5) ICRISAT promotes pro-poor biofuels initiative

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is linking the poor and marginal farmers of the drylands of the developing countries with the global biofuels revolution without compromising on food security.

ICRISAT's innovative research on ethanol for biofuel from sweet sorghum and biodiesel from pongamia and jatropha crops, is not only ensuring energy, livelihood and food security to the dryland farmers, but also reducing the use of fossil fuel, which in turn can help in mitigating climate change. These crops meet the main needs of the dryland farmers – they do not require much water, can withstand stress and are not expensive to cultivate.

The Institute is working with governments and industry leaders to develop partnerships that can result in economic benefit for the poor and marginal farmers of the semi-arid tropics, even while retaining the strong economic competitiveness for the industry. The idea is to develop partnerships that link ICRISAT's innovative research with farmers and markets.

“We call this our pro-poor biofuels initiative for the dryland farmers where food security is not compromised,” says Dr William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT. “With the fuel prices increasing globally there is a demand for ethanol from sweet sorghum and biodiesel from pongamia and jatropha. We believe that this provides a wonderful opportunity for dryland farmers to get more money from their farms and wastelands.”

Ethanol from sweet sorghum

ICRISAT scientists have bred sorghum varieties and hybrids in partnership with national agricultural research partners that yield higher amount of sugar-rich juice. Conventionally ethanol is produced from sugarcane. Sweet sorghum scores over sugarcane in that it is a crop of the drylands, and thus its cultivation can benefit the poor and marginal farmers of the drylands.

Even though the ethanol yield per unit weight of feedstock is lower for sweet sorghum, the much lower production cost for this crop more than compensates for this loss, and sweet sorghum has a competitive cost advantage. It costs $ 0.29 (Rs 12.79) to produce one liter of ethanol from sweet sorghum, while it costs $ 0.33 (Rs 14.55) to produce ethanol from sugarcane.

“Sweet sorghum's benefit is three-fold,” says Dr Belum VS Reddy, ICRISAT's Principal Sorghum Breeder. “It provides the dryland farmer with grain, fodder for the cattle and an additional source of income through bioethanol. Sweet sorghum requires only one seventh of the water that is used up by sugarcane”.

Sweet sorghum has advantage over other biofuel crops that it yields grain as well as ethanol. Rather than replacing land grown to food, the cultivation can stimulate increased yield of grain and stalk, and also fodder from bagasse. Normal grain sorghum is already grown on 11.7 million hectares in dryland Asia and 23.4 m.ha in Africa . Sweet sorghum can fit into this area, and provide an additional income to farmers.

“From an acre of sweet sorghum we can get a minimum of 15 tons of cane,” says Mr Rami Reddy a farmer who has planted sweet sorghum. “Rusni buys this from us at Rs 500 per ton. So a farmers makes a good income from his sweet sorghum field, which is in addition to the 200 to 400 kg of grain that he harvests.”

ICRISAT has linked the lab, industry, farmer and the market through the public-private partnership initiative of is Agri-Business Incubator. The research to develop improved varieties was linked with the technology package that entrepreneur Mr AR Palaniswamy, Managing Director of Rusni Distilleries, has developed.

“By partnering with ICRISAT through its Agri-Business Incubator, our distillery at Mohammed Shahpur village, Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, has become the world's first plant to commercially produce ethanol from sweet sorghum,” says Mr Palaniswamy. “We have linked with farmers, to whom we are supplying seeds of sweet sorghum varieties, and buying back their produce.”

According to calculations made by Rusni Distilleries, a 40 kiloliter-per-day ethanol from sweet sorghum plant in India can benefit 5,000 farmers and provide 40,000 man-days of labor per year. By planting sweet sorghum instead of grain sorghum, dryland farmers can get an additional income of $ 40 (Rs 1763) per hectare per crop. This is the benefit they get in addition to the existing benefit from the grain.

Ethanol can be blended with petrol (gasoline) to save the use of fossil fuels, which cause greenhouse gas emissions resulting in climate change. According to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry , India can save nearly 80 million liters of petrol annually if it is blended with alcohol by 10%. Ethanol is a clean-burning fuel with a high octane rating.

In addition to the Rusni project in India , ICRISAT has signed agreements with five private companies in the Philippines to form a sweet sorghum for ethanol consortium. Further, ICRISAT and Rusni are in the initial stages of exploring such consortia in Uganda , Nigeria , Mozambique and South Africa.

Biofuel from pongamia and jatropha

ICRISAT's initiative to produce biofuels is not limited to bioethanol alone. Through its watershed development project, ICRISAT is promoting the cultivation of pongamia and jatropha crops, from which biodiesel can be extracted.

“We have partnered with the Andhra Pradesh Government to permit poor villagers, especially women's groups, to grow pongamia and jatropha on wastelands and collect the fruits,” says Dr SP Wani, Regional Theme Leader on Watershed Development, ICRISAT. “Once the trees mature the women collect the seeds and press out the oil in their villages or sell them to large-scale processors to earn hard cash.”

In partnership with the state government of Andhra Pradesh and the national government of India , ICRISAT has developed a model to rehabilitate 300 hectares of common property degraded land in Velchal and Kothlapur villages of Ranga Reddy district. The landless villagers have the right over the usufructs from the biodiesel plantations.

For the poor tribal community of Powerguda village in Adilabad district, ICRISAT and the Andhra Pradesh Government helped raise biodiesel plantations, and also establish an oil extraction machine. The biodiesel extracted from this unit is used locally or sold in the market.

“We use the pongamia oil to generate electricity, run diesel engines and pumpsets,” says Ms Manku Bai of Powerguda village. “We also use the press cake as fertilizer in our field.”

In partnership with GTZ, the German development cooperation organization, ICRSAT is working with Southern Online Biotechnologies, which has already established a 40 kiloliter-per-day biodiesel plant in Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh.

Biodiesel yields even greater reductions in air pollution than ethanol, since fossil fuel diesel is polluting considering the popularly used diesel technologies in the developing countries. Compared to fossil fuel-derived diesel, biodiesel reduces un-burnt hydrocarbons by 30%, carbon monoxide by 20% and particulate matter by 25%.

Since biodiesel is a renewable source of energy, producing it qualifies to earn carbon credits for offsetting global warming. The planting of biodiesel crops also helps sequester atmospheric carbon into tree biomass. The World Bank bought 147 tons of carbon credit from Powerguda village to neutralize the emissions of air travel by participants of an international conference held in Washington DC, USA, in October 2003.

ICRISAT has established a jatropha nursery at its research station at Niamey, Niger, in West Africa, where seeds collected from 18 different ecological conditions around the world (including Mexico, Mali, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau and India) are being grown to breed the best plants with the most appropriate traits.

The way forward

ICRISAT will continue its pro-poor biofuels initiative by developing and strengthening partnerships between the public and private organizations, innovative research and efforts to encourage governments to develop more supportive policies.

By substituting biofuel partially for imported oil, cash-strapped developing countries can invest their scarce capital in their own farms and industries. If that reinvestment can be made in ways that help alleviate poverty and improve their farmlands, then biofuels can contribute to equitable economic development, energy self-reliance and reduction in carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

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