Ethanol Production: is fear of water shortage and soaring food prices justified??

By: Ahmed Alhaj (Site Admin)

 The expansion by the government in the production of ethanol from sugar caner has stirred a controversy, particularly after a decision by Minister of Industry, Dr Awad Ahmed al-Jaz, week providing for formation of a committee for the development of ethanol industry as part of a plan aimed at the development of sugar industry and other sugar-related industries.

Although the decision comes within a comprehensive plan for expansion in sugar cane plantation and augmenting opportunities of industrial investment, viewpoints have been aired emphasizing the need for reconsideration of this plan prior to implementation on grounds that expansion in the sugar cane plantation might lead to water shortages. In addition, fears were pronounced that the ethanol production expansion might lead to hikes in food prices and to threatening food security.

According the ministerial decision, the committee which is formed from the ministries of Energy and Industry and Giad Motorcars and Kenana companies, is tasked with carrying out technical and economic studies, examining the available alternatives and benefiting from the future sugar project to get an added value of the sugar industry. The committee is also instructed to consider benefiting from molasses of those projects, developing the ethanol industry and mobilizing the available expertise and possibilities with an eye to pushing the Sudanese industry forward.

The anxiety that accompanied this ministerial decision was heightened by the fact that ethanol was behind the increasing demand for the basic agricultural crops in the recent years. Ethanol production at present consumes 7% of the world's coarse grains produce (this will rise to 12% by 2018), 9% of the world's oil seeds produce (up to 2% by 2018) and 2% of the word's cultivated lands (up to 4% by 2030). 

Although the development of ethanol production is primarily aimed at the provision of a cheap and clean energy, this opinion has now become a bone of contention, bearing in mind the side-effects of this industry, including the pollution that accompanies the production process, consumption of huge quantities of agricultural produce used for food thus threatening to cause an acute food crisis. Some experts consider offering support to farmers for growing crops for ethanol, instead of food, as "a criminal act".

 The tendency for intensive use of ethanol in the world followed the climate summit in that was held in Canada in 2006 when former US President George W. Bush declared that the United States alone is capable, its the scientific and technological superiority, of producing diverse sources of energy that can be used without emitting toxic gases or aggravating the greenhouse phenomenon.

 The UNCTAD debate on ethanol has shown that it is a real alternative to some nations for diversification of the sources of energy and economy under the soaring oil prices. It called for a further discussion and analysis of the actual data on ethanol instead of approval of some political statements.

 The discussions criticized plans by the US for using food crops as a fuel for the big American motorcars, a matter which is believed to aggravate the food burden of poor peoples and raise the rates of hunger and poverty around the world.

 Although a Word Bank report has not concluded that ethanol was not the only factor of raising the food prices, the report concluded that the increase in ethanol production has contributed to the rise in food prices. World Bank President Robert Zolek has warned that the redoubled food prices in past three years might drive 100 million people in the low-income countries into further poverty.

 The report indicated that the concern with petroleum, energy security and climate change has made the government increase their production and use of ethanol, a matter which raised the demand for new materials, including wheat, soya-beans, sorghum and palm-oil.  


Before speaking about the ethanol issue in Sudan, there are important questions that must be answered first- in the words of Dr. Taj al-Sir Beshir Abdullah, member of the consultants' council of the environment sector of the Council of Ministers. The most important of these questions, according to Dr. Abdullah, are: "Are we in need of ethanol at the present time? With regards to the food security, do we produce our food or import it? Do we import food and produce ethanol? Do we have the vehicles that operate with this fuel?


The consultant adds: It may be a strategic idea that is acceptable in the future; on the medium or long-term, but is it a present priority? Does its production affect the present dire food demands or doesn't it? This issue requires a study and an economic and social assessment to build on.

 Dr. Abdullah says: The Sudan possesses tremendous natural resources and the production of ethanol would not affect those resources, particularly as it is a by-product that gives out clean energy with acceptable environmental results and contributes to cutting down the rate of emission of carbon dioxide which is emitted by the fossil fuel.

I am not against the idea, but not now; it must be studied first and expansion in its production should not be at the expense of other environmental resources, the consultant said. As for sugar, its need for water in very high, he said, suggesting that other plants can be grown in arid, infertile and unirrigated lands that do not need much water, like sally plant which can be planted on the Red Sea coast and be irrigated from the sea water; and it has a high rate of oil.

 Dr. Abdullah said the current discussion outside the Sudan must be brought into the country, especially the discussion being held within the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on growing ethanol – produce ethanol and be committed to the environment or make food available.

 FAO says that international food crisis which has begun to constitute a real danger to the humanity is due to the sharp rise in the prices of food-stuffs against the low production of wheat and rice, in particular, as a result of the climatic changes of droughts and floods, in addition to the human explosion and scarcity of the natural resources against the use of those resources in the production of ethanol.

 The dedication of an international food day, which is observed this under the theme "together for fighting hunger", was made in an attempt to overcome hunger, poverty and malnutrition now that the people under poverty line have approximately reached one billion in number world-wide.

FAO General Director Jack Dioff stressed that the international food imports invoice might exceed a trillion US dollars in 2010, a figure that was not reached since the record price peak of 2008. This situation might cause grave repercussions on such countries as the Gulf States which import the greater portion of their demand of food.

 In November 2010 the international food security committee called for taking substantial measures with regards to the main issues of relevance to the food and nutrition security, including ownership of land plots, international agricultural investment, and fluctuation of the food prices and failure of addressing the food security issues during the crises.

