Food & Fuel: Can Sorghum Be The New Magic Bullet Biofuel??

By Stephen Leahy

Korcula, CROATIA, May 13 (IPS) –

A new crop that provides food, animal feed and fuel at the same time promises to help developing countries redirect money spent on oil imports to benefit their own farmers. Is sweet sorghum biofuel’s “holy grail”?

Biofuels are widely blamed for driving food prices higher, sparking food riots in many countries. At least 25 percent of the U.S. maize crop is diverted to biofuel, and extensive areas in Indonesia, Malaysia, China and Brazil are also devoted to growing fuel rather than food.

With sweet sorghum, however, only the stalks are used for biofuel production, while the grain is saved for food or livestock feed. It is not in high demand in the global food market, and thus has little impact on food prices and food security.

“We consider sweet sorghum an ideal ‘smart crop’ because it produces food as well as fuel,” said William Dar, director general of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). “With proper management, smallholder farmers can improve their incomes by 20 percent compared to alternative crops in dry areas in India,” Dar said in a statement.

ICRISAT worked with nearly 800 farmers in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and Rusni Distilleries to build the world’s first commercial bioethanol plant running on sorghum, which began operations in June 2007. Locally produced sweet sorghum is also used as feedstock.

ICRISAT is located in Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh India and is one of the 15 allied centres supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

To produce ethanol, the sorghum stalks are crushed, yielding sweet juice that is fermented and distilled to obtain bioethanol. The energy content is about the same as sugar cane, Mark Winslow of ICRISAT in Munich, Germany told IPS in an interview.

The grain can be used for food, chicken or cattle feed. One major advantage is that if the grain has been damaged by disease and is inedible, it can also be used to make bioethanol.

“Even bad grain can bring a good price,” Winslow said. “This all about helping the poor.”

Sweet sorghum is easier and cheaper to grow than other biofuel crops in India and does not require irrigation, an important factor in dry areas. Sugarcane consumes two and a half units of water to produce one unit of ethanol, whereas sweet sorghum produces one unit of ethanol from one unit of water.

The crop also overcomes many of the shortcomings of other biofuel crops. While biofuels like maize-ethanol provide little if any reduction in greenhouse gas emissions — one of the purported reasons for their production — sugar cane does provide significant reductions in most analyses.

This aspect has not been fully investigated for sweet sorghum but it is expected to be the same as sugar cane. Sweet sorghum is grown on already-farmed drylands that are low in carbon storage capacity, so the issue of clearing rainforest, of great concern for oil palm and sugarcane, does not apply.

Grain yield from sweet sorghum is 20 percent less than sorghum itself. Sorghum is the world’s fifth largest grain crop — behind rice, corn, wheat and barley. It is grown on more than 42 million hectares in 99 countries. The United States, Nigeria, India, China, Mexico, Sudan and Argentina are the leading producers.

“Research into better varieties could make up that gap in a few years time,” said Winslow.

India intends to use a 10-percent ethanol blend to save an estimated 80 million litres of gasoline each year to ease the country’s growing need for fuel and to reduce carbon emissions. ICRISAT is trying to set up similar public-private-farmer partnership projects in the Philippines, Mexico, Mozambique and Kenya, to help them boost rural incomes and find alternative fuels.

But does sweet sorghum avoid all of the documented problems of other biofuels such as clearing forests for cropland, depleting and polluting soil and other resources? While Winslow believes it does, there is no independent verification agency nor any standards on which to make an informed assessment. Fortunately, badly-needed international standards for sustainable biofuel production and processing are expected to be released this June.

Non-governmental organisations, companies, governments and inter-governmental groups from all over the world are close to agreement, says Charlotte Opal of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels at the Energy Centre of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

“These standards will be a tool so governments and companies can differentiate between good and bad biofuel production,” Opal told IPS.

For full story please see: Can Sorghum Solve the Biofuels Dilemma?

My other articles on ethanol and biofuels :

Quotes From Six Experts On Ethanol

International Enviro Standards Needed for Biofuels

Biofuels: Another Good Reason to Hate American Policy

Greenest Ethanol Still Unproven

Ethanol: The Great Big Green Fraud

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