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A poison named jatropha

A poison named jatropha

In 2007-08, the West woke up to find that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, quite literally. Diverting corn (maize) for ethanol use in the US meant less for food and, hence, higher food prices.

That experience should itself have served as a note of caution for India, and made it consider the fruits of rushing headlong into biofuels without examining all the evidence and assessing all the consequences. But India’s national policy for biofuel in both 2008 and 2009 still waxed enthusiasm.

It’s good, then, that another note of caution came last week. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a sceptical report on jatropha, the plant whose poisonous seeds yield the inedible oil that’s used as biodiesel.

India should be paying attention this time, since jatropha is part of its national biofuel policy. In 2008, India was projected to have around 407,000ha of land under jatropha cultivation, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature; this is expected to go up to 1.9 million ha by 2015. Now, FAO says that this is an unrealistic substitute for oil in developing countries.

It’s perturbing that India embraced such acreage for this crop, considering it knew so little about it. FAO is unequivocal: “Although there have been increasing investments and policy decisions concerning the use of jatropha as an oil crop, they have been based on little evidence-based information…. (The) true potential of jatropha requires separating the evidence from the hyped claims."

The report notes potential risks. First, the crop could prove uneconomical if better varieties aren’t developed. Second, though it doesn’t need much water, the large scale on which biofuels are produced may interfere with local water demand.

Third, jatropha’s selling point, that it can grow on poor degradable land, may not always sell. Growers can’t always extract decent returns from degradable land, forcing them to move on to regular farmland, as the Bangalore-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment found earlier this year. If food crops are being sacrificed for a questionable oil crop, India only risks repeating the West’s 2007-08 food tragedy.

This newspaper has maintained that India needs to explore alternative fuels. But a rush towards them—showering them with subsidies, mandating biofuel blends—without understanding everything is just farce.

What is the future for biofuels in India? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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