27) Development of smart crops for biofuels ensures food and environmental security

While the global debate rages on whether the biofuel revolution is causing imbalances in food security systems and increasing the emissions of greenhouse gases, the ‘smart’ biofuel crops developed, utilized and promoted by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) ensure energy and environmental security.

According to Dr William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT, the time has come to ensure that only smart biofuel crops are developed and utilized so that they can link the poor farmers of the drylands to the biofuel market, without compromising on their food security, or causing environmental damage.

“Smart biofuel crops are those that ensure food security, contribute to energy security, provide environmental sustainability, tolerate the impacts of climate change on shortage of water and high temperatures, and increase livelihood options,” Dr Dar said.

Through its BioPower Strategy, ICRISAT is developing and promoting sweet sorghum as a major feedstock for bioethanol. Sweet sorghum is a carbon dioxide neutral crop, which is a big contributory factor of being called a smart crop.

ICRISAT-bred sweet sorghum varieties and hybrids have increased sugar content in the juice in their stalks. ICRISAT’s rainy season varieties give 42% higher sugar yield, and rainy season hybrids give a 20% increased sugar yield.

Sweet sorghum has a strong pro-poor advantage since it has a triple product potential – grain, juice for ethanol, and bagasse (crushed stalk waste) for livestock feed and power generation. Its highlight is that there is no compromise on farmers’ food security, since the grain is available for the farmers, along with the sugar-rich juice from the stalk that can be distilled to ethanol.

There are other benefits also. It is a cost-effective and competitive feedstock. It has a shorter crop cycle of 4 months compared to the 12 months of sugarcane. It has a water requirement of 4,000 cubic meter to produce a kiloliter of bioethanol, compared to 36,000 cu.m required for sugarcane. Putting all the factors together, the feedstock cost to produce one kiloliter of ethanol from sweet sorghum is US$ 81.6, whereas it is US$ 111.5 for sugarcane and US$ 89.2 for maize.

Sweet sorghum is tolerant to water scarcity and high temperatures, two qualities which will keep the crop in good stead when the climate changes with global warming.

It also has high water use efficiency. While sorghum requires 310 kg of water per kg of dry matter, maize requires 370 kg of water per kg of dry matter.

Sweet sorghum is a carbon dioxide neutral crop that makes it environment friendly, and does not add to greenhouse gas emissions. During its growth cycle, a hectare of sweet sorghum cultivation absorbs and emits 45 tons of carbon.

The crop also has a good energy balance, that is unit of energy generated per unit of fossil-fuel energy invested in its cultivation. Sweet sorghum generates 8 units of energy for every unit of fossil-fuel energy invested, which compares favorably with sugarcane’s 8.3, and for corn it is only 1.8 units.

It has been studied that gasoline blended with ethanol has lower emissions when run through an automobile engine than pure gasoline. E85, the fuel with 85% ethanol, has only 1 part per million concentration of nitrogen oxide whereas gasoline has 9 ppm.

ICRISAT's initiative to produce biofuels is not limited to bioethanol from sweet sorghum alone. Through its watershed development project, it is promoting the cultivation of Pongamia and Jatropha, from which biodiesel can be extracted.

ICRISAT is promoting the cultivation of these biodiesel crops by marginalized communities such as tribal groups and women’s self-help groups and ensuring that they are planted on wastelands. The groups get additional income after harvesting and crushing the seeds, selling the oil, and selling the seedcake (the residue after crushing) to farmers as an organic fertilizer. Some of the oil is used to power village diesel engines such as generators and irrigation pumps.

“Likewise, our biodiesel initiatives produce green fuel and rehabilitate degraded lands, enhance greenery, conserve rainwater, and provide a sustainable income source for the landless and marginal farmers,” said Dr Dar.

The issues of food versus fuel, climate change and environment, land use, and impact on poverty alleviation vis-à-vis biofuels call for stimulating and informed science-based policy-making. That means a framework to promote biofuels should be linked to national and regional poverty reduction, food security and climate proofing strategies.

For further information, contact Dr Belum VS Reddy at b(dot)reddy(dot)cgiar(dot)org and Dr Suhas P Wani at s(dot)wani(at)cgiar(dot)org.

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