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MANILA, Jun 22 2008 (IPS) - The jatropha plant may be the key to addressing the problems of energy and food self-sufficiency in the Mekong region. Cultivating this hardy plant will not only provide biofuel but will also ensure that agricultural lands devoted to food production will not be diverted to fuel crops.
"Planting jatropha is commercially viable. The main advantage of jatropha is that you can plant it even in idle lands," according to Mercedita A. Sombilla, who is conducting an Asian Development Bank (AsDB)-funded study on the development of the biofuel industry in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS). The GMS is composed of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and the southern part of China.
Jatropha – first cultivated in South America – is resistant to drought and pests, its seeds contain up to 40 percent oil. The crushed and processed seeds oil can be used in a standard diesel engine and the remaining biomass can be used to power electricity plants.
In a report Sombilla presented at the recent AsDB forum, she identified jatropha, along with cassava and sweet sorghum, as having the most potential to be developed as sources for biofuel. Ample land and labour resources combined with favourable weather conditions are some of the factors that can help not only in mass cultivation of jatropha, but also other fuel crops in GMS, Sombilla said.
The development of the biofuel industry is one of the key concerns of growing Asian economies, most of which depend on imported oil to meet rising energy demand. The International Energy Agency forecasts that by 2030, Asia’s consumption will rise by 112 percent and account for 36 percent of world’s energy consumption. But the skyrocketing prices of oil, currently at a record high of over 130 dollars per barrel, combined with growing concerns over climate change – power plants powered by oil boost carbon emissions – have pushed most Asian economies to look for alternatives to fossil fuels. Biofuels can reduce both their carbon emissions and dependence on imports.
In the GMS, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar are now using palm oil, sugarcane and fish oil as biofuel. Only Thailand, however, has a comprehensive strategy on biofuel development. The National Biofuels Committee invests in financing, research and marketing of biofuel.
The problem is, biofuel has also been blamed for the recent food price hikes. Subsidies – like those provided by the U.S. government to promote the biofuel industry – encouraged farmers to cultivate corn and sugarcane for biofuel production. This crimped global food supply and pushed up food prices.
"If the current biofuel expansion continues, calorie availability in developing countries is expected to grow more slowly; and the number of malnourished children is projected to increase," says Mark W. Rosegran, director of the environment and production technology division at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute.
A massive shift from food to fuel crop cultivation might not only endanger food security in the GMS, but can also disrupt global food supply as the GMS is home to some of the world’s biggest agricultural exporters. Thailand and Vietnam are among the world’s biggest producers and exporters of rice, sugar, cassava and coffee.
"We don’t have enough land to accommodate both food and fuel crops. We can’t sacrifice food for fuel," said Kan-ichiro Matsumura, visiting researcher at Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies. Matsumura believes jatropha is one fuel crop that won’t compete with food crops for fertile lands.
Unlike other fuel crops like corn and sugarcane, jatropha can thrive even in idle lands and don’t require much water. Jatropha is also easy to plant and is touted to bring in additional income for farmers.
India is a very strong advocate of jatropha as biofuel source. The Indian central government has commissioned research to look into jatropha's potential as a fuel source and has ordered state-run oil companies to buy jatropha-made biodiesel. India’s local governments also hand out free saplings to farmers.
Sombilla cautioned that intensive research must be done first, before any government can encourage large-scale jatropha cultivation. She has heard reports that jatropha’s oil yield is not that much and earnings realised from jatropha planting may not be worth energy production inputs. In Laos and Cambodia, it will be difficult to cultivate jatropha on a large sale as most of the unused land areas are small plots scattered all over the country.
More important, Sombilla said that there is a need for each country and the GMS as a whole to craft a comprehensive strategy that will promote production, use and cross-border trading of jatropha and other fuel crops. This is one strategy that is sorely needed amidst the raging debate of food versus fuel crops, she says.
"There is a tendency for farmers to shift to fuel crops because the prices of fuel crops are higher than food crops. So we need to strengthen the food market economy," Sombilla said. This is why, it is important for the government to intervene and prevent food crops from being sacrificed to fuel. "The government should provide more support services to farmers," Sombilla said.
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