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The Guardian (UK): Seeds of hope: There’s mounting concern in the north about the headlong rush into biofuels…

Seeds of hope: There’s mounting concern in the north about the headlong rush into biofuels, but the view from the south is very different. Terry Slavin on how the jatropha plant is holding out hope to some of the world’s poorest countries

Published: Jun 27, 2007

On the southern edge of the Sahara desert, seeds of hope for a renewable energy revolution in Africa are beginning to bear fruit.

Seven hundred Malian villages are now using diesel oil distilled from the seeds of the jatropha bush to light up their homes, run water pumps and refrigerate medicines.

Mali, 60% covered by the Sahara desert and one of the 10 poorest countries on earth, sees the jatropha as a lifeline. Not only are plantations of the inedible bush, which grows in even the most arid soil, helping to beat back the encroaching desert, the west African state hopes to eventually meet all its power and transportation needs with it.

And Mali is not alone. The Indian government has said it may in future be able to substitute fossil fuels with the plant.

Amid headlines about Mexicans rioting against high maize prices and the wholesale destruction of Indonesian rainforests to plant palm oil, there is mounting concern in the west that the headlong rush into biofuels is creating more environmental and social damage than it solves.

But Brazil’s president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is a passionate defender of sugar cane production for ethanol, saying it helps rural economies without eating into agricultural land.

And many other countries believe that biofuels that do not compete with food, such as the jatropha, could offer an unprecedented opportunity to reduce poverty and create energy security – a powerful consolation prize for those at the sharp end of climate change.

Samantha Lacey, responsible shareholding analyst at Cooperative Insurance and author of a report on biofuels released last month, says biofuels hold great potential, both to western investors and the developing world, if they are developed sustainably.

But the industry, which has been expanding exponentially because of subsidies both in Europe and the US, is on shaky ground. “The sector is highly dependent on government support to be viable everywhere, apart from Brazil,” says Lacey. “In Europe the driver is climate change, yet the majority of current growth in the sector isn’t prioritising greenhouse gas emissions.”

Biofuels produced using some crops, such as corn, can emit more CO2 than they save because they require huge amounts of electricity to process them. And the chopping down of rainforest and burning of peat land for palm oil production is wrecking untold climactic damage.

Then there are the greenhouse gases emitted by fertilisers, both in the fossil fuels used in their production and in the nitrous oxide they emit when spread on land, the CIS report says.

And that is even before you get to the impacts on the developing world of rising prices of basic food commodities such as corn, wheat and cooking oil, which is set to increase dramatically as US consumption of biofuels doubles over the next 18 months.

Solving the food versus fuel conflict is the holy grail of the biofuels industry, and companies such as Shell are investing heavily in research into what is known as the second generation of biofuels. In future, energy will be derived from all plant matter, including grasses and wood, using every part of the plant, and carbon footprints will drop dramatically.

But commercial availability is 10 years away and, in the meantime, there is a need to make existing biofuels sources more sustainable, says Lacey.

“Jatropha is still in its development phases, but it has fantastic potential because it does not compete with food, it can grow on marginal land, and does not require chemicals. And the way it’s being developed at the moment by some companies is among small coops rather than by large landowners.”

BP earlier this year invested $10m in a jatropha project in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, where the crop will be grown for biodiesel on 8,000 hectares of wasteland. But the biggest jatropha investor by far is AIM-listed D1 Oil, which has planted 156,000 hectares in countries across Africa, India and south-east Asia, either on its own or in partnership with governments and farmers’ cooperatives.

The bush can grow 30 degrees on either side of the equator and has the potential to help some of the poorest countries in the world address both rural development and fuel security problems, says D1 spokesman Graham Prince.

“Jatropha grows in countries where there is big demand for fuel, such as India, and in countries where the agricultural economy has been neglected. A lot of areas in Africa have lost their agricultural base completely because of subsidised exports from the west.”

In Mali, where 80% of the population is rural, the government hopes jatropha can provide local and cheap energy to all its 12,000 villages. And India calculates it could meet all its demand for diesel if jatropha was grown on all available wasteland, says Prince.

It will be 18 months before the first substantial plantings of the crop will bear fruit, said Prince. “But we think, if we get it right, we could land it in the UK at $500 a tonne,” meaning it would be competitive with palm oil.

Robert Bailey, policy adviser for Oxfam, has concerns about biofuels. While they have the potential to give a badly needed boost to agriculture, earn foreign exchange, and reduce dependency on oil for the poorest countries, the potential for environmental and social damage are just as great. He worries about how sustainable even jatropha will remain if it is adopted on a large scale.

“Jatropha is touted as a wonder feedstock because it’s grown on marginal land, but you get much better yields if it’s on prime agricultural land,” he says.

Ed Matthews, biofuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth, is concerned that people in developing countries could end up cutting down forests to plant it. “I’m not against any crop, per se, even palm oil. The issue is how the commodity is handled.”

Prince says D1 has not done any publicity about jatropha because it wants to first prove its sustainability credentials. The last thing the company wants is to be tarred with the same brush as palm oil. With all the recent bad press, Prince says, the industry risks a consumer backlash.

“What concerns us as a company is that unless the industry can get sustainability right, biofuels will be the next wind farms.”

Energy revolution: the seeds of the jatropha bush, which grows in even the most arid soil, are being used as a renewable energy source in Mali, Africa and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

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