Over on the Biopact website — probably the best website for up-to-date international news on bio-energy science and markets — they have posted an interesting commentary, based on a BBC interview, on how small Kenyan farmers, Mr. Peter Ndivo and Mr. Samuel Mauthike, are affected by the confusion engendered by concepts such as “carbon footprints,” “fair trade,” and “food miles.”
Biopact’s message? Buy your vegetables and fruits locally, if you must, but please allow developing countries to supply your biofuels.
Here is the crux of their argument:
If the consumer in Europe and America really wants to start buying local food to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then that is alright, provided he [or she] starts buying globally produced biofuels to compensate for the loss of markets faced by the poor farmers in the South. The Kenyan baby corn grower could switch to big corn for ethanol instead. Or better, he would grow woody biomass, sweet potatoes, cassava, sweet sorghum or sugarcane — highly efficient crops to make solid and liquid biofuels from. Contrary to luxury fruits, vegetables or flowers, biofuels do not have to be served ‘fresh’ and flown in by air. They can be stored and shipped to Europe and America very efficiently, in huge tankers and ships.
The International Energy Agency’s Bioenergy Task 40, which studies the feasibility of sustainable trade in biofuels, has thoroughly analyzed long-distance transport and found that the greenhouse gas emissions arising from shipping biofuels from the tropics to the ports of Europe and America, are negligible. After their long trip in huge and efficient tankers, the biofuels from the South still dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions when used by Europeans and Americans in their cars. They mitigate climate change far better than biofuels produced in Europe or the US, simply because they are far more efficient to produce. One hectare [2.47 acres] of sugar cane delivers 8 to 10 times more energy than a hectare of corn grown in the US. If imported by Europe or the US, the sugar cane ethanol is still 7 to 9 times more energy efficient upon arrival. Higher energy efficiency ultimately means lower carbon emissions.
In short, our message to wealthy consumers in the West is simple: buy local food if you think this will change global warming (which is not always the case), but please buy globally produced biofuels.
A different and interesting perspective, non? Have at it.
A request: In your comments, please do not automatically characterize all biofuel production in developing countries as involving or necessitating the cutting down of rainforests. Yes, there is some production that does. But some deforestation is already occurring to supply the crops — soybeans and other oilseeds, for instance — for global food and feed markets that producers in Europe and North America are supplying a declining share of because their own crops are being diverted into making home-grown biofuels.
Moreover, in the case of Kenya, there is already a lot of farmland that is used to grow horticultural products for export to Europe that could be used to grow something else. I would think, nonetheless, that water could be a limiting factor in any expansion into thirsty crops such as sugarcane.