Calcutta Notebook

Biodiesel and Food Security

Bharat Jhunjhunwala

The war in Ukraine has led to an increase in price of fuel oil. There is a lurking danger that the price may increase yet more in the coming times if the war continues. This makes it necessary for India to look for alternative ways of ensuring energy security. The country is precariously dependent on imports for the three major sources of energy, namely, fuel oil, coal and uranium. One alternative being suggested is to promote biodiesels which can be produced either from sugarcane directly or from seeds of jatropha that can be grown on degraded lands. Indeed it is possible to produce biodiesel from such use of lands. However, the same land has alternative uses. The question, therefore, is not whether one can and must produce biodiesel. The question is whether biodiesel provides more benefits than the production of other crops on the same lands. The main point is that cultivation of sugarcane for biodiesel will lead to lesser crop production of food grains and it will directly hit food security. In an attempt to ensure energy security the country will be pushing for itself into food insecurity.

The production of biodiesel is also hugely water intensive. Sugarcane uses about 20 times more water per hectare of land than the cultivation of wheat. Then water resources are already depleting. The ground water table has been declining rapidly across the country. In such a situation, if one draws out more quantities of fossil water to produce sugarcane, the water table will decline further and it will again imperil food security. One should know that in the eastern part of the country, water at lower levels contains poisonous arsenic which is becoming a major health hazard. Therefore the country will be imperiling the lives of its people by forcing them to draw the water from greater depths and consuming poisonous arsenic only because people want to produce use more water to produce sugarcane for biodiesel. The second negative impact is on agricultural biodiversity. The cultivation of sugarcane on large areas of cultivable land will hit at the cultivation at a number of crops such as wheat, paddy, ragi, bajra, menthe, chilies, bananas, etc. What is needed is to cultivate multiple crops to protect from the effects of global warming. As the temperature of the earth increases, certain crops will fail to adapt and it may not be possible to cultivate them; while other crops may adapt to higher temperatures and it may be possible to continue their cultivation. Therefore, it is necessary to produce multiple crops rather than any single crop especially a non-food crop like sugarcane.

The case for biodiesel is actually made by the policy makers because it serves the rich. A paper published by the World Bank titled "Review of Environmental, Economy and Policy Aspects of Bio-fuels” says that the demand for bio-fuels is largely from the richer sections of society. There is a clear admission that biodiesel is used mainly by the rich; whereas, the biomass such as straw is used more by the common man. The cultivation of paddy and wheat provides straw which is fed to the livestock, which leads to the production of milk, which is then fed to the children. This writer did a study in Rajasthan and found that the health of children of farmers producing cash crops deteriorates because less cash income is used for milk and other nutritious foods. The production of sugarcane for biodiesel may indeed provide more cash to the farmers but that cash is used for buying goods like bikes and television rather than for milk. The result is that the cultivation of cash crops leads to lower health for the common man. It appears that biodiesel is promoted not because it is beneficial for the country but because it is beneficial for the rich who use most of the biodiesel that is produced.

The experience of Brazil is often invoked in favour of biodiesel. Indeed, Brazil is producing large amounts of sugarcane and directly producing biodiesel from the same. However the land and water availability in Brazil is much more than in India. Brazil has 32.5 hectares of land per one thousand persons while India has only 1.48 hectares. Brazil has 29,006 cubic metres of renewable sources of water per person against only 1,152 cm in India. This means that while Brazil can divert some of its lands and water for the production of biodiesel without affecting its food security while India cannot do the same because the country does not have enough land to continue to produce food after diverting lands for the production of biodiesel. Another argument in favour of biodiesel is that the production of bagasse after extracting juice from the sugarcane can be used to produce electricity. This argument does not hold because the cultivation of wheat and paddy also leads to the production of straw, which can be used not only as a fuel for production of electricity but has multiple uses such as for feeding to the livestock as well as manufacturing paper and other goods. Therefore, production of straw is more useful since it has diverse uses. It is time that the Government to review its policy of promoting biodiesel and focus more on reduction of consumption of energy so that people do not put unnecessary pressure on the environment and imperil food security.

[Formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru]

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Vol 54, No. 40, April 3 - 9, 2022