( AFP ) - The growing promotion of environmentally-friendly biofuels is raising questions for Africa: are such fuels a threat to food security or a golden opportunity to cut down on fossil fuel bills.
Some 300 experts from the continent and further afield in the Americas and Europe, gathered earlier this month in the impoverished capital of the non-oil producing west African nation of Burkina Faso to debate the pros and cons of biofuel generation on the continent.
"No matter what we say, today biofuels represent a pragmatic solution in light of the energy problems in relation to soaring oil prices," said Paul Ginies , managing director of the Ouagadougou-based International Institute for Water and Environment Engineering.
Generation of biofuels could help provide solutions to transport costs and reduce expenditure on energy in rural areas by between 30 and 40 percent, argued Ginies .
Biofuel farming should not be perceived as being in competition with food production and other types of agriculture, he stressed.
"These two types of production are very well reconciliable . Our ambition is that they can help one another," Ginies said, noting that biofuel byproducts could serve as livestock feed or fertiliser for food crops.
But Moussa Hassane , managing director of the National Institute of Agronomy Research in Niger, insisted that Africa should be wary of the sudden interest in biofuels .
"Why the particular interest in biofuel production now in Africa? Africa has always been a leading raw material reserve tank for the West," he said.
" Africa constitutes the ideal site for the production of biofuels . But of what benefit is that to the continent? Could that be done without posing a danger to food production," he asked.
Maurizio Cocchi of an Italian renewable energies non-governmental organisation Energy Transport Agriculture also urged caution.
"I am happy that African countries understood ... the environmental risks and threats to food security related to biofuel production. There are still uncertainties that would require research," he said.
Daniel Ballerini , of a French bio-energy development research institute Enerbio , suggested that biofuels be reserved for certain limited uses.
" Biofuel does not have have to be used for transport (vehicles), it should be used, for example, in tractors' engines. I am not for the use of biofuels in cars as long as the problem of food security remains," he said.
"We should not use good land for the production of energy, we should cultivate biofuel crops on land that is less favourable for food crops," he said.
Experts elsewhere see the growing demand for biofuels coupled with the high prices of fossil fuel having a dramatic impact on millions of people, especially in Africa where food prices are beyond the reach of many.
Escalating food prices have affected almost every nation on the continent, so far sparking violent protests in parts of West Africa, home to the greatest number of the world's most poverty-stricken countries.