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Editorial - Utilization of biomass as a means for rural development


The justification for United Nations University involvement in a programme for the bioconversion of organic residues for rural communities is to be found at the apex of a tripod as it has three points of support. One is the charge laid upon the University in its Charter to concern itself with "pressing global problems of human survival, development and welfare." A second is the incidence of malnutrition in developing countries, said to account, directly or indirectly, for 6 to 12 million deaths every year. The third is the fact that something on the order of 1,000 million tons of residues per year result from agricultural production in Africa, Asia, and Latin America alone, and that much of this is wasted in that it is not made to realize its potential value as a renewable source of food, feed, or energy.

Quantitatively, the residues fall into three main categories, characterized by a high content of relatively indigestible fibre, as in the cereal straws and forestry products; a high content of starch, as, for example, in the by-products of cassava, and finally, sugar-rich residues from the processing of citrus and other fruits. One feature they have in common is that they are all of low protein content; another is that, given the appropriate conditions, they can all support the growth of micro-organisms that can significantly raise the level of protein in the total biomass.

In addition, there are what might be termed "secondary" residues. These are the excretion products of the several thousand million domesticated animals in the areas under consideration. Their fermentation in the absence of air produces a "biogas" that is rich in methane and is a valuable source of heat, light, and power similar to the natural gas widely used in industrialized countries.

A number of techniques employing fermentation or photosynthetic stages accompanied, where necessary, by chemical or physical treatments may be applied to the residues. All of them will involve the use of micro-organisms such as yeasts, fungi, bacteria, or algae. The intention is, in every case other than for biogas generation, to produce a material of higher nutritional value than the residue from which it was derived.

These are the types of bioconversion that should form the subject of the Joint World Hunger-Natural Resources Programme. An increase at the village level in the supply of food, either directly or via improved animal production, and the provision of a convenient source of light and thermal energy, will aid in rural development. An additional advantage will be a reduction in the environmental pollution now threatening many areas.

It may be asked what role the United Nations University has to play in this. In the broadest terms, it is to ensure that the fruits of existing research-wherever they may be-are made applicable and available to the rural populations and to promote the search for solutions where these are lacking.

As might be expected, the authorities in most of the developing countries are devoting an increasing amount of attention to the problems attendant upon the use of the residues from agriculture and agro-industry. While recognizing the need for research directly relevant to these problems, they do not always have adequate facilities or enough trained people to pursue it with the intensity the situation warrants. They may be unaware of developments elsewhere that could be of assistance in solving their own problems. Through its international contacts with the appropriate scientific and professional organizations, the United Nations University is very favorably placed to act as a collecting and distributing centre for information related to these problems.

The most pressing needs are the identification and evaluation of existing bioconversion projects; the promotion of research at the technological level that can be expected in rural communities; the dissemination of such information as already exists in this field, and the training of selected workers from the developing countries. In addition, via its associated institutes, the University can provide direct technical support in a variety of disciplines to promising projects while these workers are being trained. In this way it can discharge part of the obligation placed upon it by its Charter through the combined and simultaneous actions of its World Hunger and Natural Resources Programmes.

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