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Food Vs. Fuel: A Potential Miracle Crop May 15, 2008

Posted by davidzweig in Energy, environment, Oil.
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The bipolar nature of the energy crisis took us down last year (rising oil prices), up at New Years (biofuels!), and back down again (biofuels = starvation). For example, the European Union is being pressed to reconsider aspects of its biofuels mandate as well as certain sources of biofuel (e.g., palm oil), because research indicates allegedly profound negative impacts not only on the environment, but also on food supplies. While that gets worked out, the political imperative of starving citizens is not to be minimized.

Could we be left only with Hobson’s choices? No Plan B?

Welcome, Jatropha curcus. Jatropha is a succulent plant native to South America that needs little water, lousy soil, and little to no fertilizer. It’s poisonous, but the bad news stops there. Its seeds yield 40% oil, which can easily be turned into biodiesel. It’s easily twice as productive as corn for fuel purposes, and needs far fewer inputs.

Jatropha can be intermingled with other crops; a New York Times story tells of a Malian farmer who doubled his income by planting every seventh row with jatropha. The plant halts soil erosion. Jatropha likes two feet of rain in a year, but it can withstand three years of drought by dropping its leaves. Best of all, it can be grown on heretofore unarable land in places like the Sahel.

BP and the British biofuel firm D1 Oils have invested millions of dollars in jatropha cultivation. Governments in India, Cambodia, and other developing nations are pushing Jatropha hard, as a simultaneous solution to energy needs, hunger, soil depletion, and rural poverty. One acre will yield about 325 gallons of biodiesel per year.

June 9-11 the world’s enthusiasts will huddle at the second Annual JatrophaWorld confrence in Miami. It figures to be an interesting event: green sustainability zealots will mingle with sellers of get-rich-quick business plans. So far, the problems with Jatropha include no apparent show-stoppers, only things that can be solved with a bit of research.

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