Mar(k): Travel, Hiking, and "Doing Good"

musings on our life of travel and volunteering

04 April 2010

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Food or Fuel:  The debate on biofuels

This month I am musing on what Ghana’s position should be respecting biofuels. The message coming out of the Copenhagen Climate Summit is that Africa needs to focus on adaptation strategies to cope with a changing climate.  Here in the Sahelian area, we know that we are likely to experience more severe weather conditions (ie: more floods and droughts).  In harsh climatic conditions such as these, land that is available for cropping should be used to feed the people.  Yet one of the things we are seeing is a “land grab” to produce biofuels.   This is occurring as the cost of oil and other energy sources continues to rise.  World demand is on the rise, but pressure is mounting to find non fossil-fuel sources of energy.  Hence, the drive by foreign investors to purchase land in Ghana to use for planting energy crops. This foreign investment can, on the face of it, seem to be a welcome thing.  However, if the lands in question are already being used for food crops, this raises serious ethical issues about priorities;  feeding hungry people, or reducing the carbon footprint of rich Western countries who are coming to Africa to mitigate their environmental follies?

In theory, the switch to biofuels sounds laudable, and I know that as a committed environmentalist, I want the world to find ways to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.  But here in Africa, I believe the focus of development should be continuing to help people move out of poverty, into more sustainable livelihoods.  I do not believe that this is best accomplished by diverting land away from food crops to biofuels.   It would seem a rather bizarre and twisted logic to receive money (for planting biofuel energy crops), only to then take that money and use it to import food!   The impact on food security and on people’s livelihoods is something that needs to be brought to the attention of policy makers when decisions are being made about land being bought and sold here in Ghana.

Interestingly, I have been reading about a biofuel which does not require land to obtain its feedstock.  In this case, the feedstock is non-food agricultural waste.  The resulting fuel is called cellulosic ethanol, which is made from non-food products like corn stalks, wood chips and switchgrass.  Other alternatives being pursued are things like algae production, which does not require vast tracts of land.  Putting money behind the research and development of these types of fuel sources (called third generation fuels – those which are renewable and do not diminish the food supply) is one way to encourage innovative solutions that both reduce the carbon footprint while keeping agricultural lands available for food production.

I will look forward to seeing the government’s biofuel policy when it is developed.  The people of Ghana deserve to have a well thought out strategy on such an important issue that will affect so many.

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Written by Mar(k)

April 6, 2010 at 3:57 pm

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