India’s ambitious 2025 ethanol roadmap has drawn criticism from experts who warn it could undermine food security in the country. The roadmap largely abandons a focus on second-generation biofuels, in favor of using maize, rice, sugarcane and other food crops as feed stocks for ethanol production.
The Indian government is offering financial assistance to biofuel producers and faster environmental clearances. As such, concerns have been raised that this is resulting in the diversion of food grains meant for the poor to companies at subsidized rates. However, the National Policy on Biofuels, which was adopted by the Union Cabinet in 2018, prioritizes second-generation feed stocks, as well as molasses and surplus grains, to deliver significant emissions reductions in the transport sector without distorting food markets.
The 2025 ethanol roadmap forecasts ample supply and corresponding blending targets. These projections are based in part on surplus grain production in recent years. But it is unclear that those production increases can be sustained. The roadmap estimates that ethanol production from domestic grains will increase a whopping four-fold by 2025, and that ethanol produced from sugarcane will increase more than 2.5 times.
India could turn to surplus rice from the Food Corporation of India (FCI) as feed stock. However, ramping up rice ethanol production to the levels needed to reach 2025 target is highly unlikely during the remaining four-year timeframe. It should be noted that this year, the government allocated 78,000 tonnes of FCI rice for ethanol production, equivalent to roughly 0.4% of 2025 ethanol demand.
Moreover, sugar-based ethanol production targets will also be difficult as India has insufficient ethanol distillation capacity to accommodate surplus sugar. According to a report by The International Council on Clean Transportation, growing sugarcane for ethanol is highly water-intensive. In Uttar Pradesh, sugar mills account for close to a third of wastewater discharge in the region. Although the mill effluent is mostly non-toxic, it can build up organic matter content in waterways, leading to oxygen depletion and drinking water health concerns. Experts say increased water demand to cultivate crops for the fuels sector could exacerbate India’s water scarcity and food security concerns.
Sivramiah (Shanthu) Shantharam, Professor Agricultural biotech at University of Maryland Eastern Shore, US, says it’s the poor who will be affected worse as a result of diverting precious food grains to alternative energy conversion. He pointed out that food security situation in India is precarious.
Stephanie Searle, fuels program director at the International Council on Clean Transportation, believes India has a real opportunity here to become a global leader in sustainable biofuels policy if it chooses to refocus on ethanol made from wastes. “This would bring both strong climate and air quality benefits since these wastes are currently often burned, contributing to smog.”
Ramya Natarajan, an energy researcher at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy in Bengaluru, highlights that the new ethanol policy should ensure that it doesn’t drive farmers toward water-intensive crops and create a water crisis in a country where its shortage is already acute. “With our depleting groundwater resources, arable land constraints, erratic monsoons and dropping crop yields due to climate change, food production must be prioritized over crops for fuel.”
Prabhu Pingali, professor of applied economics and director of the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition at Cornell University, believes competition between the distilleries and the public distribution system for subsidized food grains could have adverse consequences for the rural poor and expose them to enhanced risk of hunger.
With more focus on ethanol, experts also warn this could shift India from a country self-sufficient in grains to one reliant on imports, and would represent a transfer of capital to other countries that are able to expand agricultural production. Besides, the new ethanol roadmap would inflict irreparable harm on climate and the environment globally.