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IFAD, ICRAF Launch New Program to Develop Alternative Biofuel Crops

The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) have launched the IFAD-ICRAF Programme for the Development of Alternative Biofuel Crops, an initiative focused on providing clean energy for rural communities, enhancing local food security and increasing subsistence farmers’ resilience to climate change.

The program will develop and scale up pro-poor, sustainable biofuel production models in Asia, Africa and Latin America and help determine to what extent sustainable biofuels can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

In recent years, biofuels – fuels derived from biomass – have come under international scrutiny in the heated food-versus-fuel debate. Spurred by national mandates and subsidies, many developed countries have resorted to using edible food crops as feedstock – the so-called first generation biofuels – diverting these crops to the production of biofuels, contributing to rising food prices of commodities like maize and wheat and threatening local and global food security. Poor households in least-developed countries are often hardest hit due to their limited purchasing power and reliance on food imports.

This will change as researchers at the World Agroforestry Centre plan to tap the enormous potential of alternative biofuels by using smart agroforestry systems. Crops proposed for study include pongamia, simarouba, macaúba, neem and others suitable for local growing conditions. The programme’s goal is to improve the productivity of non-cereal biofuel crops, creating systems that will enable the poor, including women, to take advantage of the energy, food security, livelihood and income-generating opportunities that biofuels can offer. The Programme will also play a catalytic role in strengthening the public-private partnerships and cooperation between international financial institutions, development organizations, foundations and the private sector.

Recently, some developing countries have been promoting policies that target alternative (non-food/multiple-use) crops, the use of marginal land and the development of value chains driven by smallholder farmers. Following this approach, some successful models in Africa, Asia and Latin America stand out. The Programme will build on such experiences, having its initial implementation in India, Brazil, Mozambique and Sri Lanka.

“Ultimately, the success of any large-scale biofuel project comes down to rigorous science that can determine what crops to grow and where and how to grow them,” said Navin Sharma, Program Manager – Biofuels with ICRAF. “Collaboration between research institutes, development organizations, business, civil society and governments must also be in place. Most importantly, approaches need to start from the bottom up, based on the energy needs, food security and livelihoods of farmers, rather than being driven by climate change mitigation goals alone.”

Biofuel projects in many developing countries have also failed due to over reliance on monocultures with crops like Jatropha. The yield of Jatropha in monocultures and on marginal lands failed to meet the expectations of both farmers and the biofuel industry.

There is enough farmable land available to meet the biofuel targets for 2050. The need of the hour, however, is to identify suitable crops that can be grown productively on underutilized lands and in agroforestry systems, are sustainable and address first the energy needs of local farmers for enhancing food security.

Many countries in Africa continue to be among the lowest per capita energy consumers in the world. Lack of minimum energy inputs has led to continued low productivity and impaired economic growth. Whilst the developed nations have benefitted by ‘energising’ the agriculture sector, the developing nations, despite having the potential, have suffered due to energy shortfalls.

Globally, food and agriculture consume 30% of the world’s available energy mostly from fossil fuels, and produce about 20% of the world’s GHG emissions.

“What we as researchers within the World Agroforestry Centre have to do is figure out how we can make biofuel systems more effective, more efficient and socially just at the same time,” said Henry Neufeldt, Head of the Climate Change Unit at ICRAF. “We need to know if these systems can deliver in terms of the scale or if the demand for energy simply cannot be met by biofuels and to what extent do we have to continue relying on fossil fuels.”

There is a danger that increasing global demand for biofuels can lead to the conversion of forests and wetlands to agricultural land – either for biofuel plantations or through indirect land use change (ILUC) to produce food and feed crops displaced by biofuels – which can release substantial amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The resulting loss of habitat can threaten biodiversity, while the irrigation of biofuels can cut into local water resources. Also, soil erosion and fertiliser and pesticide-laden runoff can affect water quality. In some cases the result is a net negative environmental impact, with biofuels generating more greenhouse gas emissions than the fossil fuels they replaced.

“When sustainably developed, however, biofuels have significant potential for greenhouse gas mitigation, increased climate change resilience, while enhancing rural energy security,” said Shantanu Mather, Head of IFAD’s Quality Assurance and Grants Unit. “IFAD’s interest in supporting this programme is to provide rural poor communities new opportunities for income diversification and employment without compromising their food security and in ways that do not undermine their natural resource base.”


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