Because of political instability in oil-producing nations and energy consumption in China and the other three BRIC nations -- Brazil, Russia and India -- oil prices have surged in the last 10 years and are now close to US$100 per barrel.
Many countries began renewable energy programs 10 years to 20 years ago. The most successful cases have been Brazil's use of sugarcane, and the US' use of corn to produce ethanol.
Though costs are high, the production of ethanol from sugarcane and corn has sparked new hope for alternative energy at a time when global oil supplies are slowly being depleted.
As for sugarcane, Taiwan has accumulated invaluable experience since the days of Japanese colonization.
Yet despite the threat of oil depletion, the Taiwan Sugar Corporation (Taisugar) has not chosen to produce ethanol from sugar as Brazil has.
Perhaps Taisugar evaluated the situation before it closed its sugar plants. But while the previous evaluation would have been based on oil costing between US$30 and US$50 per barrel, we're now in completely different territory.
There needs to be a new assessment so that fallow land owned by Taisugar, as well as private land owned by farmers, can be used to take advantage of the growing energy crisis.
Owners of fallow farmland are entitled to retain their government subsidies, but they should be required to relinquish the right to use their land so that Taisugar can farm the land on behalf of the government.
The Council of Agriculture should also stop recommending sunflower, soybean, corn and other crops for biofuel.
Since the days of the Japanese occupation, the alternative fuel crops most suitable for growing have been sugarcane and yam.
If Taisugar brings sugarcane production to life again, production by the company's land and other fallow farmland may not be enough. At that time, it might be advantageous for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and private enterprise to expand the cultivation of sugarcane to our diplomatic allies in tropical regions and Southeast Asian locations like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Taisugar has changed its chairman many times and recently there has been news of yet another new official.
Instead of just relying on the hope that the already famous pork and orchid industries will continue to flourish, will the company seize the chance to turn the long unused sugar farms into profitable, ethanol-producing enterprises?
This could be not only a new lease on life for fallow farmland, but also an opportunity to develop an important new source of energy.
Yang Ping-shih is a professor at the College of Bio-Resources and Agriculture at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Angela Hong
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