By Syful Islam
DHAKA, May 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bangladesh plans to begin turning some of the grain it produces into ethanol to make its fuel greener – but economists and experts warn the move could hurt food security in a country that is already a grain importer.
Energy ministry officials said in a gazette notification early this year that the country will begin using maize, broken rice grains and molasses to produce ethanol to mix with petrol fuel at a 5 percent ratio.
But in a heavily populated country that produces relatively little in the way of climate-changing emissions and that already relies on imports of maize and other grains, the result could be rising food prices, especially for the poor, economists, business leaders and environmental experts warned.
Moshiur Rahman, who convenes the Bangladesh Poultry Industries Coordination Committee, called the move to begin using grain for fuel "suicidal".
Much of Bangaldesh's maize is used to feed animals, including chickens. But the country grows only half of the maize it needs, importing the rest from the United States and Brazil, he said, which means rising demand could mean rising prices.
"Maize prices will go up if it is used for ethanol production. The price of eggs and chicken will go beyond the reach of common people," Rahman warned.
He said growing concerns about food security have led other countries – including China – to stop giving permission for new biofuel projects.
FOOD TO FUEL
According to a study by Bangladesh's energy ministry, the country could produce 18 million liters of ethanol a year, or about 75,000 liters each working day. That would require 60,000 tonnes of broken rice each year – about 3.5 percent of the country's total production.
Alternately the county could produce the ethanol with 62,000 tonnes of maize (2.8 percent of production) or 97,000 tonnes of molasses (nearly all of the country's production).
The study warned that if the government scales up ethanol production beyond those levels, it will raise demand for grain to the point that it could hurt food security.
But junior energy minister Nasrul Hamid told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone that Bangladesh needs to go for greener and more varied fuels in the future, like other nations.
"So, we are exploring the possibility of using bio-ethanol with other fuels. You can't remain out from the global trend of energy use," he said.
He confirmed the ministry plans to give permission for ethanol production, and then would judge from early experience whether to scale up the experiment.
"Yes, we are going to give permission for bio-fuel soon. Let's see what happens first. Its impact on food security will be considered than," Hamid said.
But others warn that Bangladesh has decided to burn food grains to produce ethanol without taking into consideration the food security of its 160 million people.
That is a particular worry in a low-lying country that faces severe climate change threats, including loss of crops and crop land to worsening salt-water intrusion, droughts, floods, storms, sea level rise and erosion.
Already many people face daily hunger and can manage meals only once or twice a day, experts say. Last year, Bangladesh ranked in the top 25 percent of the world's most hungry countries, according to the Global Hunger Index of the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Bangladesh today produces about 1.8 million tonnes of broken rice, about 100,000 tonnes of molasses and less than half the 6 million tonnes of maize it needs each year, according to the country's Energy Ministry.
Besides being used as livestock food, maize is eaten by poorer people, mixed with flour as a cereal or made into biscuits. Lower-income people also eat broken rice for breakfast and make it into cakes.
But prices for the grains are rising. A kilogram of coarse rice is now being sold at 42 taka (50 cents) in Dhaka, up 25 percent in price from a year ago, according to the government Trading Corporation of Bangladesh.
Rising food prices are a major concern, with a growing portion of people's earnings now being spent on food. The country's food inflation rate in February was 6.8 percent, up from a record low of 3.8 percent a year ago.
About 13 percent of Bangladesh's people fall below the national poverty line of $2 per day, according to World Bank data.
The country produces about enough rice to meet demand but imported 4.5 million tonnes of wheat last year to meet demand for that grain, according to the country's food ministry.
Despite rising demand for food, Khan Md Aftabuddin, managing director of Sunipun Organics Ltd. – the company that first applied for government permission for ethanol production – said turning grain into fuel would not pose any threat to food security for Bangladesh.
He said the byproducts of ethanol production could be used as poultry or fish food, and that more maize could be grown on delta islands if demand for it rises.
"If needed, we will produce maize in char lands of the country as raw material for our plant," Aftabuddin said. Bangladesh needs to turn to renewable energy to keep its environment clean, he said. But Mohammad Moinuddin Abdullah, secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, said creating fuel using maize – which is increasingly being imported to make up for rice and wheat shortfalls – doesn't seem to make sense.
"I do not see any valid reason for using maize and broken rice for ethanol production," he said.
M. Asaduzzaman, a fellow of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies and a member of the country's climate change negotiations team, said he also disagreed with the move toward producing ethanol from grain.
"We have tremendous difficulties in livestock nutrition. If maize is now used to produce ethanol, the cost of livestock production will go further up causing further animal protein deficiency," said Asaduzzaman, also a former vice chairman of the International Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change.
"This is a wrong-headed decision," he said.
Bangladesh's per capita carbon emissions are tiny compared to those of more developed countries, and should not be as great a concern as protecting food security, he said.
"When we can't meet basic nutritional need, we don't need to go for clean energy," he said.
Khondaker Golam Moazzem, a research director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based think tank, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that he is concerned that ethanol production, once started, could be scaled up in the future, particularly if oil prices eventually rise.
That could lead to more demand for maize and for land to grow it. "Then, staple food production will be hampered since Bangladesh suffers from acute farmland scarcity," he warned.
(Reporting by Syful Islam; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.