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    Kyushu University (Japan) is establishing what it says will be the world’s first graduate program in hydrogen energy technologies. The new master’s program for hydrogen engineering is to be offered at the university’s new Ito campus in Fukuoka Prefecture. Lectures will cover such topics as hydrogen energy and developing the fuel cells needed to convert hydrogen into heat or electricity. Of all the renewable pathways to produce hydrogen, bio-hydrogen based on the gasification of biomass is by far both the most efficient, cost-effective and cleanest. Fuel Cell Works - March 3, 2008.

    An entrepreneur in Ivory Coast has developed a project to establish a network of Miscanthus giganteus farms aimed at producing biomass for use in power generation. In a first phase, the goal is to grow the crop on 200 hectares, after which expansion will start. The project is in an advanced stage, but the entrepreneur still seeks partners and investors. The plantation is to be located in an agro-ecological zone qualified as highly suitable for the grass species. Contact us - March 3, 2008.

    A 7.1MW biomass power plant to be built on the Haiwaiian island of Kaua‘i has received approval from the local Planning Commission. The plant, owned and operated by Green Energy Hawaii, will use albizia trees, a hardy species that grows in poor soil on rainfall alone. The renewable power plant will meet 10 percent of the island's energy needs. Kauai World - February 27, 2008.

    Tasmania's first specialty biodiesel plant has been approved, to start operating as early as July. The Macquarie Oil Company will spend half a million dollars on a specially designed facility in Cressy, in Tasmania's Northern Midlands. The plant will produce more than five million litres of fuel each year for the transport and marine industries. A unique blend of feed stock, including poppy seed, is expected to make it more viable than most operations. ABC Rural - February 25, 2008.

    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, 2008.

    '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, 2008.

    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, 2008.

    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, 2008.

    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, 2008.

    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, 2008.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Feeding 40 billion people and the Green Revolution in Africa

The biofuels debate is not one about future scarcity of resources (land, water) or about a conflict between food and fuel. However, reactionary forces try to get a grip on the discussion by introducting neo-Malthusian perspectives. These forces typically think about human development in static terms and forget that all factors that drive it are instead highly dynamic in nature: population, agriculture, economics, scientific and technological progress.

Scientists do not engage in neo-Malthusian mythical thinking. Instead, they do science. In the following interview Prof. Dr. Ir. Rudy Rabbinge, Chairman of the Science Council of the CGIAR (the leading body comprising the world's top agricultural science institutions that made the Green Revolution happen), professor of Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security at the agronomic University of Wageningen, and member of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) which recently announced the start of its activities, explains the challenges and opportunities of 21st century agriculture.

Prof. Rabbinge, candidate chairman of the FAO, is known in Europe as one of the key thinkers in the field of global agriculture, rural economics in the developing world and food and fuel trends. In one famous lecture, he said the planet has the carrying capacity to feed not 10 or 12 billion people, but... 40 billion. Thus, given the fact that world population is expected to max out and stabilize at 8.9 billion soon (by 2075), it is easy to see why the bioenergy potential is rather large and fundamentally poses no threat to food markets whatsoever. Likewise, Prof Rabbinge's collegues in the energy community point out that by 2050 it will be possible to produce around 1500 Exajoules of bioenergy without major impacts on food, feed and fiber markets.

However, the public at large sometimes has a hard time thinking in dynamic terms and fails to deal with complexity, which is why it is sceptical about the often optimistic projections of scientists. Instead, it tends to be conservative and easily falls prey to those pushing Malthusian doom and gloom messages about potential scarcities (this vulnerability might well be hardwired in the pre-scientific brain, in which the 'hunger gene' still does its work subconsciously, even in a post-industrial world of obscene plenty.) Many people are also highly uninformed about the true nature of food insecurity and hunger in our world today. Let's listen to Prof. Rabbinge.

In your famous lecture you said that the planet has the carrying capacity to feed 40 billion people. There are around 6.4 billion now, of which one sixth goes to bed hungry every day. How do you explain this?

Prof. Rabbinge: Over the past century world population has increased from one to six billion. Food production has increased seven times. At first sight, the fact that almost a billion people are undernourished seems to be a question of the distribution of food, but the truth is that the vast bulk of food is consumed and produced locally. For rice this percentage is 90 percent, for wheat and maize 75 percent. The 'world market' so often talked about, is in fact very small.

