Tim Rice: The growing concerns about jatropha

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The most regularly repeated claim about jatropha is that it will grow on so-called marginal land, and will therefore not compete with food crops. There are two major flaws with this argument.

First, marginal land is often used as a source of firewood or medicinal plants. Second, while jatropha may grow on such land, that does not mean it will produce enough oil to be economically viable.

Just like most other crops, jatropha needs good-quality land to produce optimum results. As a result, farmers usually do grow jatropha on good-quality land.

Unfortunately, jatropha is not the only thing that has been oversold in the rush to turn plants into fuel. Biofuels are spreading fast. From Ghana to Guatemala and Mozambique to India, ActionAid is seeing the consequences of Western consumption of biofuels. EU companies have already acquired, or are acquiring, five million hectares for biofuel production.

The UK now faces a choice: we can continue to expand our biofuel production at the expense of poor people, or we can stop investing in an approach that is not even helping the environment. The Government has less than five months to submit its plan for renewable energy use in transport to the European Commission. It must take this time to reflect on the problems inherent in jatropha and other biofuels. Instead of supporting scientifically unsound biofuels, we should invest in proven ways to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, such as increasing fuel efficiency and improving public transport.

Tim Rice is a policy officer at ActionAid

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