Giving science a chance with the biofuels

Let us reverse the roles this time and, rather than the scientists giving the poor a chance, let us give the scientists a chance to show that they are for the poor.

On May 1, at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) campus in Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh, India, the ICRISAT and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) of the United Nations launched a joint biofuels project for six countries: China, Columbia, India, Mali, and the Philippines.

In his inaugural address at the project launch, ICRISAT Director General William Dar said the three feedstocks for biofuel to be studied are: sweet sorghum, Jatropha and cassava.

As the scientists have been doing with rice and corn, the ICRISAT scientists will be:

(a) Developing new breeds of sweet sorghum, cassava, and Jatropha
(b) Standardizing cropping practices to maximize yields

Coming up with new breeds of crops is standard practice in research centers, so that’s not news. The news is that sweet sorghum, cassava and Jatropha have been chosen as biofuel crops and not sugarcane and corn. Sweet sorghum is, of course, a mandate crop of ICRISAT. I don’t know about cassava (Dar didn’t specifically mention it), but Jatropha has lately been controversial because the Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC) has been insisting that Jatropha is ripe for processing into biodiesel and Dar, among other scientists, have been equally insisting that ‘there is no science behind Jatropha,’ meaning that we don’t know much about this crop yet enough to say it will make an appropriate feedstock for biofuel considering efficiency and effect on the environment, not to mention people, since Jatropha is poisonous. The ICRISAT-IFAD project therefore is a step in the right R&D direction.

Once the feedstocks are available (stalks from sweet sorghum, roots from cassava, fruits from Jatropha), the project will be:

(c) Evaluating Jatropha oil as an energy source in the villages
(d) Organizing self-help groups in villages.

The project will study if the raw Jatropha oil can be used as energy source in the villages, such as for running motor pumps.

I’m interested most in the announcement that the joint project will organize self-help groups in the villages. I imagine that this is so that they can unlearn their mendicant attitude and learn initiative and entrepreneurship. I can say without fear of contradiction that half the farmers in the Philippines have to start to learn to help themselves and to stop begging for resources or relying on doleouts.

There is also the question of land ownership. Half of the Filipino farmers will tell you they want to own what they are cultivating as tenants, and half of the scientists will aver that land tenure is necessary to encourage the farmers to develop the land. To want to own is natural; to own a resource in order to use it profitably is unnatural, unnecessary.

In terms of self-help, I would expect the project to mobilize the villagers to create and manage their own marketing system and not be dependent on middlemen who gobble up the profits from the sweat of the farmers’ brows. If you don’t help the villagers market their produce, you are leaving them at the mercy of the market men (or women), whose mercy is not strained.

I also understand that the fields intended for planting the biofuel crops will include degraded lands. Since these soils have low carrying capacities and farm chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides) are expensive, I would expect that the project will help the villagers come up with cost-reducing technologies along with environment-friendly systems.

If my thoughts jibe with those of the ICRISAT-IFAD scientists, then I say they stand a good chance of working the good out of those biofuel crops – and out of those villagers.

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