This is why food production must be improved structurally in the regions that are struggling with hunger. In parts of Asia, but especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the situation has worsened over the years.

Food aid is not a solution and can even be part of the problem: it can be extremely damaging and disrupt incentives for local farmers to produce; it can destroy local markets.

Many farming systems [in the developing world] currently produce below their capacity to an extreme degree. For example, look at the arable land in Flanders [one of the world's most intensively cultivated lands]: today it is easy to harvest 10 tons of wheat there, while only 30 years ago this was 5 tons max. The average is 8 to 9 tons now. There is no reason to assume that developing countries can't achieve a similar increase in production (graph comparing yield developments in regional aggregates for maize and rice, click to enlarge) .

Does this intensive farming damage or deplete soils? No it doesn't, because it has become routine to introduce plant nutrients - a combination of organic and inorganic fertilizers. In Europe these basic inputs are used on a large scale. Elsewhere in the world this is not the case.

Decades ago, we talked about too much fertilizers and pesticides being used, and indeed, today, we put less of these inputs on our crops. Because of improved agronomic knowledge and practises in Europe, we can now produce the same amount on one hectare while using only half the inputs. This is of course better for the environment, because highly intensive agriculture combined with integrated management techniques reduces the amount of pollution from agriculture dramatically.

Until the end of the 1960s, Africa was a net exporter of food. From then on, its output declined.

Prof. Rabbinge: until that period, Africa's population growth was not that large and agricultural systems were well kept and maintained. It must be said, even though this is not politically correct: the colonial situation contributed to improving and maintaining production. At a certain moment in post-colonial Africa, production starts to decline. Countries with limited natural resources and nutrient poor soils enter a cycle of unsustainability. Productivity fell sharply because soils were not replenished.

The consequences are well known: lower incomes for farmers, lower capacity to buy external inputs such as fertilizers, leading to the situation we know today, one of dire rural poverty:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Louise Fresco, former top expert at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recently said that the food problem in these countries is also the result of 'agricultural fatigue' amongst urban elites and policy makers.

Prof. Rabbinge: this certainly plays a role in the marginalisation of agriculture. These elites can get all the food they want so it is easy for them to ignore their own rural populations.

Contrary to what most people think, poverty is a rural problem. Around 80 percent of the world's poor can be found in the country-side. The poor are farmers. Hunger is not an urban problem. This is why poverty alleviation first and foremost requires agricultural policies and a whole set of measures targetting these rural people.

Is Africa's productivity decline not also caused by civil wars and climatic factors?

Prof. Rabbinge: if there was only one cause, we would have solved the problem long ago. There are dozens of factors at play. Let me give you one example. Grains - wheat, maize and rice - provide up to 80 percent of food consumed in most parts of the world. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa this is only 20 percent. On poor soils crops like cassava, sweet potato and yam thrive, making it possible for Africans to make ends meet.

But agronomic and scientific research into these key crops has fallen behind, which is why there have been fewer breeding efforts and far fewer high yielding varieties. Over the past years, the harvesting index of grain - the amount of consumable grain compared with the amount of straw - has increased from 0.3 to 0.55. This means that an equal amount of biomass yields more grain we can eat. But in Sub-Saharan Africa this trend has not occured. Add that the continent does not utilize any irrigation on any large scale. In our 2004 report for Kofi Annan we described which of the integrated farming systems can contribute most to increasing food production.

Do you believe in a Green Revolution for Africa?

Prof. Rabbinge: I prefer to talk about a "rainbow revolution", because the situation in Africa is different from that in Asia, Europe or Latin-America, where the earlier green revolutions occured.

In Africa we want to invest massively in agriculture, in research and development, and in the creation of local and regional markets. We want to do so together with governments, farming organisations and scientific institutes.

The political will to do so is at last beginning to take shape. This is why Kofi Annan's contribution [as chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa] is so important, because he has a lot of authority in Africa and is widely admired.

Of course we need far more funding to succeed, even though we can change things drastically with limited means [AGRA recently kicked off its activities with an announcement that it will be investing $180 million in replenishing Africa's soils - previous post]. It is important that governments in these countries make the right choices and give priority to those sectors scientists advise them to invest in.

