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This morning I was reminded of George Santayana who had once famously remarked “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  I read about General Motors  entering in a pact with the Bhavnagar, Gujarat based Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute to develop Jatropha fuel for the USA.

I was and am still appalled..

Over the last decade there has been a lot of hype on bio-fuels being the answer to the fossil fuel crisis and global warming.. In the US there was a mad rush, reminiscent of the stampede into dotcoms, to get into the bio-fuel mainly ethanol from corn business. The US government established laws and in 2007 mandated a five-fold increase in bio-fuels and 200 Ethanol refineries came up all over the USA.  The hype hit Europe as well. The European Union has mandated that biofuels should account for 5.75% of transport fuel by 2010.  What was safely ignored was the fact that for all of this fuel to come from Europe, one-fifth of the entire European cropped area, would have to shift from food to biofuel crops.

The Bio-fuel lobby quick got on to the global warming lobby claiming that bio-fuels would actually reduce greenhouse gas emission and contribute to reduction in global warming.

It sounded too good to be true….

Then critics started raising their heads…

William Engdahl published a paper The Hidden Agenda behind the Bush Administration’s Bio-fuel Plan saying that “the heart of the plan is a huge, taxpayer-subsidized expansion of use of bio-ethanol for transport fuel…..to make certain it happens, farmers and big agricultural business giants like ADM or David Rockefeller get generous subsidies to grow corn for fuel instead of food.”

Matthew Brown, a prominent Energy Consultant, argued that “replacing only five percent of the nation’s diesel consumption with biodiesel would require diverting approximately 60 percent of soy crops (in the USA) to biodiesel production.”

Even more damaging has been the Cornell University researcher David Pimental conclusion that “There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel”. His 2005 study found that producing ethanol from corn required 29 percent more energy than the end product itself is capable of generating. He found similarly troubling numbers in making biodiesel from soybeans.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology issued a report concluding that using corn-based ethanol instead of gasoline will have no impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

Corn (for ethanol) and soy (for diesel) had sounded to good to be true – THEY WERE!

That was the cue for entry to Jatropa – widely touted as the panacea. Proponents immediately cited its remarkable abilities to adapt to harsh conditions, ease of oil extraction, rural employment generation…  A magic wand to get rid of all evils!

That is the sum and substance of what General Motors also says…

Governments in the developing world have bought into this hard sell. I have seen State Governments in India going gung-ho on jatropa. I cannot forget a State government issuing ‘targets’ to the District Collectors for Jatropa plantation! If arms had to be twisted and forest / arable land was to be brought under cultivation, so be it.. Targets had to be met.

NGOs around the world have tried to make policy makers & public aware of the pitfalls.  Strange how voices from countries as diverse as Philippines and Swaziland are saying the same thing. Amazing how their governments are ignoring in the same way.

I have been thinking about this for long and finally decided to articulate the questions that have been racing through my mind……… I think something is wrong..

Q1.        Why are the policy makers and governments in the developed world taking a step back on all bio-fuels?

Q2.        If all this is so good, why is it being hawked as a solution in the developing world only? Why is D1 Oils from the UK promoting it in Swaziland? Why is GM promoting in India?  Surely there are badlands in the UK / USA which could do with some bio-fuels like Jatropa being grown there?

Q3.         Is it because harvesting requires huge amount of manual labour?

Q4.         Is it because no one has come up with a process of extraction of oil on a large scale?

Q5.        Is it because the crop is allelopathic and will definitely harm other plants as research across the world shows?

Q6.        Is it because good yield will start coming in only 3-5 years after panting?

Q7.        Are our policy makers seriously concerned about what is happening and how we are being taken for a ride?

As far as the GM ‘investment’ in India is concerned…

Q8.        Is a million dollar investment over 5 years really significant, to either GM or to Gujarat?

Q9.        If the fuel is to be used in the US, why is the crop being grown here? Surely that cannot be ‘economical’

Q10.        Why do we so readily agree to being guinea pigs?  Ah I remember the Gujarat government ‘importing’ pig dung a few years back from Europe. I am sure that the country in question must have been stunned when the deal went through.

At this point I only have a million questions. No real answers. Perhaps some of the NGOs working in India on alternate energy can come up with some solid research backed answers? Something that can encourage public debate and influence policy?

I hope that it happens soon.. Else it will be too late as usual..