In the photo, Cortez and Siu Mui Tsai on a panel at FAPESP Week London (photo: Gustavo Camilo)

Biofuels could be facilitators of food security, say researchers

November 6, 2013

By Karina Toledo, London

Agência FAPESP – With the right public policies and investment in new technologies that allow for the better exploration of biomass, biofuel production could strengthen both economic development and food and energy security, mainly in Latin American and African countries.

Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp) Professor Luís Augusto Barbosa Cortez and Imperial College London Professor Jeremy Woods made this assertion during a panel on biofuels conducted on September 27 at FAPESP Week London.

“I make this affirmation based on Brazil’s experience. The reason for the success of the Brazilian model, which combined sugar and ethanol production, was mainly the dynamic relationship between the research and production sectors,” stated Cortez.

Although it may seem to foreigners that Brazilians live in areas surrounded by sugarcane, Cortez said, the truth is that the plantations dedicated to ethanol production occupy only 0.4% of the country’s landmass and have never presented a threat to food production.

“In the 1970s, Brazil imported 80% of the gasoline that it consumed. Proálcool [the National Ethanol Program], in addition to helping to achieve energy independence, contributed to the industrialization of Brazilian agriculture. All engineering capacity, production cost calculations and knowledge of machinery were transferred to this sector. Today, 40% of the country’s exports correspond to agricultural products,” said Cortez.

In the scientist’s assessment, because several African and Latin American countries have large areas of land available for biofuel production, these countries could benefit from the Brazilian model and alleviate their energy dependence.

With this objective and FAPESP funding, the Bioenergy Contribution of Latin America & Caribbean and Africa to the Global Sustainable Bioenergy Project (LACAF-cana) began in 2013. The project’s objective is to analyze the production possibilities for sugarcane in four countries: Colombia, Guatemala, Mozambique and South Africa.

Cortez explained, “Our first step will be to do a diagnostic assessment of the current agricultural situation in these countries. Afterwards, we will do a study of the production potential and discuss what is the most appropriate model for each place. It will not necessarily be the same as the Brazilian model.”

In a second stage of the project, the scientists will evaluate environmental questions such as the threat to biodiversity and hydric resources. In the third stage, socioeconomic issues will come under scrutiny, Cortez said.

The initiative, he added, is a Brazilian contribution to Global Sustainable Bioenergy (GSB), which is coordinated by Dartmouth College Professor Lee Lynd and aims to incentivize the sustainable development of biofuel and analyze the possibility of replacing 25% of the energy used today worldwide with bioenergy.

“In an earlier study, we identified the potential area for expansion of sugarcane planting in Brazil. Without touching the Amazon, we saw that there are 360 million hectares available; today, we have 9 million planted. The federal government has requested zoning for sugarcane growing, and then we will reach 60 million hectares. We concluded that if only 25 million additional hectares were planted here, Brazil alone could supply the equivalent of 10% of global gasoline consumption,” Cortez declared.

Friend or foe

In his presentation, Jeremy Woods, who also collaborated with LACAF-cana, deconstructed several arguments used by bioenergy critics, including food price hikes due to broader land use for biomass production, increased pressure on biodiversity and hydric resources and increases in greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation.

“In Brazil, for example, expansion of soybean growing is one of the biggest causes of deforestation. This is largely used in animal feed. In the United States, the majority of corn grown is used in animal feed. Deforestation, therefore, is more associated with our meat and dairy consumption than biofuels,” Woods evaluated.

According to Woods, there is consensus in the scientific community on the impacts of bioenergy. “We should not think of this as a problem but rather seek a solution to integrate food and bioenergy production. If done properly, it could facilitate food security,” he explained.

Woods cited the example of Zambia, which in 2012 produced 1.5 million tons of surplus corn. However, with an export capacity of only 70,000 tons per month, the majority of the African country’s production went unused. “If there were an integrated system, the surplus could be earmarked for bioenergy,” he pointed out.

According to Woods, it is unknown how the offer of biomass can be expanded without causing major environmental impacts or threatening food security, but the solution will surely combine four factors: an increase in the planted area; an increase in productivity; better utilization of what is currently considered unusable, such as sugarcane bagasse and straw; and an increase in efficiency, with the use of lignocellulosic ethanol production and biomass fractioning to obtain high added-value subproducts, such as polymers and chemicals of industrial interest.

“The indirect impacts are real but surmountable,” he said, “and they must be viewed from a different perspective. This change in perspective is essential for us to have the right public policies to allow integrated land handling.”

Another speaker on the biofuels panel was Universidade de São Paulo (USP) professor Siu Mui Tsai, who developed a FAPESP-funded project with the objective of evaluating how cultivation for biofuel production impacts soil quality, considering not only the physical chemical soil composition but also the microbiota.

“We attempted to compare an undisturbed environment with one that had been worked and to seek methods to maintain the long-term sustainability of the agricultural sector, either through integrated handling or growing systems with straw, for example,” Tsai explained.