Biofuels | Friend or Foe

Imagine driving your vehicle with a clear conscience, knowing that the fuel powering the car comes from a renewable source, produces fewer greenhouse gases to contribute to global warming, and has created thousands of sustainable jobs in areas of South Africa where there is little economic potential.

Now imagine thousands of acres of land covered in a plant that sucks up far more of the country's precious water than indigenous vegetation, a plant that no animal can or will eat and four seeds of which can kill a child, a plant that has little economic potential and requires millions of Rand to remove to prevent its spread to new areas, coupled with impoverished rural communities who no longer have any land left to graze their cattle or goats and who are disillusioned by broken promises of work for all.

These are two sides of a coin about to be tossed. The currency at hand is biodiesel, the coin bears the legend Jatropha curcas. Plans have been afoot in South Africa for several years to plant Jatropha curcas, also known as the Barbados nut or the physic nut, in order to extract oil from its seeds to use as biodiesel.

With the rising price of crude oil and the increased emphasis on mitigating global warming, the plant has never looked more attractive to investors. In 2004, a company approached the department of water affairs about planting 15,000ha of Jatropha curcas in the Olifants River catchment in Limpopo Province, allegedly with the blessing of the department of trade and industry and funded through an arms deal offset.

This March the North West provincial government gave R10 million to a bio-diesel pilot project that plans to eventually plant 60,000ha of the trees on communal lands. The idea of planting Jatropha as a biodiesel crop seems firmly entrenched in the minds of economists, but other have serious concerns. Many of these concerns come from research or work in other countries, who have had previous experience with Jatropha curcas.

The plant is a declared noxious weed in parts of Australia, and is classified as a weed in at least eight other countries, and more than one South African botanist has concerns that it will become invasive in South Africa in much the same way as the black wattle and the pine tree can.

Aside from the concerns as to whether it will become an invasive plant, questions have also been raised as to its oil-producing abilities. Jatropha is known to grow in very low rainfall conditions, making it ideal for most of South Africa, as it could potentially be an economic crop in areas of the country where other commercial crops cannot survive without irrigation. However, there appears to be no data as to whether or not it can produce enough oil under these drier conditions to be viable commercially, especially as current plans feature planting it in communal areas rather than commercial farms.

A fuel-from-Jatropha project in Nicaragua was stopped after it was proved to be uneconomic for smallholders. A Malawian USAID-sponsored study rejected Jatropha as a potential oil-producing plant for improving smallholder livelihoods for various reasons, including the fact that "the strength of the market for Jatropha products" was "unfounded".

On the plus side, planting Jatropha would not take land away from the planting of food crops, and would therefore not affect the price of foods. These fears have been raised about other biofuels, such as those produced from maize and soya beans.

While some biofuels, like soya oil, can be placed without modification into diesel engines,a Zimbabwean Jatropha project concluded that Jatropha oil was a flawed diesel substitute. It is also well known not to be suitable as a paraffin substitute for cooking or household use.

However, at present South Africa only plans to blend ordinary diesel with biofuel, for which Jatropha oil would be suitable. In other countries where Jatropha has been grown, the plant's oils have been used more for soap production than for use as a biofuel.

However, Jatropha is poisonous, with the seeds containing both cyanide and a toxin called curcin.The Body Shop International, known for its green policies in producing cosmetics, has been unwilling to use Jatropha-based soap as some researchers have found a compound in the oil that acts as a cancer promoter.When oils are extracted from seeds to make biofuels, they leave behind a high-protein residue in the form of a seed cake.

The sale of these residues, usually as a protein source for animals, goes a long way towards lowering the price per litre of a biofuel. However, with Jatropha, the seed cake could not be used for animal consumption without being treated for the toxic chemicals it contains, and so could only be sold as a fertiliser, which may also pollute.

At present, the Jatropha coin is still up in the air. The Water Research Commission is investigating how much water the plant needs in order to see if it has to be classified as a crop that would need a licence to grow because of the amount of high water consumption.

Other research is also ongoing in KwaZulu-Natal about how Jatropha does in South African conditions. However, the farming magazine Afgriland reports that "plans are on track to plant 1,250ha of Jatropha curcas per year" in Mozambique for biofuel, and South African investors are being actively recruited for the project.

Bua News reports that Mafikeng Biodiesel Pty Ltd is using its funding from the North West provincial government to create a nursery that will produce four million Jatropha seedlings each year. While the Jatropha curcas coin is spinning in the air, will the face it finally shows on landing be influenced by the funding allegedly coming from an arms deal offset or by the weight of research?

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