Governments in Africa currently often spend only 0.5 to 1% of their budgets on agriculture, while more than 60, 70 sometimes even 80 percent of their populations are farmers. In fact, these budgets should be increased to 5 percent or so.

I am quite confident that over the next 10 years we will see concrete, positive results in African agriculture. And this in turn will fuel Africa's economic growth.

Won't small farmers become the victims of mass investments, as happened in Asia? And won't the environment suffer as a result of the introduction of inorganic fertilizers?

Prof. Rabbinge: if we merely copy techniques from one continent and paste them into another, then there will be problems. This is why we implement advanced techniques and environmentally smart production methods in a responsible manner. This way we don't have to work by trial and error.

The knowledge for an agricultural revolution is there; we have all the tools needed. We simply have to implement them. However, this requires thorough monitoring on the ground. It would be foolish to sit at your desk in some capital and produce reports saying it can be done. These monitoring mechanisms are an integral part of the AGRA. There are strict procedures and methods to measure and ensure whether initiatives really result in concrete yield and productivity improvements.

Additionally it is important to understand that this revolution can disrupt traditional social structures, especially in small farming communities. We can not ignore or minimize these potential effects.

But the truth is, it is these millions of small farmers who are waiting for the revolution, which is why precisely they are AGRA's target group. The transformative processes we will implement are finetuned to intervene in local markets and needs in a positive way. We do this in partnership with local sales organisations and cooperatives. These organisations are going to be strengthened first.

Good governance will be important, but it will not be easy to change the prevailing conditions. The implementation of your plan in Kenya had to be delayed because of bad governance.

Prof. Rabbing: Indeed, this has been a bitter pill to swallow. Circumstances in Kenya are horrible and once again show that building a nation is not easy. It can't be done in a top-down fashion. The old colonial borders and divisions are artificial, they don't work.

However, good governance can only be achieved when agriculture supplies enough food. The best leaders and policy makers can only ensure social and political stability when food security has been guaranteed. Without this, instability can pop up rapidly. But it is crucial for us to understand that political culture in Africa is different than in Europe, and that we too in the West have 'bizarre' and populist leaders. This is not typical for Africa.

Speaking about good governance: why doesn't the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) succeed in putting agriculture and food security higher on the international agenda?

Prof. Rabbinge: The FAO is supposed to contribute knowledge and expertise that can be used to implement and initiate processes of change. But it thinks that to do so, writing reports is enough. Of course this approach won't get us anywhere.

As long as member states are not prepared to improve the management structure of the FAO, then such an organisation is more burdensome than helpful. This is very serious, because this organisation, if left unreformed, can ruin the cohesion and interdependence of the international community, instead of strengthening these ties.

The fact that the FAO is badly organised and managed is part of the reason why Africa's serious agricultural problems are not being tackled.

In 2004 you waged a campaign to become director-general of the FAO. Was it your plea for better governance that lost you the election?

Prof. Rabbinge: Yes, but the reason was not that government leaders didn't want to support this cause. They backed my agenda for reform. It was the intricate machinations amongst the ambassadors in Rome [HQ of the FAO], who fought over this in their own peculiar way; they don't listen to what's being said in the capitals, and the vote is secret anyways.

If you want to change this situation, you have to make sure government leaders have more impact on decisions and aren't hijacked by old management and governance traditions and structures.

Do you agree with the hard criticism of Jacques Diouf, current director-general of the FAO?

Prof. Rabbinge: it is too easy to say that everything is due to Diouf. He symbolises the problem, but it would be naive to think that things will change when he leaves. It is a problem of the organisation's culture, which has to change. This was the point I made during my election campaign, and I was supported by the large majority of member states. But when it came to a vote, my opponent beat me by one vote.

This happens, but mind you, the election was fraudulent. The Dutch government found this out, exposed the problem and protested. But in the end nothing much happened; the FAO did not act, even after this formal protest.

Now this is really the FAO's problem and to an extent typical for many international organisations. Good governance and integrity can only be guaranteed when an organisation is made up of ethical and competent leaders, with open and transparent control mechanisms, and shows its willingness to listen to criticism and to act on it. It is nothing less than a matter of democratic integrity - even in organisations like the FAO.

The CGIAR [Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the Science Council of which is chaired by Rabbinge] claims that with its research it has saved millions from starvation and that it has helped conserve large swathes of land. These are serious claims. Do you believe them?

