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BRAZIL: Agroenergy Can Boost Food Production – Experts

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 13 2008 (IPS) - The web of truth and lies surrounding the controversy over agrofuels has led to the distortion or oversight of certain facts. For instance, making biodiesel from soybeans does not reduce food production, but increases it, according to experts.

Segundo Urquiaga, a researcher at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) who is analysing the maths of biofuel production, says that there is not always a direct conflict between food production and agroenergy.

Oil, which makes up between 18 and 20 percent of the soybean, was always a by-product, but has now risen in value because it can be converted into biodiesel, he says. The main product from this leguminous plant is its protein, which makes up about 40 percent and is concentrated in soybean meal, mainly used in livestock fodder.

Thus, the more soybean oil that is produced for biofuel, the more protein is produced, which at the end of the food chain will feed people, Urquiaga told IPS.

Furthermore, because of the capacity of soil bacteria in its root nodules to fix nitrogen from the air, soybeans are an ideal crop to restore fertility to degraded pastures in an integrated agriculture and livestock system, he says. EMBRAPA’s Agrobiology Centre, where Urquiaga works, has developed technology for inoculating bacteria into root nodules to maximise nitrogen fixation.

The capacity to fix nitrogen, a characteristic of leguminous plants, has already been transferred to some varieties of sugarcane. It could be introduced into the Brazilian people’s staple foods, such as rice, maize, and cassava, and it could be improved in beans. This is a "long and promising road" for science to travel, the expert said.

Investment in science yields "the best returns," and can lead to identifying new areas for farming, like the Cerrado, a vast savannah in central Brazil, which was regarded as "unproductive" until the 1970s, he says.

These aspects are disregarded in the confused controversy about agroenergy precipitated by the global food crisis, Urquiaga complained. The debate tends to over-simplify matters and blame biofuels refined from crops that also provide human foods, arguing that they "steal" arable land, without allowing for possible synergies, he said.

The Brazilian government and agribusiness companies reply to this accusation saying that the country has at least 50 million hectares of degraded pasture land which could be recovered for productive use, so that biofuels can be expanded without affecting either food production or the Amazon rainforest.

That area is nearly equivalent to the surface now devoted to grain production in this enormous South American country, which would in theory allow food production to be increased twofold.

But restoring fertility to the old grazing lands has not yet made significant inroads, and cattle ranching continues to encroach on the Amazon region, fuelling deforestation, the main source of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil.

Environmentalists are concerned about the "domino effect."

Producers of ethanol from sugarcane, with their greater purchasing power, buy the best lands and displace farmers of soybean and other grains, who in turn put pressure on cattle ranching, which is less profitable and requires extensive areas, to move on to land in the Amazon region which is cheaper or, in the case of illegal occupation of state lands, free.

Even more serious is the "exponential effect," as the sale of one hectare to a soybean farmer makes it possible for a rancher to buy five or more hectares of forest for logging, Sergio Guimaraes, the coordinator of the non-governmental Life Centre Institute (Instituto Centro de Vida, ICV), told IPS.

The ICV, an environmental organisation, is located in southwestern Mato Grosso, the Brazilian state where the most soy is produced and the greatest deforestation of the Amazon occurs.

Biofuels have been proposed as a way of mitigating global warming, because they emit less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels.

But public opinion has turned against them. They are blamed, in part, for the food crisis and for environmental and social damage, such as deforestation of the Amazon and slave-like labour conditions in Brazil.

The Brazilian government appears to have convinced many of the heads of state and government and other authorities attending the World Food Summit in Rome last week that its ethanol, distilled from sugarcane, "is not the villain," and should be regarded as distinct from ethanol produced in the United States from heavily subsidised maize.

Ethanol from sugarcane is many times more energy efficient than that made from maize, and sugar is currently an exception among foods in that its price on the world market is low. Furthermore, Brazil is exporting growing surpluses of grains and other foods, in spite of the large expansion of its ethanol production in recent years.

However, about 80 percent of Brazilian biodiesel is derived from soybeans grown on large landholdings, although the government has tried to stimulate biodiesel production from other oil-bearing crops, such as castor beans, physic nuts (Jatropha curcas), sunflowers and some palm trees, which are seldom eaten and can be grown by small farmers.

Soybeans and sugarcane have created concern in terms of food security, partly because they are grown on land that could produce staple foods like rice and beans, but mainly because they absorb inputs and credit, while there are no incentives for restoring the fertility of degraded pastures, said Adriano Campolino, the head of the non-governmental ActionAid International Americas based in Rio de Janeiro.

In any event, instead of ethanol, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva should be promoting "Brazil’s most successful programmes, such as Zero Hunger, Bolsa Familia (Family Grants) and loans for family farms, which are effective ways of fighting hunger," Campolina told IPS.

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