Growing concern

Observations on biofuels

In July, Bob Geldof swept in to Swaziland by helicopter to put his imprimatur on a poisonous shrub that some say could help save the planet. "I do not use the word life-changing lightly," he declared. In 23 years of involvement in African issues, Jatropha curcas was the first solution he'd seen offering Africans jobs, cash crops and economic power, he said at a press conference organised by the renewable energy firm where he is a special adviser.

For centuries, jatropha has grown wild in the tropics, but now the high oil content in its seeds is being hailed as an ideal biofuel. Unlike other biofuel plants such as soya and sugar cane, jatropha, it is claimed, does not threaten food supplies, because it is inedible and grows on semi-arid land. With the EU and US setting future targets for biofuel use, the speculators are moving in, seeking to cultivate the plant from Africa to Asia. In the vanguard is a British company: D1 Oils has raised £86m on the Alternative Investment Market, and recently signed a joint venture with BP worth £80m to grow a million hectares of jatropha.

But as interest in jatropha accelerates in the west, in India - where the government has initiated a massive planting programme - some are already turning against it. In August, hundreds protested in Rajasthan against the turning over of swaths of land for jatropha. Aruna Roy, the noted social activist, said: "It's amazing that a programme for the mass cultivation of jatropha has been launched without its feasibility being tested, and the people whose lands are being acquired haven't been informed." Even its advocates admit that turning what is still a wild species into a mass commercial crop is laden with uncertainties.

Jatropha is also at the centre of another controversy in India. D1 Oils, which claims to have created "the equivalent" of 220,000 jobs in the developing world ("more than the rest of the UN has done in the past 12 months", said D1's founder, the former dotcom millionaire Karl Watkin), has found itself embroiled in allegations of "biopiracy".

Two years ago, one of India's leading agricultural scientists allegedly arranged for the removal of elite varieties of jatropha from the Indira Gandhi Agriculture University in Chhattisgarh to where he worked on D1's nearby farm. A few weeks later, he joined the company. Local protests followed, and a report by a state government inquiry into the affair (obtained by Channel 4 News) concluded that both the scientist and D1, by accepting the plants without the necessary authority, had breached India's new biodiversity laws, designed to protect the country's bioresources from foreign exploitation. Recently, the Indian government's National Biodiversity Authority blocked D1's application to do research on jatropha in India because of the case. D1 insists it that has not breached any laws, that it is all the result of a misunderstanding, and its Indian operations aren't threatened.

Some remain opposed to the jatropha revolution in principle. "It's a bogus debate," says the Delhi geneticist Dr Suman Sahai. "It's something the industrial countries have dreamed up as a feel-good thing . . . rather than cutting back on consumption at home."

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan