African Sorghum for agrofuels: the race is on...

Author: Edward Hammond
About the briefing: The interlocking problems of climate change, emissions from fossil fuels, and limited oil reserves have stimulated interest worldwide in the use of plant crops to produce fuel. Agrofuels are not a new idea. Brazil, for instance, has used them on a large scale for many years. The potential scale of production and use of agrofuels in the coming decades, however, is unprecedented.

Presently, most of the world’s agrofuels are produced from common crops including maize and sugarcane (for ethanol) and soya and rapeseed (for biodiesel). But dozens of companies and public sector plant breeding institutions, funded by private and government investment, are furiously researching other crops that could be optimized for agrofuels. This is in part due to the criticism that has been levelled at production of agrofuels from edible grains, particularly maize, and its effect on food prices.

Sorghum, native to Africa and grown world-wide, is fast emerging as a leader among the “energy crops” and may play a major role in the international agrofuels industry. Seed companies are showing new interest in African farmers’ varieties of sorghum, which may have characteristics useful for industrial agrofuel production. Companies and government plant breeders are making patent and other intellectual property claims over these African seeds. One such company, Ceres Inc, is profiled in this paper, along with its research collaborator, Texas A&M University.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources provides for benefits to accrue to Africa in return for use of its seeds, either housed in gene banks or recently collected in the field. Thus far, however, this Treaty does not appear to be effective in protecting African sorghum.[i] This paper presents an overview of the basic types of sorghum and the different technologies used to extract agrofuels from them. It then examines the secretive research collaboration between the California-based Ceres corporation and Texas A&M University to commercialise agrofuel sorghum seed, which relies on African sorghum without returning benefits to Africa.

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[i] See Hammond, E. 2009. Africa’s Granary Plundered. African Centre for Biosafety.