The Kenya Forum | Biofuels or Food? Climate change a danger, but so too is starvation - The Kenya Forum

January 8, 2012


If it’s a question of Biofuels or food security, can Kenyans really be expected to make such a sacrifice even if climate change is the threat?

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Biofuels or Food? Climate change a danger, but so too is starvation

Biofuels or Food? Climate change a danger, but so too is starvation

We were inspired by an article in the Standard on 24th Dec. outlining the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) cautioning on the production of biofuel without first carefully planning the processes, these processes should  incorporate an overall energy, land use, climate, agriculture and water policy, and of course be in line with the UN’s parameters.

UNEP Caution on the creation of Biofuel

The choices, they say should be guided by the need to address global warming and point out that by growing the wrong biofuel crop in the wrong place and in the wrong manner can be counterproductive to this aim. The article then goes on to suggest that biofuel production can help catalyse local economies but again UNEP caution there may be other (better) alternatives (wind/solar farms etc) and that there is still a need for coherent national policies.

So where does this leave us? Why are UNEP being so cautious, and is something being left out of the argument?

Here at the Forum we are all for a cleaner environment and we are all for Kenya being able to sustain its own power (and food) security. Where we are split is whether this should be done just in the name of global warming, and whether we should allow the UN to insist on foisting a complex policy embracing key elements of agriculture, energy and land use on Kenya.

Giving up part of a nations’ sovereignty to a UN policy based on a ‘theory’ doesn’t sound like a very good idea to us.

Looking further into the media, we came across this call in May 2011 from Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi  “We have to look for our own fuel to avert the crisis”.

“A viable alternative is biofuel, which according to experts, is the only future energy source which has been ignored by the government”. ….“We are only remaining with one alternative; biofuel,” says Dr Bernard Muok who is a Director of Programmes, African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS).

These pleas came at the time of the fuel crisis but as we pointed out at the time in our article entitled ‘Why Nairobi’s fuel pumps ran dry of Petrol’, this wasn’t because of an inherent shortage of fuel but a combination of confusion over taxes created by the Energy Ministry itself, combined with the greed of the brokers who were waiting for the profitability to peak before they released their stocks. Under these circumstances no matter how much biofuel the country produced, if in the hands of the same people we would still have run out of fuel at the pumps.

Now lets consider a plea from presidential aspirant, Martha Karua in September of 2011 “… the government should increase spending on domestic food production to cut import costs that are fuelling inflation… We must give incentives to farmers to make them grow more food,” Karua said in an interview on Sept. 6 in Nairobi. “Why should we favor farmers from outside Kenya, buying their products at exorbitant prices, when we could buy at reasonable prices from our farmers?”

Too right Martha! 12% of Kenya’s total imports are down to food being brought into the country and with 70% of the working population reliant on, or linked to agriculture we can surely do better?

Well, Martha,  there may be a fly in the ‘ointment’, or is it  biodiesel, fuel oil or ethanol? One of our knee-jerk reactions to the suggestion that Kenya can, must, needs to, or has to, produce biofuels is that, if, for some reason (probably financial) we can grow more crops to produce fuel to run cars (etc), why can’t we grow more crops to produce more food? The former only favours the few (nearly 50% of whom live in Nairobi) whilst the latter has an impact on 90%+ of the population, who spend a majority of their meagre disposable income on food. And there is worse to come, as has been demonstrated in just about every country which has set policies and are active in growing biofuels… biofuels push up food prices, with varying estimates between 5% and 60% depending on crop country and yield. Ethanol production from maize is estimated to have pushed up the price by 21% (2009) in the USA.

To further put the process in perspective; to fill  a 95litre tank with  bio-ethanol requires enough maize to feed one person for a year. Is it really worth it?

Its not necessarily good for farmers either as the poor people of Kibwesi in SE Kenya found out to their cost. Spurred on by promises of high yield and prices the farmers grew Jatropha for the oil rich seeds, having been told by government and NGO’s that it was a hardy plant immune to drough etc only to find the crops failed through water stress and only produced one fifth of the promised yield “Peter Munyao, a (Kibwesi) village elder, is one of the farmers who experimented with the new crop. He planted jatropha in 2006 and encouraged other farmers to follow his lead. But today, the plants on his farm have all dried up and lost their seeds and leaves.”… “The people who did the promotion for jatropha had not done [their] research …”

Further complications set in for the farmers in 2008 when the artificially high prices for seeds plummeted from an average $10/kg to $0.5/kg the price drop was put down to “Biofuel research companies, producers and NGOs supporting the production of environmentally friendly diesel had created an artificially high demand for the seeds, which resulted a high pricing structure that could not be maintained in an open market in the long-term.” This was further complicated by sparsely situated processing plants meaning that farmers with the lowered values could no longer afford to transport the crops to the factories.

Biofuel: Dangers to this ‘Green’ alternative

So biofuel growing in Kenya? It doesn’t give us fuel (pump) security, it makes the balance of trade worse, it puts up prices of food and it makes farmers poorer… No wonder UNEP are cautious.

Having painted a fairly gloomy picture of the future of biofuels we have to say that its not all bad news. In development at the moment, but possibly 5 to 10 years away in reality, are methods of turning crop waste, sewerage or even algae into biofuels, none of which infringe on conventional agriculture. There are even (currently existing) micro-plants for turning waste cooking fat into biodiesel. We can see a much healthier future in these technologies.

In a world of 7billion people and a projected population of 10billion by 2050 we feel that food is going to be a more important goal than fuel.

(continuing the theme next weeks ‘Sunday’ article will be about Brasil’s farming technology and how it could be used in Kenya)


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