China’s relationship with biofuels is a curious one. The president of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Zhai Huqu, has said that using grain to produce biofuels would be a disaster – it would take food from the mouths of a hungry nation.
He’s right, in a round-about way. Growing demand (and soaring prices) for grain is being driven by growing demand for livestock feed as the Chinese are eating more meat.
So why not grow sorghum, the sugar-based energy crop, instead? Because there is not enough land available, that’s why.
China has to feed 21% of the world’s population off only 10% of the world’s arable land and water resources one quarter the world’s per capita average.
At every turn, there seems to be an argument against biofuels yet the government wants to up its ethanol production from 1 million metric tons (in 2005) to 6 million tons by 2010 and 10 million tons by 2015.
Will this be another of those sweeping national goals that flounder in the face of practicality?
One possible solution is a hybrid of the US model, in which grain is used for ethanol production as a means of insurance – if there is a bumper crop, the surplus is used for fuel rather than put to waste, and the farmers still get to take home a profit.
Surplus grain in China may not be found easily but, in a rural infrastructure that lacks sophistication, grain that is sub-standard or decays before it can be transported to the marketplace must be in plentiful supply.
Of course, then it’s just a matter of making fuel ethanol affordable without massive state subsidies … rise in the price of oil, anyone?