South Africa's Biofuel Policies: On a Road to Nowhere

By Glenn Ashton · 27 Feb 2012

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The South African Department of Minerals and Energy (DoE) is holding its final public consultation meetings about the adoption of regulations relating to the mandatory blending of biofuels with petrol and diesel at the end of February. This follows the publication of the draft regulations in September 2011.

There is a concerted local drive to promote so-called “biofuels” by their supporters and agro-fuels by their opponents. The logic behind these different terms is worth considering.

Supporters of so-called “biofuels,” the most prominent in recent times being George W (Dubya) Bush, emphasise the purportedly “green” credentials of these fuels. They primarily include maize and sugarcane sourced ethanol, blended with conventional petrol, or vegetable oils blended with diesel, in varying proportions.

In reality these fuels are not as green as they are projected to be. They are better termed agro-fuels because they are all grown as industrial agricultural commodities that compete directly against, food, fibre and oil crops for human consumption. Their use threatens food security and drives up food prices.

The growing demand for agro-fuels, primarily driven by corporate interests and politicians, has already had significant impacts on environmental, social and food security issues globally. The use of agrofuels is broadly opposed by groups involved in food security and social justice issues. These include the UN Rapporteur on food security Olivier De Schutter who stated that “…a food security action plan without addressing biofuels and speculation would be like running a bath without putting in the plug. All of the good ideas simply drain away.”

In 2007 the then South African Department of Minerals and Energy (DoME) produced a draft “biofuel” strategy in response to a concerted push to create a “biofuel” industry, mainly driven by GrainSA and the SA Biofuels Association (SABA). After broad public consultation the DoME strategy paper categorically rejected that any food crops be used for “biofuels.” Maize was specifically rejected as it comprises our primary staple food.

At this time SABA members, together with other commercial interests, were in advanced planning to build large maize-to-ethanol plants near Bothaville in the Orange Free State. Government policy to exclude maize effectively scotched this project, upsetting this interest group.

Over the past three growing seasons South Africa has produced a surplus of maize of around 3 - 4 million tonnes. This growing season looks set to repeat this. In light of this GrainSA and SABA’s have renewed calls to build the ethanol distilleries. They have, in the opposition Democratic Alliance, found a champion to lobby for the reintroduction of maize as a feedstock for agro-fuels.

Yet bizarrely, despite three years of surplus crop, South Africa is presently importing maize. This occurred because there is no central control over this primary agricultural product. Overzealous marketing of the surplus by private interests, assisted by the Department of Agriculture, resulted in the sale of maize required for strategic stocks.

Consequently we have purchased over 150 000 tonnes of maize from Zambia and Romania, at double the price our maize was sold. This has negatively effected food inflation, most affecting the poor who rely on maize and chicken – fed on maize - as staples. We may require importation of a further half a million tonnes of maize this year.

Given these levels of marketing incompetence, the proposal to reintroduce maize sourced ethanol should raise significant disquiet. First there are clearly no failsafe mechanisms to properly regulate our grain trade. Until there are strategic management protocols in place, it would be foolhardy to create other channels to absorb surpluses.

There is a more serious practical risk to diverting food crops into fuel feedstock. The construction of a distillery to convert grain to ethanol will cost in excess of one billion Rands. South Africa has a variable climate and regular drought cycles, even excluding climate change risks. While there have been decent rains for maize production over the past few years, this will not continue. Consequently, neither will our grain surplus.

Even when there is a grain shortfall, the investors in this billion Rand factory will demand feedstock. This will create direct competition between industrial demands, supported by the financial markets, and people for food. This runs directly counter to the national interest. If the oil price rises and it is profitable to produce ethanol, the inflationary implications for staple foods like maize are unacceptable. In this regard South Africa is an unusual position in that a significant portion of our total maize production goes directly toward food.

