Photograph RK Henning via Wikipedia
As long ago as a year I first read that the enthusiasm to grow crops to produce fuel may not be as wonderful a revolution as first thought.
It works like this: crops such as maize and sugar cane can be distilled to produce ethanol which emits much less carbon dioxide (CO2) gas than normal fuel, is cheaper to buy and is a renewable source of energy: just plant more of it if you run out. At the same time it could provide employment on farms and in factories, and provide a steady demand.
There are unfortunately some drawbacks
- The land used for fuel production could be used for food production to feed hungry populations.
- South Africa’s maize reserves are at their lowest for five years.
- The increased demand for maize has pushed prices up, which may be good for the farmers but not for the consumers. Prices have been rising even more quickly in food-insecure areas as farmers rush to sell whatever they can. According to IRIN prices in southern Mozambique rose 30 percent over last year, and 50 percent over the past five-year average, limiting food for the majority of the households.
- Biowatch South Africa which promotes organic farming is concerned that the bioethanol industry is so dependent on genetically modified crops.
Jatropha, pictured above and looking remarkably like a fig tree, seems to have many more advantages.
- It will grow in poor and very dry, desert-like, conditions.
- It doesn't need irrigation or suffer in droughts.
- It is fast growing.
- It can be grown between other crops such as coffee, sugar, fruit.
- A tree lasts for about 30 years.
- Because it is poisonous, it is not diverting a source of food.
- It needs little refinement.
Many tropical developing countries have huge amounts of poor semi-arid land that could be used for fuel crops. As long as the large multinationals don’t go in and buy up good land for biofuel production, it seems a good proposition, and several African countries already have large plantations.