Prof. Rabbinge: Of course, and these claims are rather conservative. The CGIAR has played a key role in the Green Revolution. For example, the new rice varieties developed by the IRRI have led to spectacular production increases at a time when millions in Asia suffered from hunger and famine.

The willingness amongst farmers to use the new cultivars was large and CGIAR's extension work was excellent.

After that the organisation has achieved major feats. It began in the 1960s when they started breeding better crop varieties. Later, research expanded and became broader. In the 1970s the CGIAR understood that technology alone does not suffice and it started focusing on social issues. In the 1980s, it added nature and environmental perspectives to its research. Recently, in the 1990s, a more geographically expanded view emerged: it is not enough to aim to improve production at individual farms, because you also need local, regional and international markets that work.

No, I'm not surprised by the CGIAR's claims. The University of Wageningen [prof Rabbinge's home university and one of the world's top agricultural universities, leader in tropical agronomy] could claim a lot too. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to state that the agricultural exports of the Netherlands are mainly due to research conducted at Wageningen. Dutch agriculture sells packages of knowledge that were developed in Wageningen.

Which areas should the CGIAR focus on over the coming years?

Prof. Rabbinge: the most important issue of the coming years is to ensure more private investments in African agriculture.

In the West, the ratio between private finance and government funding for agriculture is around fifty-fifty. In Africa, private investments make up less than 1.5 percent. CGIAR's research must focus on ways to change this situation.

One should be careful in approaching this matter, and avoid the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. It is not enough to have scientists and researchers offer technical solutions and then simply let these countries implement them. You have to have a thorough understanding of African agriculture, which is dominated by women, where problem soils are prevalent, and where farmers use a lot of multicropping. Intervening in this context requires a finetuned approach.

The CGIAR Institutes have a lot of expetise that can be readily implemented, but these measures must match with local circumstances. And we must ensure that national systems become so powerful that they can effectively use the knowledge to yield most results. Governments, bureaucracies and subnational governance structures must be empowered.

Professor Dr. Ir. Rudy Rabbinge is a dutch environmental and agricultural scientist, chairman of Earth and Lifesciences at the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), professor of Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security at the agronomic University of Wageningen, Chairman of the Science Council of the CGIAR, and holds several positions at the United Nations, the Royal Institute for the Tropics (Netherlands) and in the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Rabbinge has been politically active for the PvdA (Labor) and chaired the Commisssion for International Development.

Translated for Biopact by JVDB and LR.

MO*, Mondiaal Magazine: Goed bestuur begint bij voedselzekerheid. Landbouwexpert Rudy Rabbinge over de noodzakelijke landbouwrevolutie in Afrika - February 27, 2008.

Univeristy of Wageningen: Rabbinge: 'We zijn geen zeepfabriek', in: Resource, Wageningen UR Weekly.

University of Wageningen: Prof.dr.ir. Rudy Rabbinge : Feeding 40 billion people.

Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Biopact: Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa commits US$180 million to revive depleted soils of small-scale farmers - January 26, 2008


Blogger Fixed Carbon said...

Rabbinage is too conservative. What about 100 billion people, or 200 billion! Just think of the revenues for the oil, pesticide, and fertilizer companies! It is he who is a neoMalthusian.

3:36 PM  
Anonymous Jonas said...

Of course, modern agriculture requires fertilizers, pesticides, science and technology.

But the effects of this are that people do not starve.

If you have a problem with manufacturers of fertilizers, then I suggest you go tell that to the small poor farmer who saw his yields triple because of NPK, and who, because of this, can feed his children and send them to school.

So please, go tell subsistence farmers that they can't use fertilizers. Chances are that they will call you a racist bourgeois European paternalist.


3:48 PM  
Blogger MichaelW said...

Hey everybody,
Hm petroleum based fertilizer and pesticides and such are not good things. Let's not romanticize it, their harm to the planet far outweighs the benefits to farmers in Africa. But fear not! There are alternatives.
In his new book, Alcohol Can Be a Gas! Fueling an Ethanol Revolution for the 21st Century, David Blume argues for using spirolina to recycle the liquid by-products to make nitrogen fertilizer via atmospheric fixation and pipelining spent kelp solution from coastal alcohol plants.

