own rural populations, the food aid industry, NGOs interested only in their own wellbeing, neo-Malthusians, subsidy-pushing policy makers in the North and major food multinationals who don't want to see farmers in the South becoming more resilient.

Just add lime

Now let us assume that the biofuels debate exposes these vested interests and that they disappear over time to make way for policies focused on Africa's own rural populations. Then we can point at the large number of examples of how the African farmer can increase output dramatically and easily. An excellent and detailed case-study comes from Zambia, where the UK's Department for International Development and the British Geological Survey conducted their very interesting FarmLime research project over the past few years and recently published results.

This extensive study shows that simply making available locally produced agricultural lime to the country's large number of subsistence farmers can routinely double yields of major staple crops like maize. Adding this agromineral to the vast stretches of weathered, acidic soils in Africa is just one of the true basics of modern agriculture. It is a highly profitable, feasible and low-cost intervention. Let's look at its economics and what it would mean to African agriculture as a whole:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Acidic soils in Africa

Soil fertility is crucial to food productivity and in turn to sustainable rural livelihoods. However, the bulk of Sub-Saharan African soils is acidic, pushing farmers to use up new land after a plot has been depleted after a few years. Traditional cultivation practices such as ‘slash and burn’ are both a cause and a consequence of acidification (map, click to enlarge). High soil acidity reduces crop yields substantially. Without the use of lime to neutralise the acidity, once-fertile farmland can become barren and this can lead to desertification. Current farming practice in many developing countries often ignores the need for lime. Furthermore, subsistence farmers cannot afford to use lime.

However, according to the researchers:
The agricultural production of small-scale farmers could be doubled by the use of aglime; this little-used input has the potential to revitalise the small-scale agricultural sectors in many southern African countries. [...] This will allow more small-scale farmers to break out of subsistence level farming by selling a greater proportion of their produce. As women dominate farming they will directly benefit. Increasing the local availability of food will also eventually bring down prices and benefit the wider community.
The scientists went to Zambia to test their hypothesis and to see whether producing and introducing lime would be feasible. There are an estimated 800,000 small-scale farming households in Zambia, who accounted for the production of 925,000 tonnes of maize in 2005/06 (65% of national production).

Small scale production

Teams of researchers first conducted a social survey to check whether local farmers were aware of the problems of soil acidity and how to tackle them; they looked at traditional soil management practises and at the willingness of farmers to take up the new input, lime. They found that most peasants were aware of the beneficial effects of aglime but did not know how to apply the input. Possibilities to overcome the relatively high costs for the farmers were investigated, and barter systems seemed to offer opportunities (lime in exchange for a bag of maize).

Geologists then conducted a country-wide analysis complemented with field surveys into limestone and dolomite deposits, and found large, easily mineable resources of good quality lime. A local, small-scale extraction and production line was then set up to mine and transform the rocks into aglime, with researchers studying the production process, costs and feasibility for replication. It was found that cottage lime production for local use was cost-effective compared with imported industrially produced aglime.

Finally, agricultural researchers promoted the use of lime by directly working with and training small-scale farmers and through extension workers. In turn, extension officers learnt the benefits of using lime, how to apply lime and how it would help the small-scale farmers they work with; and farmers were taught how to apply lime and learned what difference it made to their crop yields. Small-scale farmers were willing to try out an unfamiliar agricultural input and were impressed with the results. Demonstrations and trials amongst the farmers working on acidic soils showed that maize yields could be doubled when lime was applied at recommended quantities.

A cost benefit analysis showed that the benefits of using agricultural lime will vary depending on location, maize prices, and the acidity of the soil. Small-scale farmers living close to the source of their inputs, farming highly acid soils and can realise a high price for their maize, will see the greatest increase in their incomes. Farmers living a long distance from the source of their inputs, farming moderately acid soils and can only realise a low price for their maize will have greater costs and a smaller increase in their income (table, click to enlarge).

In general, the resarchers found that:
The application of lime is highly profitable except where there is little response to liming of the soil and the farmer is remote from markets. In a good season, where the maize prices may reach US$200 per tonne, the use of lime is worthwhile even on the less acidic soils.
The project sketched an overview of major 'benefits to the nation':
Each tonne of lime applied increases the amount of maize grown by an extra 3 to 5 tonnes per hectare. If half of the farms growing maize on acid soils were to use lime an extra 750,000 tonnes of maize could be produced. At a typical import/ export parity of US$100 per tonne this would generate or save US$75 million. In 2002 with the need to import between 200,000 and 400,000 tonnes at over US$200 per tonne the saving would be US$150 million.
The costs of lime production are mostly domestic (except for petrol, which is less than 10% of the production cost) and make little demands on foreign currency. Small-scale lime production requires 5 man-days per tonne of lime and would pay each worker about US$1 per day. If 50,000 tonnes of lime were used by small farmers (which could be achieved with Government support) this would put US$250,000 into the rural economy and employ 125,000 workers for 200 days per year.

However, the researchers also said that, although there is a demonstrable economic benefit, the use of lime will ultimately depend on the availability of cash in the rural economy. Therefore, an important criterion in the decision to start up small-scale lime production would be the willingness and ability of the local small-scale farmers to pay for the lime. Programmes that demonstrate the effectiveness of agricultural lime would be fundamental in raising awareness.

The researchers note that the long-term benefits of aglime are highly important from a sustainability standpoint (as we said above: modernisation and intensification of agriculture is one of the greenest approaches to development):
With most soils classified as acidic, farmers need to move on to new land under the Chitemene system [shifting cultivation] after only a few years. The use of lime would allow continuous rotational cropping and increase yields. A nationwide acceptance of lime would reduce the devastation and erosion seen in some areas of Zambia. Fertilisers can be used with lime to produce extra crops and maintain the organic content of the soil. Without the use of lime, fertilisers will increasingly acidify the soil until eventually crops will fail completely.
Thus this interesting project demonstrated that low-cost aglime could be produced on a small-scale using appropriate technology in southern African farming districts where it is most needed.

Given the success of the demonstration, the researchers concluded:
The impact of this research could be dramatic in the long term. Widespread availability of low-cost aglime could revitalise the small-scale agricultural sector and have profound impacts on the prosperity of rural communities in many parts of Africa. Use of aglime could transform Zambia, and other southern African countries into maize exporters, providing a significant source of foreign exchange.
Although Zambia was the main test-bed for the research, workshops and other research activities have highlighted the potential for application in other African nations including Botswana, The Gambia, Ghana, Malawi, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Making lime available is ultimately only one of the many simple, low-cost interventions that still need to be taken up by Africa's 500 million farmers. Many other similar interventions can unlock the agricultural potential of the continent, and turn it into a food and biofuel exporter.

C J Mitchell, S Simukanga, V Shitumbanuma, D Banda, M Mwanza & M, Mtonga (University of Zambia) B Muibeya & D Kapindula, E Steadman, B Walker. Farmlime: Low-cost lime for small-scale farming [*.pdf]- , DFID, British Geological Survey, Economic Minerals Programme Commissioned Report CR/03/066N.

DFID, Research for Development: FarmLime - sourcing low cost lime for small-scale farming - project page.


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