G20 Biofuel  Alliance  threatens Food security

biofuel alliance

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.


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