Sunday, 16 September 2007


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 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.


  1. These links might interest you. :-)

  2. That's all very interesting! As you point out, the use of more clean energies (from the point of view of CO2 emissions) is not necessarily a "good solution" by itself, the problem being both that we consume too much energy, and that these "clean" energies reveal finally to be profitable only for a few —at least as global policies in that matter remain unchanged... I am rather very pessimistical about all these issues: for jatropha as an alternative source of fuel, for example, you are indicating the weak point in the story by the phrase As long as the large multinationals don’t go in and buy up good land for biofuel production (...) Anyway, do you know if there is someone actually interested in investing money to refine jatropha for fuel production, or this is still just under theoretical consideration?

  3. Forget my last question, I've just read in the Wikipedia that jatropha is indeed used in some countries as India and Philippines. There's a place for optimism, after all ! :-)

  4. Thanks for those two excellent links anonymous (Jess?)

    Pablo, it does seem we could be optimistic, but I feel concerned when I read "Energem Resources Inc, a Canadian concern, has announced that it has been granted the right to acquire a further 60,000 hectares of suitable farming land for a jatropha-based biodiesel project in Mozambique." That seems an awful lot of land...


Forethoughts, afterthoughts, any thoughts. Tell me.


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