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ENERGY-SOUTH AFRICA: Fuel in the Car at the Expense of Food on the Table?

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Mar 31 2007 (IPS) - South Africa has joined the race to find alternative sources of energy: government has already approved a ‘Draft Biofuels Industry Strategy’, and called on stakeholders to discuss it.

The strategy proposes that biofuels ultimately account for 75 percent of the country’s renewable energy target.

“Maize and sugar, as well as soya beans and sunflowers, were confirmed as potential crops to satisfy the country’s biofuels production. The strategy also acknowledges that South Africa conducts research to develop other crop varieties to further increase the country’s production levels. There is no intention in the draft strategy to exclude any crops,” the Department of Minerals and Energy noted in a statement.

Nonetheless, says Annie Sugrue of the Johannesburg-based Citizens United for Renewable Energy and Sustainability, “We believe the focus is too much on maize, sugar cane, soya and other traditional crops.”

Adds Richard Worthington, co-ordinator for the Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Project, also based in Johannesburg, “Maize should be treated with a lot of caution. Studies show that algae can also be a source of biofuel.”

Private companies such as Ethanol Africa have been discussing the development of biofuels from maize and sugar.

But, “Maize and sugar are their business. They don’t want to risk moving to other crops,” says Worthington.

Ethanol Africa declined to be interviewed by IPS at this time. Erhard Seiler, chief executive officer for the Southern African Biofuels Association, of which Ethanol Africa is member, indicated in an e-mail that ”At the moment we are in very close communication with the South African Government for the preparation of the Biofuel Strategy, which will be tabled (in) parliament during the 2nd or 3rd quarter in 2007.”

Sugrue fears that producing biofuel from maize could affect food security. Maize is the staple food of South Africa, consumed by 80 percent of the population.

“One of the biggest criticisms of the biofuels sector is that it could contribute to a shortage of food. This could happen if there is competition for the crops themselves,” she told IPS.

Such competition could pose problems at regional, as well as national level, Sugrue wrote in a paper titled ‘Towards A Southern African NGO Position On Biofuels’: “In Southern Africa maize could be a major feedstock for biofuels, yet it is the staple diet of more than 80 percent of the population and all of the poorest citizens.”

“A conversion of these farms to the production of energy crops would be devastating to the food economy and security. Other countries like South Africa and Namibia have limited arable land and in the former case have achieved reasonably good local food production that should be maintained.”

She also points out that maize can prove difficult to cultivate, being vulnerable to drought, and vacillating between surpluses and deficits from one year to the next.

“It might be better to look at the sugar industry which has consistent and permanent surpluses that are used for export that could be diverted towards the biofuels industry,” noted Sugrue, who says environmentalists are committed to having 10 percent of electricity in South Africa generated by renewable energy sources by 2012 – and 20 percent by 2020.

The ‘Draft Biofuels Industry Strategy’ was given the green light in December last year.

Biofuels also hold out the prospect of increased employment, no small matter in a country with widespread unemployment.

“Biofuels is labour intensive. It could provide a lot of jobs – up to a million including indirect jobs,” said Worthington.

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