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Biofuel Expert Allays Food-Shortage Worries

A biofuel expert yesterday rejected an international report claiming that China's plan to produce more biofuels could lead to food and water shortages in the country.

"The report misunderstands China's policy and situation in the area of biofuel production from corn," Li Shizhong, deputy director of the Institute of New Energy Technological Research at Tsinghua University, said. "China has long emphasized the use of non-staple food in making biofuel."

Only about 2 percent of the country's corn output, or about 3 to 4 million tons a year, is used to make ethanol. Much of the rest is used for animal feed.

In their effort to develop biofuel without harming the general food supply, the authorities have said they would shift from corn to sorghum, cassava and sweet potato for fuel production in the next five years.

Cassava and sweet potato are both high-yield plants, and, though edible, they are not used as a staple food. Their use as a raw material would not create any artificial shortages of food products.

The recently released Agricultural Biofuel Industry Plan rules out the expansion of grain-based ethanol production, specifically the corn- and potato-based versions.

Li's comments came in response to a report released yesterday by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), which is based in Sri Lanka.

The report said plans by China and India to increase production of biofuel from irrigated maize and sugarcane would aggravate water shortages and undermine food output.

The report said China's goal of reaching 15 million tons biofuels by 2020, or 9 percent of the nation's gasoline demand, would mean increasing maize output by 26 percent.

"Biofuel production has serious implications for water, especially if corn and sugarcane are used," Charlotte de Fraiture, an IWMI expert, said during a telephone interview.

In response to Li's comments, Fraiture praised China's decision to shift the focus of its biofuel production policies to non-staple foods.

"I think China's efforts to ensure food security by shifting to non-staple foods and policy to cap further corn ethanol plants are very good," she said.

She said the two countries could focus on crops that need less water, such as sweet sorghum for ethanol and jatropha bush and pongamia trees for biodiesel. "There are many factors playing a role in designing a biofuel policy, of which, water is one aspect."

(China Daily October 12, 2007)

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