Applied Geography formerly Rural Training Center, Thailand

2008 Apr 20 Biofuels Are Not Created Equal

Apr 20, 2008

Biofuels are being criticized for rising food prices and potentially rising starvation among the world?’s impoverished people. The shift of corn, soybeans, wheat, and sugar cane into ethanol production is causing debate about the biofuel program.

The rising costs of food is driven by a pantheon of causes, not simply the shift of crops from food to fuel production. Rising oil prices force increased agricultural production costs in fuel for machinery, agrichemicals, and all manner of goods and services passing on their fuel cost increases. Crops used for animal feed are rising in cost, thus meat prices also rising. Many farmers choose to shift sale of their existing crops to the biofuels market because of basic economics of supply and demand to get the best price for their crop to maximize earnings. Non-farm businesses do the same.

Biofuels, in general, are gas or liquid fuels produced from biomass (organic materials, largely plants). However, not all biofuels are created equal. Some biofuels can be produced from trash, waste and garbage. Certainly there is no shortage there in our consumer society. This type of biofuel production can reduce water pollution / contamination, solve waste disposal problems, and produce soil amending materials to enhance plant and crop growth (reducing the use of synthetic agrichemicals).

The RTC-TH chose to grow Jatropha curcas as one biofuel source. Jatropha can be grown in marginal soil conditions unsuitable for food crops. Thus its cultivation does not reduce food production acreage. It can grow in arid conditions, thus uses less water (another critical resource for both human consumption and agricultural production). The oil extracted from the seeds can be used as diesel fuel (in older engines) and in lamps. When used as diesel fuel, it burns cleaner fossil diesel fuel.

Jatropha plants can live for 50 years. They can be grown from seeds or cuttings. The first harvest can take place as early as 8 months. With careful pruning, productivity can be sustained for many years. The seed and pod residue can be composted and used as a soil supplement to reduce the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers.

A biodigestor to process animal and plant wastes into methane gas for cooking fuel is another way to turn waste into a biofuel. This does not remove crops from use of food. It does reduce the environmental problems of water pollution / contamination. It can also reduce deforestation by reducing the need to cut wood for fuel. Protecting the forest also protects the watershed and water supply. Output from the biodigestor can be used as a soil amendment reducing the need for costly synthetic agricultural chemicals. Composted soil supplements improve soil moisture retention and improves the ability of soil to resist erosion. Soil and water are precious farm resources that have been devastated by the rush toward commercial agriculture.

When it comes to rich and poor, it become obvious that no matter what the commodity, fuel, water or food, those with money can afford to buy and those without money can?’t. Thus in a world of upwardly spiraling prices, the poor may certainly face paying the ultimate price?…..death by starvation.

In an attempt to provide an alternative for small rural family farms, the RTC-TH embarked on a path to empower the rural poor with education in self-sufficient and sustainable agriculture. An immediate goal is to shift energy away from striving to earn money to striving to attain family food security. Once this is accomplished, families are encouraged to share the knowledge with other families and working toward the goal of village or community food security via self-sufficient and sustainable agriculture. At the same time, integrating farm operations using sound local ecological methods strives for a balance of resources with consumption. Environmental stewardship become an important aspect to assure sustainability for future generations. In Thailand, this approach is guided by the King?’s Theory of the sufficiency economy.

Last updated by earthsyssci on 02/04/2018
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