May 26, 2009

Jatropha and the War on Drugs
With all the depressing talk about corn ethanol and how its allies may yet derail the Waxman/Markey climate change bill, I thought I'd throw out some more positive news on the biofuels front. One of the leading candidates for second generation feedstock is jatropha. It's basically a tree-like weed that grows quickly and doesn't need massive amounts of fertilizer and pesticides. To listen to experts describe it, jatropha sounds like the perfect biofuel feedstock:

The fuel emits almost no greenhouse gases, and the trees can capture four tons of carbon dioxide per acre. Jatropha takes almost no machinery to harvest

Now, jatropha is nothing new and is surrounded by as much controversy as other second gen feedstocks like switchgrass. As has been observed, any crop, food or not, can ultimately displace food crops and contribute to a negative land-use impact. As the UK Guardian points out, jatropha turns out not to do as well as advertised on marginal agricultural land without the use of fertilizers. There's no free lunch with biofuels, if you'll pardon the expression. But here's the twist, what if jatropha is explicitly introduced into particular regions of the world to displace narcotics crops? Two companies mentioned in this article -- one American and one Colombian -- are partnering in order to do exactly that.

Finding alternatives economic systems that can compete with the illicit drug trade is one of the greatest challenges for Colombia. I'm willing to consider jatropha and biofuels if the choice is narcotics and warlords. Now, of course, the two companies involved, Agrasun from the US and Live Systems Technology in Colombia, are very possibly practicing a bait-and-switch. They hold out the possibility of displacing drug crops but instead follow the same path as others and pick the low-hanging fruit of displacing food crops. Still, the notion of displacing coca with jatropha is an intriguing one. Let's hope they (and presumably the Colombian government) pursue this idea and don't just use it to sweeten their press releases.

Photo by R. K. Henning at used under a CC license

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