by | Nov 5, 2010 | Markets

Side-stepping the food-or-fuel choice by cultivating cassava

It seemed like a good idea at the time: Reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and start weaning the gasoline-dependent by phasing in (with a mix of subsidies and mandates) the use of ethanol as motor fuel. The sudden surge in demand for corn for fuel drove prices up … resulting in higher grocery bills and, for the most impoverished, food shortages. It turned out that the 2008 price-spike was only partly due to ethanol – perhaps 10 to 15%, the Congressional Budget Office reckoned then. This year, a World Bank report on 2006-08 commodity price boom concluded that the effect of biofuels on food prices has not been as large as originally feared.

Still, it was back to the drawing board for a biofuel feedstock that wouldn’t take food from the mouths of the poor.

Now it looks like cassava, a tropical plant with starchy roots and a multitude of uses, may be the one.

A staple food crop for millions in Latin America and Africa, the plant’s leaves are “tropical alfalfa” used to feed livestock. Cassava is also cultivated in Asia, although largely for industrial use. Most important, it can be grown in poorer soils that can’t support higher-value food crops such as wheat and rice.

It may also be the world’s most cost-efficient biofuel feedstocks. A study published in the African Journal of Biotechnology in August found cassava to be more efficient compared to sugarcane, sweet sorghum, corn and wheat. The study found one hectare of cassava yields on average 6,000 kg of ethanol annually. Sugarcane, the closest competitor, produces 4,900 kg of ethanol annually per hectare. One hectare of corn only produces 2,050 kg of ethanol per year.

In Africa, where most of the world’s cassava is grown, the tuber is one of the candidates, along with sweet sorghum, for bio-ethanol production research projects supported by IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development), part of a “global consultation” to “develop a market ready product with proven packages of technology that can be introduced to smallholders in the shortest possible time and with the lowest possible risks.”  

In the Western Hemisphere, CIAT (Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical) is pursuing similar goals in concert with Clayuca, a consortium investing in cassava R&D. Last year, the partners conducted the first test runs of a car fueled by cassava. One of Clayuca’s members recently announced a demonstration production facility in Panama.

Can the pro-poor biofuel impact global markets? Thailand thinks so. The world’s largest exporter of raw cassava is set on competing with Brazil, the world’s largest ethanol producer – in the east Asia market at least, reports Biofuels Digest. Twenty-five of Thailand’s 36 ethanol facilities use cassava as a feedstock. While lower transport costs give Thailand an edge in Asia, it is also counting on the low production costs of its cassava-based ethanol ($0.26/L) to gain share from Brazil’s sugarcane ethanol.

Handicapping Thailand’s plans right now: an aphid infestation that is eating away at crop yields. Thailand will be facing more local competition as well. Three South Korean firms have launched cassava biofuel projects in Malaysia and Indonesia, with initial production expected next year.

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