Despite widespread research indicating that growing biofuels on Africa's 'idle' lands could help to starve the continent, the practice remains rampant, according to a new study.
The is the work of the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a research center funded by 64 governments, private foundations and global organizations.
Researchers revealed that foreign companies are buying or leasing vast chunks of land in Africa and elsewhere for their own use. In fact, up to 50 million acres have been sold off or soon will be. That's equivalent to about 25 percent of all the farmland in Europe.
Much of that land is being bought by emerging nations to raise crops for their growing populations. These countries – China, India, South Korea and oil-rich Gulf states – have land and water constraints at home. They got burned by last year’s global food crisis and are turning to Africa as a food security blanket.
The rest of that land, a quarter or more, will be used by foreign companies to grow first-generation biofuels from crops, such as palm oil and jatropha.
The problems with these energy plants are well known.
Growing biofuels was supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It turns out that many biofuels over their lifespan produce more emissions than petroleum does. They were also the dominant reason for last year's increase in grain prices and the subsequent global food crunch, as rich governments, mainly the U.S., diverted their food harvests to making fuel. (In that sense, biofuels are also to blame for the above-mentioned land grabs by governments in emerging markets.)
In Africa, things are supposed to be different. The biofuels bonanza is happening on 'unproductive' or 'underutilized' lands, say investors. Except for one thing, explains IFPRI:
In most instances, there is some form of land use, often by the poor for purposes such as grazing animals and gathering fuelwood or medicinal plants. These uses tend to be undervalued in official assessments because they are not marketed, but they can provide valuable livelihood sources to the poor. Large-scale land acquisitions may jeopardize the welfare of the poor by depriving them of the safety-net function that this type of land and water use fulfills.
Even if the lands are underused, rising food prices, surging populations and global warming are expected to put pressure on local governments to convert them for agricultural use.
As SolveClimate reported in March, Africa could suffer production losses of up to 29 percent from climate changes by 2020. That's on a continent where agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for an estimated 65 percent of the population.
Knowing this, selling massive hunks of land to foreign entities to grow energy crops is myopic policy. On the part of foreigners, it's at best morally questionable.
These figures from the suggest that it may be late to stop it:
China has acquired seven million acres in the Democratic Republic of Congo to grow the world's largest palm oil plantation for motor fuel. It is also negotiating for five million acres in Zambia to grow jatropha.
Britan’s CAMS Group has bought 112,000 acres for jatropha in Tanzania. Sun Biofuels, also of the UK, has bought 13,500 acres in Tanzania for the same purpose. Trans4mation Agric-tech has secured 25,000 acres in Nigeria.
Sweden's Skebab has purchased 247,000 acres in Mozambique.
Germany's Flora EcoPower has lined up 32,000 acres in Ethiopia.