Planting biofuel crops in Africa need not damage capacity to grow food and could even enhance food security, according to a controversial review prepared for the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA).
The report, with case studies on six countries in East, West and southern Africa, concludes that bioenergy production can expand across the continent and provide income and energy to farmers without displacing food crops.
Potential conflicts between bioenergy and food needs can be addressed with the right approaches, said Rocio Diaz-Chavez, a researcher at Imperial College, London, and lead author of 'Mapping Food and Bioenergy in Africa', launched at the 5th African Agricultural Science Week in Burkina Faso at the end of July.
"If approached with the proper policies and processes and with the inclusion of all the various stakeholders, bioenergy is not only compatible with food production but can greatly benefit agriculture in Africa," said Diaz-Chavez, citing the benefits of investment in land, infrastructure and human resources.
The report's conclusions were drawn from a review of existing research and case studies of biofuel production and policies in Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, Tanzania and Zambia. It found there is enough land to allow a significant increase in the cultivation of sugar cane, sorghum and jatropha for biofuels without decreasing food production.
But the report has triggered mixed responses from farmer groups and research institutions.
Monty Jones, executive director of FARA, cautioned that Africa should not trade food security for biofuel production.
"We need to keep the land for food rather than raise crops for energy," he told SciDev. Net. "We have the big task of increasing agricultural production by six per cent. Governments need to come up with appropriate policies on such issues. "
Namanga Ngongi, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa said the continent has a food deficit and should prioritise food ahead of biofuels.
And Philip Kiriro, president of the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation, added that international investors in biofuels do not take local food security into account, which is likely to result in food shortages.
Meanwhile, some countries are already planting biofuel crops. Senegal, for example, plans to have 321,000 hectares of land under jatropha by 2012 to help meet the country's energy needs and increase the income of farmers.
"We are going for both," said Macoumba Diouf, director general of the Senegalese Agriculture Research Institute.
"We need low-cost energy to drive our agriculture and at the same time ensure that our farmers grow food and earn income from growing jatropha on a contract basis. "
Ibrahim Togola, a professor at Mali's Rural Polytechnic Institute, said politicians need to understand that Africa's agricultural revolution depends on access to modern energy services.
During discussions of the report at the science week, participants called for a broader conversation on how to meet the energy needs of African farmers.