(Beyond Pesticides, September 13, 2007) As the debate rages on the impacts of growing plants, including food crops, for biofuel, the environmental impacts of growing practices and energy costs are consistently raised with concern. University of Minnesota scientists, in releasing a report, “Environmental, economic, and energetic costs and benefits of biodiesel and ethanol biofuels,” in the July 15 2007 online Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, say that an analysis of the “full life cycles of soybean biodiesel and corn grain ethanol shows that biodiesel has much less of an impact on the environment” and causes less pesticide pollution in its production.
It can be argued that if crops are to be grown for fuel, they should only be grown organically to reduce energy consumption and sequester atmospheric carbon at the highest possible rates (see “The Organic Farming Response to Climate Change“). A September 9, 2007 New York Times article, “Mali’s Farmers Discover A Weed’s Potential Power,” cites a plant found in Mali, called jatropha, that grows under the harshest soil and weather conditions without any pesticides and little fertilization and is an ideal source for biofuel. The author of the Times piece describes the plant with “poisonous black seeds dropping from the seemingly worthless weed that had grown around” family farms for decades. Of course, the plant has never been worthless, as the author herself notes that it has been used by farmers as a fence, with repellent characteristics for grazing animals because of its smell and taste, and as a guard against erosion.
Jatropha can be incorporated into agricultural production and subsistence farming. However, critics are concerned about the social effects of converting land used to produce food to biofuel plants and the environmental impacts of biofuel plantations encroaching on sensitive land areas. It comes as no surprise that big oil companies are already investing in jatropha production. A sobering critique, issued by the United Nations in May 2007 by Alexander Muller, Assistant Director-General for the Sustainable Development Department of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), finds that, “[B]iofuel programmes could result in concentration of ownership that could drive the world’s poorest farmers off their land and into deeper poverty.” The UN report, Sustainable energy: A framework for decision-makers, weighs the positives and negatives and sets a framework for establishing a worldwide code of conduct.