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Matilde Ngovene, whose land was taken by a biofuels comapany, Mozambique

Matilde Ngovene, whose land was taken by a biofuels comapany, Mozambique. Photo: James Oatway/Panos/ActionAid

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Jatropha is no miracle plant for hungry farmers

Meredith Alexander

15th February, 2010

Everyone wants an alternative to fossil fuels, but in our rush to develop biofuel alternatives, we risk creating even worse problems for ourselves

Climate change presents a fundamental challenge to our way of life. Western economies are hooked on oil and almost every sector is implicated in carbon pollution. It would be so much easier to solve climate change if we could cut the carbon without changing our lifestyles. A fuel that makes cars carbon neutral and allows us to fly guilt-free is the Holy Grail for energy research.

For a brief shining moment, this was the promise of biofuels: plants would provide low carbon fuels to meet our transport needs. Industrial biofuels, produced from intensively grown crops, became the hottest idea around and are still being peddled by businesses who see it as a way to maintain the status quo.

EU rules

Petrol and diesel sold in the UK must contain about three percent industrial biofuels by law. Industrial biofuels are already used by countries as diverse as Belgium and Brazil, and many countries are planning to significantly increase their use. The European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive is likely to see members like the UK tripling their biofuel use in transport by 2020.

Yet industrial biofuels are more expensive than fossil fuels. They are subsidised by regulations, tax benefits and other incentives. Governments are footing the bill because they have swallowed the claim that industrial biofuels will reduce greenhouse emissions from transport. Perhaps the most extravagant claims are made for jatropha, an otherwise unprepossessing plant from Central America.

Jatropha seeds contain non-edible oil that can be refined into biodiesel. Jatropha is sold to the unwary as a miracle plant that can help tackle climate change. Increased incomes for poor farmers in tropical countries and great returns for investors are also part of the fantastical package.

Worse than fossil fuels

This flies on the face of a growing body of evidence (see page 27 of Meals per Gallon) which shows that over the entire production process many industrial biofuels have higher emissions than the fossil fuels they are supposed to replace, and that such biofuel use actually makes life harder for poor people in the developing world.

Miracles don’t grow in trees. The initial idea behind biofuels and jatropha - grow a plant to absorb carbon dioxide, burn it for energy, grow it again to absorb the carbon - is just too simplistic. Fertiliser use emits nitrous oxide, one of the most powerful greenhouse gasses. Ploughing fields to plant seeds in itself releases carbon dioxide. Most importantly, growing jatropha and other industrial biofuels means finding good quality farmland. And as humanity attempts to grow ever more crops, we have to cut down more forests or encroach on other carbon rich habitats.

Causing hunger

Locally, non-edible industrial biofuels can be as much to blame for rising hunger (see pages 21 and 24 of Meals per Gallon) as biofuels made from wheat or corn. Jatropha supposedly grows on marginal land. In reality marginal land produces only marginal yields, so jatropha is increasingly being gown on fertile agricultural land, competing directly with food crops for space.

Jatropha and other industrial biofuels can also have devastating impacts locally. On a recent trip to Northeast India, I met farmers and owners of small businesses all lured into growing jatropha by promises of miraculous profits. No one I spoke to had actually seen any income, but everyone had lost their investments of cash, land or labour. In West Africa, there are small scale farmers who have been pushed off the land that sustained them entirely by jatropha plantations.

Fuel or food?

Global food prices skyrocketed in 2008, making almost 100 million more people hungry. Now over one billion people, a sixth of humanity, don’t have enough food to eat. Industrial biofuels played a massive role in those food price rises. As even more crops are turned into biofuels, the problem will snowball. By 2020, an additional 600 million people could be hungry because crops are being diverted into fuel.

The all too prosaic truth is that jatropha suffers from the same problems that afflict other industrial biofuels. Using crops to fuel cars increases hunger while failing to help stop climate change. We can no more spin corn into carbon neutral energy than the miller’s daughter can turn straw into gold. And whilst magic beans may grow in fairytales, farmers and investors alike should be wary of anyone who peddles jatropha as a miracle plant.

Useful links
'Meals per Gallon' ActionAid report

Meredith Alexander is head of trade and corporates at ActionAid UK

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