No easy transition

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Courtesy of Elektor International Media (EIM)

In September 2007, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Laguna, the Philippines, brought together some 41 experts from agricultural research institutes from around the world for three days. They were brought together by the realization that biofuel production had doubled in the previous five years and was likely to double in the next five. While the US and Brazil produced 90% of the bioethanol and the Europeans most of the biodiesel, it was realised that biofuel production in Asia was about to take off. Furthermore the use of maize grain was already pushing up grain prices everywhere.

If anybody was expecting any solution to the complex problem of what was or was not an acceptable mechanism for biofuel production, then the list of questions set out for the conference was pretty daunting in itself. Would there be enough food for the poor? Would biofuels threaten existing tropical forest? Could carbon trading foster more sustainable land management? Would it really mitigate climate change? Would there be soil deterioration? Could the second-generation biofuels be downscaled to village level? Were there useful plant genes to improve biofuel production?

Yet, if the conference did not and could not come up with any immediate answers to this barrage of questions, the participants certainly came away with a renewed understanding of the complexity of the issues. For a start, not merely are biofuels divided neatly into ethanol and biodiesel, but the sheer range of crops that can produce them is enormous.

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