Jul 27, 2010

The jatropha scandal bursts. But who will punish the ministers, planners and the researchers who misled on the potential of this crop for bio-diesel?

The warning has come a little too late. The UN FAO has now come out with a special report that 'warns against the hype and half-truths around Jatropha curacas, and oil seed plant touted as a major potential source of biofuels,' says Economic Times (July 26, 2010).

It is amusing to find the FAO is behaving more or less like the way Indian police is normally portrayed in the Bollywood films. In Hindi films, the police invariably arrives after the hero has bashed up the villain, and its task is merely to handcuff the bad guy. Or the police is central to the theme of the film dealing with a corrupt society.

I find the FAO fitting the role very well. Either it joins the chorus with the likes of the chemical and biotech companies in hoodwinking the world to believe that GM crops is the answer to growing hunger, or comes out at the end with a warning when jatropha plantations have already done a huge damage. According to estimates, close to one million hectares of jatropha is being cultivated worldwide.

"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 report said, adding: "identifying the true potential of jatropha requires separating the evidence from the hyped claims and half-truths." I agree. In fact, I had been questioning the claims being projected by the pro-jatropha lobby all these years, but for reasons we know now, they have always fallen on deaf ears. The fault not only rests with the politicians and policy makers but also with the academicians who came out with false studies demonstrating the potential of jatropha as an oil seed crop.

Sometimes back I was participating in a conference in Germany where researchers from several universities showcased their studies about the virtues of jatropha plantations as a fuel crop. This is not the only international conference where scientists came out with empirical findings to tell us the half-truths. This is indicative of the decay that has set in among the educational institutes worldwide. But unfortunately no one seems to be concerned. We will continue to be misled.

I think the FAO would do well if it were to list all those institutes and universities which came out with reports/studies eulogising the potential of jatropha as a fuel crops. At least this will expose the nexus that operates in the name of academic excellence.

Anyway, let us return back to the FAO study. The Economic Times states that the report came two weeks after two researchers at Belgium's University of Leuven said that the crop requires more water than had been thought, and was best suited for small-scale farming in remote areas, where alternative fuel supplies are erratic and expensive. I don't know what is new in this. Several studies in India and elsewhere had pointed to this, but probably we needed an endorsement from a western university to uphold the finding.

Sometimes back, I had quoted a report from The Independent (Feb 15) in these columns: In India, forecasted annual yields of three to five tonnes of seeds per hectare have been scaled back to 1.8 to two tonnes. It quoted Raju Sona, a farmer in north-east India who gave up land that usually produces vegetables to grow jatropha, said: "No one will buy jatropha. People said if you have a plantation then surely you have a good market. But we didn't see such a market. I threw the seeds away."

Way back, in May 2009, I had in a blog posting under the head "Jatropha seeds fuelling another scandal?" brought out how India had put up a jatropha plantation plan without even realising that the crop was not suitable. Foolish as we are, India has planned to bring in a total of 13 million hectares under jatropha plantations by 2013. Will the Prime Minister question the concerned policy makers who came out with this plan recommendations? Why shouldn't they be punished for misleading the nation, and putting in scarce resources where they were not required?

Look at this: "In April 2003, the Planning Commission had initiated a proposal calling for a major multi-dimensional programme seeking to replace 20 per cent of country's diesel requirement. In March 2004, the first instalment of Rs 800-crore for the National Programme on Jatropha was released to 'support cultivation of jatropha in 200,000 hectares'. Under the programme, a total allocation of Rs 1500 crore to cover 400,000 hectares was envisaged for the next five years."

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The ET report further says that the FAO has also punctured the argument that growing jatropha utilizes marginal lands effectively. The level of economic returns needed to secure private sector investment "may not be attainable on degraded land" considering better gross margins which can be gained on sugarcane and oil palm plantations.

Here is the Economic Times report:
Don't fall for jatropha plants, warns UN body

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