 Dr. Asem al-Maghreby, expert and environment activist, said ethanol is a fuel that is a friend of the environment and reduces the emission of lethal gases and therefore reduces the global heat and, in addition to that, it saves the foreign currencies the state needs for other projects.

However, he said the problem whether the objective is only the production of ethanol and not the production of sugar and benefiting from its residuals.

 He added that expansion in the sugar cane plantation is not in the interest of the Sudanese economy because it consumes a lot of water which should be utilized for the production of other important food crops which consumes less water.

 The National Coordinator on Drought and Desertification in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Salah al-Dinne Abdullah al-Obeid, said the Sudan is not in need of ethanol which is derived from sugar can, although it is an environment-friendly fuel and saves foreign currencies, because it is based on sugar cane which consumes large quantities of water and thus minimizes the chances of growing other crops. Expansion of sugar cane plantation for this purpose reduces the country's water reserve, said Obeid, adding: "we don't have cars that use this fuel".

 He said the lands which will be used for this purpose can be cultivated with other crops that will promote the food security. The problem of energy in Sudan can be solved by exploiting the tremendous solar energy if the necessary technology and funds are provided, Obeid said, adding that the country would thus be free of any energy pressures.


The National Coordinator said while sugar cane plantation costs the country a great deal, the solar energy on which the Sudan could rely, nation-wide, is inexpensive and causes no damage. He also said the wind energy could also be exploited, but only in the north because he said the wind speed in the south and center of the country is not high enough to produce energy.

 The General Manager of Kenana Company for Engineering and Technical Services, Mulhim Mohamed al-Hassan, defends the production of ethanol from sugar cane by saying that the ethanol industry mainly relies on the sugar industry residuals of molasses which Kenana consumes a portion and exports the bigger portion of it. Therefore, it is not at the expense of food production in Sudan. The food shortage is primarily due to the decline in the production operations which, in turn, reduce the productivity and the yield per feddan (hectare).

The average return for a cubic meter of water for sugar cane has exceeded 10,000 US dollars per feddan which is much higher than that of cotton which is 1,500 US dollars per feddan, Hassan said.

 He added that the production of ethanol comes in the context of a comprehensive strategic plan for sugar production which is an independent activity, a train which offers opportunities infrastructures for many other convertible industries. Moreover, it provides work opportunities and thus contributes to the economic and social development in general, increases the non-petroleum exports and saves foreign currencies badly needed by the state.

 Hassan also considers ethanol as a friend of the environment because; first it helps in getting rid of the residuals of the industry and, secondly, reduces the emission of the greenhouse gases. He said all sugar projects must be approved by High Council for Environment.

 He pointed out that 30 tons of sugar cane yields 3 tons of molasses while one ton of molasses produces only 260 litres of ethanol. Kenana Company annually produces 400,000 tons of sugar, 65 million litres of ethanol and 100,000 tons of fodders, Hassan said.



Not long ago, many people considered ethanol as the final solution to many arising problems that accompanied the reliance on machines in transport and movement, especially under the limitations of the global reserve of fossil fuel like petroleum and coal and the harmful gases they emit, such as carbon dioxide which was to blame for the greenhouse phenomenon which is predicted to cause catastrophic climatic changes. The plants from which ethanol is produced constitute an inexhaustible, renewable source, in addition to the fact that those plants consume large amounts of carbon dioxide during the process of assimilation which is necessary for growing. Theoretically, this means that what is produced from carbon dioxide during combustion of ethanol will be assimilated once more by the natural process of producing this fuel.


Those people say that ethanol many merits, including:


  1. The pollution it causes is less than that caused by benzene, if it is mixed by 85% with the motorcar benzene the emission of the greenhouse gases from the exhausts will be reduced by 91% compared to using benzene alone.

  2. It is capable of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during its production.


  1. Its low cost of production and cheap price; in Brazil, the total const of production is 0.17 dollars a litre and is sold for 50% of the benzene price; the International Energy Agency indicates that the production of this ethanol fuel does not exceed 25 cents a litre, making it of a high competition against the petroleum fuel in the long run.

  2.  Governments consider these modern technologies as opening up new ways reducing dependence on imported petroleum, curbing the emission of the greenhouses gases and enhancing local farming.


  However, there are several studies which indicating other negative impacts for the production of ethanol from the agricultural crops. With regards to the advantage connected with carbon dioxide, several studies have shown that the rate reduction in the production of this gas is not as predicted at first, due to the great differences in the methods of production and the kind of plant, where it will be grown, how it is harvested and other factors. This was confirmed by several reports during last few years.

 Those reports concluded that ethanol, in many cases does not dramatically reduce the carbon dioxide emission. The promotion for dependence on ethanol on grounds of its advantage of lessening the emission of carbon dioxide has politically and scientifically slackened the search for new transport technologies that consume fuel efficiently and produce fewer harmful gases.

     It seems that the other negative impacts of ethanol on the ecosystems have not been taken in account. These impacts include the destruction of rain forests, and felling trees and plants, like what has happened in Southeast Asia, to be replaced by oil palms, which are a major source of the production of ethanol. This has in many cases accelerated the destruction of the forests by affecting the ecosystem diversity; as they used to contain hundreds and thousands of different kinds of flora and fauna and are now replaced by only one or two kinds of plants and have become unsuitable habitat for animals which used to live in them in the past.

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