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    Mongabay, a leading resource for news and perspectives on environmental and conservation issues related to the tropics, has launched Tropical Conservation Science - a new, open access academic e-journal. It will cover a wide variety of scientific and social studies on tropical ecosystems, their biodiversity and the threats posed to them. Tropical Conservation Science - March 8, 2008.

    At the 148th Meeting of the OPEC Conference, the oil exporting cartel decided to leave its production level unchanged, sending crude prices spiralling to new records (above $104). OPEC "observed that the market is well-supplied, with current commercial oil stocks standing above their five-year average. The Conference further noted, with concern, that the current price environment does not reflect market fundamentals, as crude oil prices are being strongly influenced by the weakness in the US dollar, rising inflation and significant flow of funds into the commodities market." OPEC - March 5, 2008.

    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.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

FAO calls for boost to cassava R&D for biofuels and food - 'enormous' potential

At a global conference held yesterday in Gent, Belgium, the UN's Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) together with cassava scientists and food security analysts called for a significant increase in investment in research and development to boost farmers’ yields of cassava and explore promising industrial uses for the crop, including production of biofuels.

The tropical root crop known as manioc or cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz) could help protect both the food and energy security of poor countries now threatened by soaring food and oil prices, the FAO says. The organisation reiterates what many tropical agronomists and development experts have said about cassava in the past (e.g. CIAT thinks cassava ethanol could benefit millions of the world's poorest farmers).

The scientists, who have formed an international network called the Global Cassava Partnership (GCP21), said the world community could not continue to ignore the plight of low-income tropical countries that have been hardest hit by rising oil prices and galloping food price inflation.

Widely grown in tropical Africa, Asia and Latin America, cassava is the developing world’s fourth most important crop, with production in 2006 estimated at 226 million tonnes. It is the staple food of nearly a billion people in 105 countries, where the root provides as much as a third of daily calories.

And cassava has enormous potential, the FAO says: at present, average yields are barely 20% of what they should be under optimum conditions and with basic inputs. The crop grows well on poor, degraded soils and in a vast agro-ecological zone.

Cassava is also the cheapest known source of starch, and used in more than 300 industrial products. One promising application is fermentation of the starch to produce ethanol used in biofuel, although FAO cautions that policies encouraging a shift to biofuel production should carefully consider its effects on food production and food security.

Cassava field residues and processing waste - such as peels, mill effluent, and the crop's woody stems - could be converted into biogas, biohydrogen or solid biomass for electricity production.

Orphan crop
Despite growing demand and its production potential, however, cassava remains an “orphan crop”. It is grown mainly in areas that have little or no access to improved varieties, fertilizer and other production inputs, by small scale farmers often cut off from marketing channels and agro-processing industries. Governments have not yet made the needed investments in value-added research that would make cassava starch products competitive on an international scale.

The Gent meeting was the first global scientific conference of the Global Cassava Partnership, a consortium formed - under the auspices of the FAO-facilitated Global Cassava Development Strategy - by international organizations, including FAO, CIAT, IFAD and IITA, national research institutions, NGOs and private partners:
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Participants reviewed the current state of cassava production worldwide and future prospects. They agreed on a number of new projects, which will be offered immediately to the donor community, and a set of investments needed if cassava is to realize its full potential in addressing the global food and energy crisis.

They included establishment of a cassava chain delivery system to channel technical advances to poor farmers (“from seed to field to market”), improvements in soil fertility through better management and increased use of inputs, improvements in basic scientific knowledge of cassava, including genomics, expansion of cassava’s market share through development of post-harvest products, and training for the next generation of cassava researchers in developing countries.

Why cassava?

The FAO and the focuses on cassava for obvious reasons:
Cassava is the third most important source of calories in the tropics, after rice and maize. Millions of people depend on cassava in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is grown by poor farmers, many of them women, often on marginal land. For those people and their families, cassava is vital for both food security and income generation.

But cassava is often seen as a poor cousin in the world's family of staple crops. While admirably tolerant to drought and productive on poor soils, this hardy tropical root seems unsuited to modern farming. First, it is usually propagated vegetatively from stem cuttings that do not store well and are costly to cut and handle. Vegetative reproduction also means the rate of multiplication of new, improved varieties is slow, retarding their adoption. Harvesting cassava is labour-intensive, and its roots are bulky and highly perishable.

Little wonder, therefore, that cassava is usually grown by poor farmers in marginal areas - and even there, it faces increasing competition as cereals are further improved to adapt them to local conditions. In fact, far less research and development have been devoted to cassava than to rice, maize and wheat. This lack of scientific interest has contributed to highly uneven cultivation and processing methods, and cassava products that often are of poor quality.
The Global Cassava Development Strategy, launched in Rome in 2000, seeks to change all that. At a forum at FAO headquarters, some 80 agricultural experts from 22 countries were asked whether cassava had the potential not only to meet the food security needs of the estimated 500 million farmers who grow it, but to provide a key to rural industrial development and higher incomes for producers, processors and traders.

The forum's conclusion: cassava could become the raw material base for an array of processed products that will effectively increase demand for cassava and contribute to agricultural transformation and economic growth in developing countries.

Congo: cassava land

The call for a boost to research into cassava comes after a recent announcement by the FAO that it will make a massive $1.8 billion investment into the Democratic Republic of Congo's agricultural sector. The DRC is the country with the world's largest cassava potential. Add that today the World Bank announced that it too is investing $1.2 billion in the huge Central African country's farming sector.

According to the UNCTAD's most recent report on the Least Developed Countries, the DRCongo is now officially the world's poorest country (on a per capita income basis), even though, according to the FAO and other experts, it has a gigantic but untapped agricultural potential capable of feeding an estimated 3 billion people (more here) or of producing huge quantities of sustainable biofuels from a crop like cassava that could make developing countries instantly oil independent. The FAO recently called the prospects for large-scale biofuel production in the DRC, from a crop such as cassava, 'very bright' (previous post and here).

Picture: An African mother and her children peel cassavas before cooking. Credit: Courtesy of International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

FAO: Cassava for food and energy security - Investing in cassava research and development could boost yields and industrial uses - July 25, 2008.

Global Cassava Partnership for Genetic Improvement.

FAO Spotlight Magazine: Starch market adds value to cassava [includes overview of biofuels from cassava starch].

FAO: Global Cassava Development Strategy.

Biopact: CIAT: cassava ethanol could benefit small farmers in South East Asia - September 24, 2007

CongoForum: Retombées du Sommet de Rome, 1,8 milliard USD de la FAO en faveur de la RDC - July 21, 2008.

Xinhua: World Bank grants $1.2 billion to DRC - July 26, 2008.

UNCTAD: The Least Developed Countries Report, 2008. Growth, Poverty and the Terms of Development Partnership - July 2008.

Biopact: DR Congo debates its enormous biofuels potential - June 05, 2008

Biopact: UN's FAO: bright future for sustainable biofuels DR Congo - January 08, 2008


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