During the recent G 20 summit India has launched the Global Biofuel Aliance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the G20 nations to join the initiative with a plea to take ethanol blending with petrol globally to 20 per cent to facilitate energy transformation in context of climate change. Although provision of environmentally sustainable green alternative to fossil fuels sounds good, the basic idea to produce fuel from food is in itself takes away food from poor and instead adds more cars and other automobiles on our roads.
India has ambitious targets to mix bio ethanol to fossile fuels. It already mixes 10 percent bio ethanol to fissile fuels and aims to reach 20 percent by 2025. Currently India produces 9470 million litres (or 947 crore litres) of bio ethanol, sourced from 619 crore litres of molasses ( sugarcane waste) and 328 crore litres from grain. A significant quantity of food grains, especially rice and maize are being diverted to production of high fructose corn syrups in aerated cola drinks and others food processing industry.
Indian food grain production increased by six times since it’s independence and in 2023 the production is estimated to be around 330.5 million tonnes. Although India has millions of tonnes of grain reserves, millions of people are hungry. Food Corporation of India is presently holding (22nd August, 2023), 523.35 lakh metric tonnes of rice and wheat. FCI holds nearly 4 times more than the buffer stocks in it’s godowns. Amidst plenty there exists a serius hunger in the country. More than 200 million hungry people are in India. Child malnourishment is also an alarming issue with the country ranking 107th out of the 121 countries in the global hunger index. The fact that nearly 80 percent population receives every month 5 kg of subsidised grain under Public distribution system itself speaks of the seriousness of the problem. Also nearly 21,000 people in the world die daily due to hunger mostly from South Asia and Africa. While widespread hunger and malnutrition exist among the people, it is unethical on part of governments and policy makers to divert huge quantities of staple food crops to produce biofuels.
The National Biofuel Coordination Committee (NBCC, India), permits the use of surplus rice with the FCI for conversion to ethanol. The ethanol will be blended with petrol or used to make alcohol-based sanitisers. In 2020-21 alone, the Centre allocated about 78,000 tonnes of rice from FCI stocks to distilleries to produce ethanol. That to at a subsidised price of Rs.20 per kg rate to private distilleries. Government of India claims, diversion of food grains and molasis (sugarcane waste) would rise farmer incomes and profit them. However, Over the past three seasons, sugar mills and bioethanol distilleries generated an estimated Rs.22,000 crore (nearly 3 bln dollars) in revenue from selling ethanol to oil marketing companies. However, the companies did not pass on this bounty to farmers neither their long-pending dues from the mills are not paid.
There is a fast growing worldwide trend towards very heavy diversion of food crops for use as bio-fuels. As Agribusiness cartels find bio ethanol production more profit fetching the crop breeders are encouraged to develop more efficient crops suitable for bio fuels. Farmers are diverting more fertile lands suitable for food to bio-fuel, turning to monocultures of bio-fuel crops on a large scale.
Diversion of food crops to biofuel production is severely affecting food availability in many countries of African and South America. For example, Corn is the main feedstock for the production of ethanol in the United States. In 2022, corn starch accounted for 94 percent of the production for ethanol fuel production. Remember the 2007 food riots arising from high prices and shortage of corn and wheat imported from USA and Argentina and Brazil. As large quantities of corn and weat were diverted to production of Bio fuels in these countries. For policy makers and heads of states participating in G 20 summit, these decisions may appear pragmatic, but they affect food security of millions world wide.
Pragmatic for Indian government to export buffer stocks of food grains to countries in Sub Sahara and other African and South Asian nations instead of diverting them to Biofuel production. A viable alternative is to use paddy stubbles and other post harvest crop cellulose residues for production of bio ethanol, bio fertilizers and recyclable packing materials. Microbial and biochemical technologies needed for post harvest crop residues are available with Indian Council of Agricultueral Research and other scientific institutes.
Large scale diversion of food grains for bio fuel production is unethical and instead Government of India should increase the monthly ration of food grains available to Poor under Public distribution system. Instead G 20 nations should conider formation of a Food Bank using buffer stocks to meet any emerging future emergency food shortages in global south.
Dr. Soma Marla, Principal Scientist (retd), Indian Council For Agricultueral Research, New Delhi.