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November 15, 2009

Unease over jatropha claims grows in Mozambique

Nico Strydom probably knows as much as anyone about jatropha, the poisonous tree whose oily black seeds just might sprout a green energy revolution. But, as the soft-spoken forester admits during a tour of his jatropha fields in central Mozambique, that's not saying much.

"There's a lot of research that needs to be done. Jatropha is a relatively new plant," says Strydom. He looks out over the 10-month-old, 1,000-hectare farm he runs for Sun Biofuels, a British-based company that hopes jatropha will turn African farmland into a fuel source for the 21st century. "If anybody tells you he's an expert on jatropha, he's a liar," he adds.

That knowledge gap is causing some nervousness in Mozambique, an impoverished country with a history of civil war and natural disaster that has made it vulnerable to food shortages. Jatropha enthusiasts say the plant can grow almost anywhere, yielding high outputs of cleaner, renewable energy, without taking quality farmland away from food crops. But sceptics question those claims and argue Mozambique should not grow an inedible biofuel crop when it still struggles to feed all its people.

Indeed, the debate goes beyond Mozambique. The United Nations says the world's food supply needs to grow 70 percent in the next four decades to feed a population expected to reach 9.1 billion. With the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation meeting next week in Rome for a summit on food security, the rest of the world, too, is raising questions about the best uses of farmland in an age when technology and the need for green energy have created tension between food and fuel.

Jatropha is native to the Americas and was long considered a noxious weed, until recent interest in biofuels focused new attention on the plant. The tree produces yellow pods with several seeds inside that, when pressed and processed, yield about 35 percent of their weight in oil. Mixed with traditional fossil fuels, that oil can power cars, trucks and, as an Air New Zealand test flight demonstrated last year, commercial jets.

Companies like Sun Biofuels also say the plant has the power to create jobs and energy independence in developing countries like Mozambique - a vision the government has enthusiastically embraced with plans to dedicate up to 20 percent of arable land to biofuels.

But some farmers and environmentalists aren't convinced. In August, five months after the Mozambican government adopted its biofuels policy, two organisations released a study called "Jatropha! A Socio-economic Pitfall for Mozambique." In it, the groups Environmental Justice and the National Union of Peasants question what they say are "myths" propagated by the jatropha industry and government officials. "Almost all of jatropha planted in Mozambique has been on arable land, with fertilisers and pesticides," the report says. "Jatropha is planted in direct replacement of food crops," it adds. "Given that around 87 percent of Mozambicans are subsistence farmers ... major concerns arise when one considers the plan to encourage (them) to plant large amounts of jatropha."

"It's not like they say, that it can grow anywhere, on any land," says Elias Timosse Panganai, a farmer in the village of Manhane, in central Mozambique, whose family tried unsuccessfully to grow jatropha. "With all that work we did we didn't receive anything. Not even a cent."

Strydom acknowledges there have been "wild claims" about jatropha's invulnerability that may have been over-hyped. But he says there needs to be more research before writing off jatropha. "There's a lot of emotion around jatropha, there's a lot of emotion around biofuels in general. I would prefer to work with facts," he says. "One can, I believe, come to a workable solution."

The Times

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