Food versus Fuel in the Philippines

By Abano, Imelda V. | Contemporary Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Food versus Fuel in the Philippines

Abano, Imelda V., Contemporary Review

Editorial Note: In recent months almost every country in the world has suffered sharp rises in the prices of basic food. The UN says that world food prices have risen 45 per cent in nine months which puts the 15 per cent rise in bread prices in the UK in some context. Many commentators have attacked Western governments for encouraging the increasing use of crops to provide biofuels as a way of lessening the dependence on imported oil. In May the United Nations' special repporteur on the right to food, Olivier do Schutter, told a French newspaper: 'The ambitious goals for biofuel production set by the United States and the European Union are irresponsible. I am calling for a freeze on all investment in this sector'. This was somewhat less inflammatory language than his predecessor's who denounced the growth in biofuels as 'a crime against humanity'. The problem poses the greatest threat in the developing world. One crop, jatropha, has become particularly popular with governments in these countries: in Burma, the military rulers have ordered that farm land the size of Belgium should be planted with jatropha while in Kenya a new Bio-Diesel Association has just been set up to convert more land towards the production of jatropha. This article examines the situation in the Philippines, the world's twelfth most populous country with a rapidly increasing population of over 90 million people.

THE government of the Philippines wants farmers to plant crops for biofuels on a vast scale. But could the quest for green energy create food shortages?

Growing world energy demand, the insecurity of long-term supply and the consequences of fossil fuel use for climate change are driving governments to look for alternatives. To meet rising energy needs, many countries are promoting the production and use of biofuels--energy extracted as a gas, liquid or oil from plants.

Derived from food crops such as corn, sugarcane, soybean, oil palm and sugarbeet, biofuel production has been on the rise in recent years. It is seen by many as a clean form of energy in an era of soaring oil prices and concerns over carbon emissions.

Jatropha, a plant originating in Central America that grows wild in many developing countries, including South Africa, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and the Philippines, has suddenly found itself at the centre of a new phase in the world's alternative energy boom.

In the Philippines, there is currently much hype surrounding its production as a source of renewable fuel. The Philippine President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has signed into law the Biofuels Act which mandates a minimum one per cent biodiesel blend and 5 per cent bioethanol blend in all diesel and gasoline fuels. To meet demand, the government is aggressively pushing for the cultivation of jatropha, believing it to be one of the best candidates for future biofuel production.

The government, through the Philippine National Oil Co.-Alternative Fuels Corp, is now looking at some 1.2 million hectares for jatropha production in the southern island of Mindanao. It is also busy identifying more than 400,000 hectares of land for private sector investments.

Jatropha curcas is a drought-tolerant non-edible shrub. It produces fruits the size of golf balls which contain oil that can be converted into biodiesel, a substitute for fossil fuel.

According to Rhandy Tubal, a research specialist at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Cordillera, farmers who have received training to grow jatropha are enthusiastic about the crop. He says the cultivation of the plant could provide the first step out of poverty for Filipino farmers and claims that, depending on the density of the plants, each hectare can yield jatropha oil worth nearly US $2,000 a year.

'We are in the initial stage of planting jatropha and we are very optimistic that it is indeed one of the best candidates for biofuel. …

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