POST TIME: 19 June, 2018 00:00 00 AM
Bangladesh’s plans to burn grains for fuel is unwise
We do not find the necessity, nor can we afford the luxury of switching on to bio-fuel production by burning food items for clean energy
Prof. Sarwar Md. Saifullah Khaled

Bangladesh’s plans to burn grains for fuel is unwise

Bangladesh, already a grain importer, 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 the food deficit country. Early this year the energy ministry officials said in a gazette notification 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 economists, business leaders and environmental experts warned that in a heavily populated country like Bangladesh 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.

The Bangladesh Poultry Industries Coordination Committee, called the move to begin using grain for fuel “suicidal”. It said that much of Bangladesh’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 (US) and Brazil. Therefore, which means rising demand that may cause due to burning food for fuel could mean rising prices. Maize prices will go up if it is used for ethanol production and consequently the price of eggs and chicken will go beyond the reach of common people. It further said that growing concerns about food security have led other countries – including China – to stop giving permission for new bio-fuel projects.

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 tones of broken rice each year – about 3.5 percent of the country’s total production. Alternately the county could produce that amount of the ethanol with 62,000 tones of maize which is 2.8 percent of total maize production or by using 97,000 tones of molasses which is 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 the state minister for energy said that, like other nations, Bangladesh needs to go for greener and use more varied fuels in the future. “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”.

The minister confirmed that the ministry plans to give permission for ethanol production, and then would judge from early experience whether to scale up the experiment. He said that “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 then”. But others warn that Bangladesh has decided to burn food grains to produce ethanol without taking into consideration the food security of its 160 (2011) 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. Experts say that already many people of the country face daily hunger and can manage meals only once or twice a day. According to the Global Hunger Index of the International Food Policy Research Institute, in 2016, Bangladesh ranked in the top 25 percent of the world’s most hungry countries.

As per the country’s Energy Ministry, Bangladesh at present produces about 1.8 million tones of broken rice, about 100,000 tones of molasses and less than half the 6 million tones of maize (i.e. 3 million tones) it needs each year. 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. According to the government Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB), a kilogram of coarse rice was sold at 42 taka (50 cents) in Dhaka in 2017, up 25 percent in price from in 2016. And 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 2017 was 6.8 percent, up from a record low of 3.8 percent in 2016. The World Bank data shows that about 13 percent of Bangladesh’s people fall below the national poverty line of US $2 (nearly below Tk160) per day. According to the country’s food ministry, the country produces about enough rice to meet demand but imported 4.5 million tones of in 2016 to meet demand for that grain. Despite rising demand for food, the 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. He suggested that “If needed, we will produce maize in char lands of the country as raw material for our plant”. He said that Bangladesh needs to turn to renewable energy to keep its environment clean.

But a high official of the Ministry of Agriculture, said creating fuel using maize – which is increasingly being imported to make up for rice and wheat shortfalls – does not seem to make sense. He said that “I do not see any valid reason for using maize and broken rice for ethanol production”. A fellow of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) and a member of the country’s climate change negotiations team also disagreed with the move toward producing ethanol from grain. He also a former vice chairman of the International Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change said that “We have tremendous difficulties in livestock nutrition. If maize is now used to produce ethanol, the cost of livestock production will go up further causing further animal protein deficiency – this is a wrong-headed decision”.

Moreover, 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. When Bangladesh cannot meet basic nutritional need, it does not need to go for clean energy. The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a Dhaka-based think tank, told that it 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.

Over and above, we do not find the necessity, nor we can afford the luxury of switching on to bio-fuel production by burning food item for clean energy in a very low energy consumption and food deficient country like Bangladesh that produces negligible amount of green house gases.  

The country may at the best take recourse to solar energy panel system to meet the growing need for clean energy – which is also, we feel, unnecessary at a large scale which requires extended land space that we can ill afford in our land scarce country at the present level and pace of economic growth of the country.

This poor country’s administration needs to shun the habit of being a victim of the “demonstration effect” of whatever is produced and used in developed countries since still we have a long way to go to reach their level of economic development.     

The writer is a retired Professor of Economics, BCS General

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