This one almost seems too good to be true, which will, of course, bring the skeptics out. But I don’t see too much wrong with an initiative that addresses deforestation, land degradation, malnutrition, poverty, indoor pollution, and one of the leading causes of death across a vast area with one integrated solution that reduces carbon emissions at the same time.
The culprit is the charcoal cook stove. Poor farmers strip forests in order to create charcoal from wood, which produces a meager income at best, leaving them unable to afford to feed their families. The smoke from these charcoal stoves, which are used indoors, contains carbon monoxide and other deadly combustion products leading to 2 million worldwide deaths each year, as many as HIV/AIDS.
By sustainably growing crops such as soybeans and cassava, African farmers can produce food as well as much cleaner-burning ethanol cooking fuel, while preserving the forest and improving the local economy in the process.
The problem of charcoal cook stoves has been known for some time. It attracted the attention of the EPA, the UN Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative last year when they joined forces to form the public-private partnership called Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
The following successful approach took not only the cookstoves, but the entire system into account, including the fuel and the way it was produced. This project was initiated in Mozambique by CleanStar Ventures, a venture development partnership working in conjunction with Danish biotech company Novozymes.
By providing a new sustainable business model for the rural communities who sell charcoal, this effort benefits the people, their communities and the forests surrounding them. The crops will produce both food and bio-ethanol which can be used in clean-burning ethanol stoves that are not only cleaner and safer, but also far more convenient to use.
The crops will be processed in a central facility in Dondo, which will produce food, feed and fuel from the harvest. The food will be distributed mainly in local markets and the fuel and surplus food will be distributed in the capital city Maputo where they hope to garner as much as 20% of the charcoal market over time. This will increase the income of the farmers by as much as five times what they made supplying charcoal and with far less damage to people and planet.
CleanStar also has ventures incubating in Australia and Brazil. According to their website,
The ventures in our portfolio typically span the food and energy value chains and capture significant competitive advantages from the integration of low-input and biodiverse agroforestry or silvipastoral systems with innovative bioprocessing and end-use technologies, so as to cost-effectively deliver sustainable new solutions for human and animal nutrition, Base-of-the-Pyramid household cooking, industrial process energy, and alternative liquid fuels.
Novozymes, on the other hand,
offers the leading technology platform for bioethanol production, and has invested heavily in the development of next-generation cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel and biogas technologies. Novozymes plays an integral role in the move towards sustainable agriculture, with enzymatic pesticides, microbial yield and fertility enhancers assisting farmers to enjoy healthier crops and higher yields.
Novozymes is involved in a partnership with several other biotech firms including Monsanto. They clearly state on their website that they support “the safe and sustainable use of gene technology in industrial processes, agriculture and health care.”
Given this, I would have thought that Novozymes would have used this venture as an opportunity to spread their GMO technology
However, according to Sagun Saxena, Managing Director of CleanStar Ventures, ” GM technology has no role to play in this system. Our whole agricultural system has been designed to be low-tech and low-input, and therefore inherently more sustainable and scalable. ”
And since this venture is actually majority–owned and controlled by CleanStar Ventures, they get to make that call.
[Image credit: urbangarden:Flickr Creative Commons]
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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