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Agricultural policy: Senegal’s biofuel plans highlight the issues of food crop impact

01 December 2010

A report by Brazilian experts has estimated that Senegal could within three years be producing 28 million litres of ethanol a year, in addition to other, less ‘efficient’ biofuel feedstock such as jatropha, sunflower, groundnut and eucalyptus. This would reduce the country’s dependence on imported fuel as part of Senegal’s US$140 million, five-year bio-energy development programme, which it is estimated will create 100,000 direct jobs. Other ACP countries are also considering or already investing in biofuel feedstock production – usually to substitute for fuel imports, rather than for export. Fiji’s Department of Energy, for example, has identified sites for 23 biofuel mills costing $10.5 million which could be in place by 2013. The feedstock will be copra, which is already used in a plant opened on Koro Island.

But a note of warning has been given by the director-general of the Senegal Agricultural Research Institute, Dr Macoumba Diouf, who has pointed to the need to balance energy modernisation and food cultivation objectives.

A meta-analysis by Imperial College, London of existing research and production case studies in six countries concluded that there is enough available land to significantly increase production of crops such as sugar cane, sorghum and other crops for biofuels, without decreasing food production. Others take a more sceptical view. Phillip Kiriro, President of the East African Farmers’ Federation, for example, argues that ‘the biofuels industry does not consider local food security and is prone to deprive systems of food safety inputs and of working in favour of biofuels, resulting in non-production of food by people.’ This sentiment is also echoed by the president of the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Namanga Ngongi, who in a recent interview with a Senegalese newspaper said that because of the current food deficit in Africa, priority should be given to food crops rather than biofuel.

Editorial comment

The controversy over biofuels raises two separate issues about agricultural strategy. One is the old debate about food versus cash crops – whether the food security of a country (including its urban population) is better served by helping individual farmers grow more for their own consumption or a surplus for sale (either domestically or export). The other is about which cash crops to produce – and whether biofuel feedstocks (for export or import substitution) are the best choice.

Both issues are context specific: the answer will depend on the country concerned, the range of agricultural goods it can produce and the relative prices that they can command. And the answer will need to take account of emerging trends (will relative prices be the same in five years’ time?) and relative instability: are some crops more or less vulnerable to domestic shocks (such as droughts) or global shocks (that could sharply alter the supply of imports or demand for exports)?

This long-standing debate has acquired new urgency, since investment funds appear to be available for biofuel development that are not available for other agricultural development. Countries will need to be on their guard not to preclude future development of agricultural resources (whether for domestic consumption or export) by accepting biofuel investment without being sure that it is the most likely to promote sustainable development (or even foreign exchange earnings).


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