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Cassava, the latest biofuel?

Cassava, the latest biofuel?

Cassava is the newest addition to the biofuel line-up, joining others such as corn, palm oil, and sugar, and has doubled in price because of its new role, according to The New York Times.

Most of this increase was caused by increase in export of cassava to China from Thailand, the world’s largest cassava exporter. Thailand has increased its exports of the crop nearly fourfold since 2008, and sent 98% of its cassava to China to make biofuel in 2010.

Many countries around the world, such as India, Indonesia, and Thailand have adopted biofuel targets. The European Union has said that “10 percent of transportation fuel must come from renewable sources like biofuel or wind power by 2020,” and the U.S. requires biofuel use to reach 36 billion gallons annually by 2022. These targets, according to Timothy D. Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton University, “are contributing to higher prices and tighter markets.”

Olivier Dubois, a bioenergy expert at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, agrees that biofuels are causing a rise in prices, but warns: “the problem is complex, so it is hard to come up with sweeping statements like biofuels are good or bad…what is certain is that biofuels are playing a role. Is it 20 or 30 or 40 percent? That depends on your modeling.”

In response to these concerns about biofuels, Hans Timmer, director of the Development Prospects Group of the World Bank, says that “the policy really has to be food first.” In other words, if food stocks get low or prices become to high, countries should be able to suspend the fuel mandates in order to help bring prices down, according to Dubois.

China originally used corn for biofuel, but banned its use once it experienced drastic shortages in corn supplies followed by a rise in prices. To find a new source of high energy, Chinese scientists perfected a process to make fuel from cassava, a root that is not a staple in China, therefore, drastic price rises of cassava would not affect them.

But, with the interconnected nature of the food system, the effects can be felt in other places. The Times article points out a few examples, such as cassava bioethanol plants closing in the Philippines and Cambodia because of the increase in the cost of the root. In addition, since cassava is a staple crop in Africa, exporting the product could become a business opportunity for Africans, or it could threaten the affordability of one of their main foods.

With all of these interconnected and potentially negative links, the production of biofuel as a solution to the energy question may need more consideration. As the Times quotes Olivier Dubois at the end of the article: “We have to move away from the thinking that producing an energy crop doesn’t compete with food. It almost inevitably does.”

The U.S. also has a role to play, considering that 40% of the corn grown here in the US goes to biofuel, and prices of corn on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange have risen 73 percent from June to December 2010.



Rishi Sidhu

Rishi Sidhu is a freelance writer and journalist based in Boston, Massachusetts. He found his love for international relations while teaching English on the Japan Exchange and Teaching program in the rural town of Agematsu in Nagano prefecture. After 2 years in Japan, Rishi traveled to India to study Hindi and pursue his journalism career. He became interested in food security when he first heard people in India complaining about rising food prices and loves the issue because of its impact on all aspects of human society; from health to politics, from environmentalism to global development.