Jatropha: Another Bad Path to Biofuels

Jatropha: Another Bad Path to Biofuels
Photo:snake.eyes, Creative Commons, Flickr
With oil at an all-time high of $128 per barrel, and gasoline prices soaring – not to mention double-digit inflation in food prices (4.9 in 2007-08 as compared to the usual 2.1), some consumers are becoming hard-pressed to fuel their bodies or their vehicles.

Biofuels may be the answer, but not as currently practiced in the U.S. and elsewhere. Currently, biofuel production diverts food crops like wheat, soybeans and corn, or plants alternative crops on the same land, reducing food-crop harvests.

In fact, diverting corn from food supplies to biofuel has resulted in a 60-percent rise in cornmeal prices in Mexico over the past few years, making a staple food like corn tortillas almost unaffordable to Mexico’s poorest. One expert estimates that, by 2009 – if all proposed U.S. biofuel plants become operational – U.S. grain supplies for food will be reduced by almost 30 percent. The effect on bread and other staple prices will be inconceivable.

Some have speculated that the use of non-food crops, planted on marginal land useless for food production, could resolve the food and biofuels conflict. Since 2007, a company called ArborGen has been trying to genetically modify eucalyptus trees to reduce lignine content, that stuff that makes it so hard to extract cellulose for bioethanol production. Latin American partners in this attempt (the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, the Catholic University of Brasilia, and the Genolyptus project) project that, if successful, eucalyptus growing on S. American plantations could solve Latin America’s burgeoning fuel crisis.

The danger of these GMO trees is that they proliferate wildly, displacing native species and contaminating native seed and rootstocks by cross-pollination (as is currently happening in China with native poplar trees). Monocultures also use up regional water supplies, displace indigenous people and habitats, and benefit (often government-subsidized) corporations and large landholders at the expense of the poor, whose government-funded social welfare net is depleted by these subsidies. In countries like Brazil, Chile and Argentina, natives forests and savannahs have given way to soy and palm oil plantations, leaving the poor both poorer and landless, and agribusiness giants like Cargill (a private company), Archer Daniels Midland (ADM – $43.35) and Bunge (BG – $124.48) hip-deep in the new wealth of biofuels.

In the U.S., proposed monocultures like jatropha, eucalyptus and palm across the South will have the same effect as in S. America, for several reasons. First, the South is historically an area of depressed economies, where residents are often forced to work at low-paying jobs just to survive. Second, the South’s climate – warm winters and moderate to heavy rainfall – is largely conducive to food crops, which would inevitably be displaced by biofuel crops. Last, the tremendous biodiversity of areas like the Everglades would be seriously impacted by both non-native and GMO species. Look at the damage already done by kudzu, Australian pine and melaleuca.

One company, Terasol Labs, is developing jatropha, a species of euphorbia (a succulent native to Central America) that produces seeds which contain up to 40 percent oil. Jatropha is resistant to pests and drought and grows vigorously in many soil types. In its native habitat it is a weed. Jatropha oil, once extracted, can be used to fuel diesel engines with little or no further preparation or additives. Terasol is not genetically modifying jatropha, but is looking for suitable cultivars via tissue propagation and hybridization. These jatropha strains are maximized for their tolerance to various climates, pest-resistance, and oil yields. In other words, they are being adapted to survive in ways that no native plants can compete with.

In LaBelle, Florida, My Dream Fuel LLC is promoting jatropha, and looking for farmers willing to plant the more than 1 million seedlings currently in the ground at a Hendry County nursery. My Dream’s owner and founder, Paul Dalton (a former attorney and child advocate who has apparently re-evaluated his career choice) plans to open a $1.5 million, 15,000-square-foot seed-processing and plant cloning facility in Fort Myers, Fl. Local environmentalists don’t appear to be opposing jatropha development, and local growers seem keen on the idea of a crop that doesn’t require vast amounts of water or intensive labor. No one seems concerned about cross-species contamination, the destruction of biodiversity, or jatropha’s effect on soils – this latter an unknown quantity.

Money talks, and jatropha is clearly a cash crop. In 10 years or so, when the downside of jatropha cultivation begins showing up as orange trees bearing strange fruit (or none at all) and native plant species are all but wiped off the face of the earth, I probably will be too. This is likely a good thing since I seem to be the only one who has glimpsed the dark underside of this project to fuel gas-guzzling American cars and SUVs made by companies like GM and Ford. Of course, there is always the possibility of changing our driving habits and purchasing decisions based on environmental considerations.

"What experience and history teach is this – that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it." ~ G. W. F. Hegel

Disclosure: I don’t own stock in any of the companies mentioned in this article.

Site Disclaimer