Ethanol production is also water intensive; each litre of ethanol requires at least three litres of water to process, excluding that used growing the crop. Although our national strategy discourages the use of irrigation for agrofuels, there is a significant likelihood that irrigated crops will be used. Presently no cross-checks exist. Agriculture already uses over 65% of our water. Diverting further water toward fuel production is grossly irresponsible in the South African situation, where around 98% of all of our available water is allocated.

Another major problem is the inefficiency of maize as an ethanol feedstock. Corn has an EROEI (energy returned over energy invested – an indication of the efficiency of the full conversion process) of between 0.8 and 2.3. The lower figure is a negative nett return on energy, the higher indicates a 1.3 return per unit of energy invested. Sugarcane ethanol in Brazil has an EROEI of between 8 and 10.

Neither is ethanol as green as it is claimed. Although a litre of ethanol has a lower CO2 emission than a litre of petrol, it contains far less energy. For the same amount of energy, ethanol has higher CO2 emissions than petrol.

Clearly the promoters of maize as a feedstock for agrofuels have a vested interest in profitability. Therefore it is of deep concern that the latest proposed DoE regulations for the blending of agriculturally sourced fuels, set a mandatory lower limit. This means blending is compulsory. Given the present state of play of our agrofuel industry we do not have a hope in hell in meeting this target, or any such target.

Besides maize, there are three other projects to convert agricultural crops to fuel. One involves the growing of sugar beet, supposedly by emerging farmers in the Eastern Cape. This project was already meant to be on stream but it has stagnated, at great cost. Most of the beet cultivation has been transferred to existing commercial farmers. The EREOI of sugar beet is less than two, even lower than maize. Given that it is a high latitude crop, usually grown in colder climates, it is highly speculative to grow it locally for fuel at all.

A similar project run by the Eastern Cape Department of Agriculture involves growing canola for agro-diesel but this too remains bogged down in the planning stages. This area has no experience of growing canola and it is probably over-ambitious to expect emerging farmers to successfully manage this project either. Canola oil is also poorly suited to bio-diesel as it also has an EROEI of less than 2. It will probably cost more to deliver and process this oil than it’s worth.

Another project, driven mainly by commercial interests including SASOL, proposes using soya oil. This would be GM soy, with high input costs, pesticide use and a high possibility of displacing food cultivation.

The growing international push for agro-fuels has had already had serious negative environmental and market related impacts. Rainforests are being destroyed in West Africa, Indonesia (directly impacting the Orang-utan) and South America. Vast tracts of land are being bought up or leased by private agrofuel speculators across Africa and India, displacing locals and impacting food production.

It is notable how the maize price now rises in lockstep with the international oil price. This is because the USA, the world’s largest maize producer, presently converts more than 30% of its maize to ethanol to feed its gas-guzzling vehicle fleet. Consequently the impacts of Dubya Bush’s unwise decisions are being felt through global food markets. Add the speculation on foodstuffs in international trading markets and the dangers loom even larger.

To even consider using maize to manufacture ethanol for fuel blithely overlooks the reality that one SUV tank filled with ethanol uses enough maize to feed a person for a year. When the demands for cheap energy of the wealthy compete against the food requirements of humanity, there is a potent conflict of interest.

It appears that the “biofuel” illusion has lured South African decision makers into the same insane reality as the energy junkies of the developed world. Further, these decisions are being made around the paradigm of first generation “biofuels,” all based on agricultural crops, the agro-fuels. The Department of Agriculture ought to involve itself a lot more closely and carefully in this matter, if it is as concerned about food security as it claims to be.

South Africa should instead develop clear policies to pursue second, third and even fourth generation biofuels. These are true biofuels, not the greenwash version that the DA, DoE and private business are attempting to foist upon us. These involve using, for instance, alien trees, algae and other feedstocks that don’t compete against food requirements.

Instead, the wealthy and well-connected smugly grin while they calculatedly plot to steal the food off the plates of the most vulnerable among us.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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