Can we have our biofuel and eat it too? Obviously not. Which is one reason that the current euphoria in some quarters about corn biofuel is all wet. Corn agriculture is extremely resource-intensive and putting land into corn production for biofuel is raising its price on global markets, to the detriment of the large numbers of poor people for whom it is a dietary staple. In the USA, ethanol production replaces only 3.5% of gasoline needs, but takes up 20% of land devoted to corn production. The surge in corn production also threatens to exacerbate hypoxic “dead zones” by increasing nutrient runoff into estuaries and coastal seas.
So does biofuel still make sense? The answer may lie with other “feedstock” species. Switchgrass still looks promising, as does harvest of wild prairie vegetation, which would have the added benefit of maintaining biodiversity in areas under production.
Now there is a new candidate, which illustrates beautifully the old adage that “a weed is a plant we haven’t yet found a use for.” Jatropha is a poisonous weed originally from Central America that was spread around the world, evidently by Portuguese explorers in the olden days. It now grows wild in Africa, India, and other regions of the developing world, where it is used — if at all — primarily as a natural fence between crop plots and, in the words of one Malian farmer, as “a plant for old ladies to make soap.” It turns out that the seeds are also very rich in oil that appears ideal for biofuel production. According to the New York Times:
“But now a plant called jatropha is being hailed by scientists and policy makers as a potentially ideal source of biofuel, a plant that can grow in marginal soil or beside food crops, that does not require a lot of fertilizer and yields many times as much biofuel per acre planted as corn and many other potential biofuels. By planting a row of jatropha for every seven rows of regular crops, Mr. Banani could double his income on the field in the first year and lose none of his usual yield from his field.
Poor farmers living on a wide band of land on both sides of the equator are planting it on millions of acres, hoping to turn their rockiest, most unproductive fields into a biofuel boom. They are spurred on by big oil companies like BP and the British biofuel giant D1 Oils, which are investing millions of dollars in jatropha cultivation.”
And, from an environmental perspective, here’s the kicker from the Wall Street Journal:
“But unlike other biodiesel crops, jatropha can be grown almost anywhere — including deserts, trash dumps, and rock piles. It doesn’t need much water or fertilizer, and it isn’t edible. That means environmentalists and policy makers don’t have to worry about whether jatropha diverts resources away from crops that could be used to feed people.”
A great example of “biodiversity working for you”. More info on the “soil to oil” program is available from the Centre for Jatropha Promotion.