Q&A: Boosting bioenergy in Africa and Latin America

By Rodrigo de Oliveira Andrade

[SÃO PAULO] Bioenergy production techniques that are already available could be used to supply up to 30 per cent of the world’s energy by 2050, according to a 2015 report by The Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE), a global network of scientists from 24 countries that reviews scientific knowledge on the environment.

In Brazil alone, more than 60 million hectares of land currently used for low-intensity grazing could be used for biofuel production, according to the report. The country is known for successfully producing this type of fuel — the result of a pioneering initiative to industrially produce ethanol from sugarcane that began in the 1970s with the National Alcohol Program (Pro-Alcohol).

That policy led to the launch, in 2003, of vehicles that can run with gasoline, ethanol or a mixture of both. These Flex cars now make up the bulk of Brazil’s automotive fleet, with more than 20 million units in circulation.

Successful approaches to biofuel production are based on a synergy between bioenergy production and food security.

Glaucia Mendes Souza, Chemistry Institute, University of São Paulo

To find out why scientists are so optimistic about biofuel production in the developing world, SciDev.Net spoke with Glaucia Mendes Souza, researcher at the Chemistry Institute of the University of São Paulo.

Souza is also coordinator of the Bioenergy Research Program at the Brazilian research foundation FAPESP, and co-editor of the report.

What is the potential for expanding biofuel production in Latin America and Africa?

Huge! There are at least 500 million hectares of land available for biofuel production around the world. Much of that is in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and is currently being used for low-intensity grazing.

Is it possible to expand biofuel production without affecting biodiversity or endangering food security in these regions?

Successful approaches to biofuel production are based on a synergy between bioenergy production and food security. This can only be done by investing in the development of new technologies to improve the production infrastructure, adopting policy measures to ensure the stability of food prices, and giving incentives for local production and using flexible crops so farmers grow both food and energy crops.

There’s concern that increasing biofuel production could impact on food prices. What’s your view on this?

Many point to bioenergy as one of the main causes of rising food prices. However, after analyzing almost 2000 studies and reports of the current bioenergy landscape and its potential impacts, the SCOPE researchers concluded that there is no causal link between bioenergy production and food insecurity.

In scientific terms, what are the main challenges for biofuel production in Latin America and Africa?

I believe the challenges centre around how to both achieve bioenergy production and meet food demands. Both continents should invest in increasing the productivity of their agricultural lands, and release the surplus land for growing bioenergy crops. In addition, it would be important to integrate bioenergy production into food production systems.

This would mean investing in plant breeding to adapt them to degraded lands, establishing financial incentives to reduce carbon emissions and producing bioenergy in unproductive lands.

Today, the world gets nearly 90 per cent of its energy from fossil fuels and nuclear energy. How can we change this?

Through integrated policies. The sustainable expansion of bioenergy requires careful planning involving the public and private sectors, the scientific community and rural farmers among other players. The bio-economy can only be fully developed if stakeholders collaborate with each other which is complex for decision-makers. Bioenergy must be an integral part of the strategic planning of global economies.

Has Brazil invested properly in science and technological development that relates to biofuel production?

Yes. The main initiative is the FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program created in 2008 to improve the productivity of ethanol and advance basic science and technological development. In recent years, about 2000 scientific papers have been published as a result of projects funded by this programme and, as of 2016, around US$200 million has been invested in projects.

What are the main scientific and technological advances related to biofuel production in Brazil?

Thanks to the ethanol programme and research carried out by the private sector, as well as public research entities, Brazil has obtained genetically improved varieties of sugar cane and managed to increase its productivity from 49 tonnes per hectare in 1970 to 85 tons per hectare in 2010. The country has also developed yeast-breeding programmes and invested in new processes that resulted in improved ethanol yields and industrial automation, among other advances.

What lessons could Africa extract from Brazil’s experience in biofuel production?

Brazil is recognized worldwide for the successful implementation of its bio-ethanol programme — an example of how biofuel production can be increased without compromising food security. The expansion of agricultural production and increased bioenergy productivity across the country is the result of a significant improvement in the productive environment in the rural sector, which includes better agro-economic practices, availability of services and equipment, and adherence to modern technologies. The lessons learned in Brazil are already being applied in countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa, which adopted the Brazilian model for ethanol production and are adapting it into their own contexts.

The Bioenergy Research Program (Bioen), coordinated by Glaucia Mendes Souza, is funded by FAPESP, a SciDev.Net donor

This piece was originally published by the Latin America and Caribbean desk.