Food production: The hazardous trend
The heedless rush towards cultivating biofuel crops in Pakistan is quite liable to exacerbate malnutrition levels which, according to a recent World Food Programme report, have already reach the staggering figure of 21-23 per cent in rural Sindh, figures six to nine per cent above the internationally recognised emergency point of 15 per cent. It is higher than in the vast majority of African countries where globally recognised charities work around the clock struggling to alleviate horrendous nutritional shortcomings.
Malnutrition in Pakistan is not restricted to the millions of flood affected people throughout the country but is also clearly evident, and on the increase, amongst many millions of people with low or negligible incomes for both urban and rural dwellers alike.
According to the oft repeated mantra of the ministry of agriculture ‘there is no shortage of food’ in the country yet. Be this as it may, it is also true that a high percentage of the population can no longer, thanks to rampant inflation, afford to purchase the food on offer. However, this does not automatically give the government, along with indigenous and foreign investors and existing agricultural concerns, the right to switch over from cultivating food crops to crops solely intended for what is currently perceived as a lucrative biofuel market.
The ongoing energy crisis, further fuelled by the lure of carbon credit trading and dreams of profiting from funding promised to ventures intended to combat global warming, is encouraging Pakistani agriculturalists, often working hand in hand with corporate interests and government departments, to stop growing food which is a dangerous trend indeed.
The most talked about biofuel material at present is that of a tropical American plant called Jatropha curcas which is being planted, often illegally by using smuggled seed, by growers in Sindh, Balochistan and in the agricultural heartland of the Punjab with even Pakistan State Oil having jumped on the Jatropha bandwagon by setting up an experimental plantation outside Karachi in recent years.
Entrepreneurs claim that cultivating Jatropha does not infringe of food production in any way as it can be cultivated on marginal, waste and arid land of which, they claim, there is over 80 million acres in the country. What they do not say, quite naturally, is that there are vast numbers of people eking out some kind of living from these lands which are utilised in the production of subsistence crops and for the grazing of livestock. Neither do they publicise the hard fact that whilst Jatropha is claimed to have the ability to produce 10 times for oil than corn, this has not yet been proven on a commercial scale plus, even though it is drought tolerant once established, (this means irrigation is required for young plantations).
Moreover, it needs, according to a Dutch study, five times more water to produce a unit of energy than do either sugarcane or corn and 10 times more water than sugar beet making it, in fact, a rather thirsty crop which, if it doesn’t get adequate moisture, does not produce the anticipated oil for use in biofuels. Thus, it goes without saying, if water was available to be diverted to these 80 million acres of ‘waste’ land, it could be used for increased food production on all levels including that of meat and dairy which are often in short supplies.
There has even been talk of growing Jatropha with financial inputs from South Korea with the crop intended for export and processing there not here which is of no benefit to Pakistan, other than financially, whatsoever. The name ‘Jatropha’ may be familiar to some gardeners as members of this genus, dangerous attractive to mealie bugs which could spread on to other crops, were introduced as ornamentals many years ago.
Second on the booming biofuel cultivation list in Pakistan is the legumus tree Pongamia pinnata, an arid zone, drought tolerant species indigenous to tropical and temperate Asia and from which ‘hongo oil’ has been extracted for thousands of years. But, as with Jatropha, it is necessary to wait a number of years until harvesting can begin which is where other, ‘edible’ dangers arise.
The government is already evaluating the use of sugarcane as a biofuel and if this becomes a reality then sugar prices will surge as availability declines. Other important food crops with important biofuel potential include: canola, soy, rape seed, mustard, palm oil, wheat, corn, sugar beet and sunflower although as perennial grasses are also being examined; livestock and dairy production could also be adversely affected in the long term.
With global food prices at their highest ever, the price of American corn has increased by 79 per cent over the last year as a direct result of much of the crop is now destined for biofuel refineries, the immediate affect has been ‘to push another estimated 44 million people in low and middle-income brackets into poverty’ says the World Bank which is extremely concerned about the potential impact of biofuel production on world food stocks.