So ethanol byproducts can help provide farmers with answers to fertilizer problems. DDGs directly applied to the soil are good fertilizer and an effective herbicide. I think permaculture methods can be applied worldwide and if you read this book, you too may be convinced. Read about desert crops and ethanol. Read about cattails. Small plants located in all areas of the country will be the way to go.

This book should definitely be read by you folks. Thanks very much for your website and particularly the piece you did on Lester Brown recently!


6:37 PM  
Anonymous Jonas said...

Michal, thanks for promoting your book.

But you are extremely wrong on fertilizers in Africa, showing you don't know much about the topic. (Hope you're not wrong and more knowledgeable in your book).

The biggest crises in Africa are high fertility rates, hunger, poverty, depleted soils and deforestation. These crises are intertwined.

You can help solve all these problems by integrated soil management and fertilizers. They make soils productive, which means you need less land to grow a given amount of food. This in turn takes away pressures leading to deforestation and reduces emissions by avoiding this deforestation.

Further, food security is the key to reducing fertility rates and alleviating poverty. High population growth rates are also catastrophic for the environment, as they put pressure on resources and keep fuelling an unsustainable cycle of poverty and destructive resource use.

In short, improving agriculture by implementing modern methods is the key to Africa's crises, which are all interrelated.

That's precisely why one of the key interventions of the Alliance for a Green Revolution is based on making modern inputs (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides) available.


7:19 PM  
Blogger MichaelW said...

Cheers, yourself,
But continuing to rely on non-renewable fuels for a product such as fertilizer is not such a good idea, no? Relying on methods that rebuild soil, that extend photosynthesis, that don't cause deforestation.... aren't those good things? Check out the book.
I know you are aware of how Brazil fertilizes its sugar crops with liquid dds.... is that the sort of thing we don't want to encourage?
Modern methods are fine but industrialized agriculture has not been a boon to anyone in the long run. Yes, of course integrated soil management (done permaculturally) and fertilizers (provided as I mentioned) can make soils productive and permaculture methods can use much less land to grow a given amount of food.

I believe the dangers and harm of pesticides and such are evident and to wish them on the Third World will cause major harm in the long-term.

Please don't patronize, read the book. David wrote it, argue with him, did you read my post, I said David Blume wrote the book. We want food security, reduces fertility rates, poverty alleviation and believe alcohol fuel can have a major impact. Carbon negative energy, remember?

Why would we promote the modern inputs you mention? Why? There are natural ways to do it. Is it more racist bourgeois paternalist to advise them to use fertilizer than to use other methods?

I think Monsanto, Dow, etc would love reading what you've had to say. Corporate agriculture for Africa..... It's very sad.


8:27 PM  
Anonymous Jonas said...

If you are referring to biochar or terra preta nova as soil management systems, then I would agree that they can contribute.

But the urgency and extent of the matter (obscene poverty, hunger) require methods that work. I'm not so sure whether there is scientific evidence showing that growing spirulina is anywhere efficient or cost-effective; I'm not so sure whether harvesting kelp is environmentally friendly either.

It's much easier to intercrop nitrogen fixing crops or to rotate them. Or to use NPK in a smart and efficient way.

For the rest, there's a large capacity to produce nitrogen fertilisers from non-natural gas sources. Other fertilizers are mainly mineral (P, K) and there's an abundance of those.

The priority should be in restoring soil health in Africa quickly, so as to make it possible for Africa to make the demographic transition (which requires abundant and cheap food).

When this has happened, Africans too can begin to look at more complex, sustainable options for agriculture.

Don't you think it's naive to want to build high-tech spirulina farms and have them managed by farmers who currently work the land with axes and hoes?


9:20 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

This guy must be trying to sell agrochemicals or something. Why does he want more people in the world?

12:02 AM  
Anonymous Jonas said...

Lol, Bob, I think he's just trying to say: people should not be science averse, and hysteric neo-Malthusianists don't have a case. Something like that.

You know, Africa is a pretty large place. Most large African countries utilize only a few percent of their potential arable land. And the land they use, is used in an extremely inefficient manner.

So there's lots of room to grow more food, and energy crops.

We thought it nice to publish the interview, because it goes against so many prevalent politically correct but scientifically wrong perspectives.

12:37 AM  

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