Icrisat’s Dr. Dar: Biofuels has to be science-based

“Biofuels development has to be science-based.”

Dr. William Dar, director general of the India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat), issued this statement amid the current debate on the country’s biofuels program.

“We support biofuels development in the country but let’s be sure that we are not compromising food security and environmental security,” Dar, a former Agriculture secretary of the Philippines, said.

“The government has to accelerate its effort in significantly supporting research and development in biofuels. Strategic communication is part of this,” he added.

Dar gave the statement as the word war between Sens. Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Sen. Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri on the government’s biofuels program intensifies.

Zubiri, who authored the Biofuels Act in the House of Representatives, challenged opposers of the Philippines’ biofuels program to a debate after visiting 1998 Nobel Prize winner for   chemistry Dr. Harmut Michel said that biofuels development would be counterproductive because it would produce little energy compared with renewable sources like wind power.

Santiago said it was “rude and peevish” of Zubiri to attack Nobel Prize laureates.

“To anyone with a proper sense of humility, in case of doubt, the presumption should be in favor of the opinion of a Nobel laureate in science. The debate on food versus fuel is not political or legal, but scientific,” Santiago, the main author of the law in the Senate, said.

The Philippines enacted the Biofuels Act of 2006, which provides that two years after its effectivity gasoline should have a minimum of 5-percent bioethanol, and after four years, at least 10-percent blend. For biodiesel, a minimum of 1-percent blend to diesel engine fuels is required within three months from its effectivity, and at least 2 percent after two years of its effectivity.

It aims to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuel, and provide cheaper and more environment-friendly source of fuel.

The government is encouraging the massive cultivation of jatropha as a source of biodiesel. Dar said that Icrisat supports the development of biodiesel from jatropha “but it has to be systematically domesticated and improved including management options through research and development.”

“As of now, it’s too early for jatropha to be promoted for commercial block plantation,” Dar stressed.

“In the Philippines, the science of cultivating jatropha must first be established through agricultural research before going into mass propagation,” Dar said in a statement.

“Domestication, crop improvement, pruning techniques and best agronomic practices must be developed to harness the full potential of the crop. Large-scale jatropha plantations should be promoted only after the crop is scientifically studied to optimize its potential for viable biodiesel production.”

Dar pointed out that “smart crops”—those that are sustainable and not compromise food and environmental security—should considered in developing biofuels.

He cited that for bioethanol, corn is not a smart crop because it compromises food security. One example of smart crop is sweet sorghum, he said.

The properties of sweet sorghum are:

— It is drought-tolerant and an efficient water-user. It only needs one-seventh of the average water requirement of sugarcane.

— It also produces more energy than it consumes. For every unit of fossil fuel energy it

consumes, sweet sorghum produces eight units and can go as high as 12 to 16 units in temperate areas. The only other crop that matches this is sugar cane, which produces 8.3 units of energy for every unit consumed.

— Studies have also shown that sweet sorghum is carbon dioxide neutral, emitting only as much carbon dioxide as it absorbs. The emission and absorption is at 45 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare of sweet sorghum.

— It also provides additional income for farmers, even while they can keep the grain for food or the market. ICRISAT estimates that by planting sweet sorghum instead of grain sorghum, dry-land farmers can earn an additional $40 to $97 per hectare per crop. Thus, it has an immense global potential in alleviating poverty, considering that farmers grow regular sorghum over 11 million hectares in Asia and 23.4 million hectares in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dar pointed out that “investing in biofuels is not counterproductive and will not adversely affect the country’s ability to produce its own food.”

“We have proven this at ICRISAT and farmers’ fields in India, where the biofuel feedstocks we are producing are environment-friendly, provide additional income to farmers, and do not compromise food security. We have developed several sweet sorghum varieties and hybrids with higher sugar content,” he said.

ICRISAT’s “Agri-Business Incubator” inked in October 2006 a partnership with Indian company, Rusni Distilleries, to set up a $1a-million ethanol processing facility that produces 40,000 liters per day of bio-ethanol from sweet sorghum, benefiting more than 3,000 farmers.

He disclosed that five Philippine investors have also signed up with ICRISAT and Rusni to pursue the same approach in the country.

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