Ambitious ethanol plan sparks food security fears in India

NEW DELHI: India’s ambitious plan to reduce fossil fuel use by promoting ethanol derived from rice, corn and sugar is drawing criticism from some experts who warn the move could jeopardize food security in the second most populous country in the world.
In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration accelerated the country’s ethanol target by five years, seeking to double production and blend 20 percent gasoline with gasoline by 2025.
To help achieve the goal, the government is providing financial assistance to biofuel producers and faster environmental approvals.
The plan also results in the diversion of food grains intended for the poor to businesses at subsidized rates.
Even as many developed countries debate limiting political support for grain-based biofuels amid reports of increases in food prices and greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation, l India sees multiple advantages.
The government says the new target will help the world’s third-largest oil consumer save Rs 30,000 crore ($ 4 billion) per year by reducing crude imports, reducing carbon emissions and increasing farmer incomes.
But critics say it’s a personal goal for a country that has struggled for years to feed its poor. Although the Green Revolution helped increase crop yields and make India a net exporter of wheat and rice, it still ranks 94th in the 2020 Global Hunger Index comprising 107 countries.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that around 209 million Indians, or about 15% of its population, were undernourished between 2018 and 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic is also pushing more people into poverty, dealing a blow to decades of progress.
“It will always be the poor who will be most affected by the diversion of valuable food grains into alternative energy conversion,” said Shanthu Shantharam, who helped formulate the country’s biotechnology regulations in the 1990s and now teaches agricultural biotechnology at the University of Maryland. East Shore. “As it stands, the food security situation in the country is precarious. ”
The report that sets the new ethanol blending target focuses primarily on food raw materials, with the government declaring the program a “strategic requirement” in light of grain surpluses and the wide availability of technology.
Yet the master plan departs from the 2018 national biofuels policy, which prioritized grasses and algae; cellulosic materials such as bagasse, agricultural and forestry residues; and, items such as rice, wheat and corn straw.
“India has a real opportunity here to become a world leader in sustainable biofuels policy if it chooses to refocus on ethanol produced from waste,” said Stephanie Searle, Director of the Fuels Program at the Council. international for clean transport. “This would provide both strong climate and air quality benefits, as this waste is currently often burned, contributing to smog.”
Water crisis
The new ethanol policy must ensure that it does not push farmers towards water-intensive crops and creates a water crisis in a country where its scarcity is already acute, said Ramya Natarajan, energy researcher at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, a think tank in Bangalore.
Rice and sugar cane, as well as wheat, consume around 80% of India’s irrigation water.
“With our depleting groundwater resources, constraints on arable land, erratic monsoons and declining crop yields due to climate change, food production must take priority over fuel crops,” he said. said Natarajan.
One ton of corn can typically produce around 350 liters of ethanol, while a similar amount of rice can produce around 450 liters of alcohol. For sugar cane, it’s about 70 liters.
Even in the United States, fights between food and fuel have broken out intermittently. Some say that the domestic fossil fuel industry’s adoption of climate-friendly fuels has diverted the corn and soybean meal used to fatten chickens and pigs, and made them more expensive.
For example, demand for soybean oil has driven futures contracts up by around 80% over the past 12 months, while the fast food industry has complained about paying more for everyone’s items. on days such as mayonnaise.
Nowadays, many developed countries are focusing more on electric vehicles to reduce carbon emissions.
The Biden administration’s infrastructure proposal set aside $ 174 billion in investments in electric vehicles, including subsidies, but relatively little in biofuels.
India, which is also seeking to promote electric vehicles, should not focus on the two policies at the same time because they are not complementary, said Kushankur Dey, president of the Center for Food and Agribusiness Management at the Indian Institute. of Management, Lucknow.
The ethanol push poses no threat to food security as the government has sufficient stocks of grain in warehouses at the state-run Food Corporation of India, said Sudhanshu Pandey, the top official in the country. Ministry of Food in New Delhi.
“Long-term government planning involves building sufficient capacity so that half of the 20% mixing requirement is met by grains, mainly corn and the rest by sugarcane,” Pandey said.
State reserves stood at 21.8 million tonnes of rice as of September 1, against a requirement of 13.54 million tonnes, according to the Food Ministry. The blending plan would benefit corn and rice producers, while also tackling the problem of surpluses, Pandey said.
Some critics fear that food grains intended for the poor may be sold to distilleries at prices lower than what states pay for their public distribution networks.
Many ethanol producers get rice at Rs 2,000 per 100 kilograms (220 pounds), which compares to around Rs 4,300 that Food Corporation of India pays for grain supplies.
“Competition between distilleries and the public subsidized food grain distribution system could have adverse consequences for the rural poor and put them at increased risk of hunger,” said Prabhu Pingali, professor of applied economics and director of the ‘Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture. and nutrition at Cornell University.
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