The World Agricultural Forum's Biofuels Initiative

Of late we have been communicating with representatives of the World Agricultural Forum, principally with Ray Cesca, the director of that organization. Technical difficulties at our Website over the course of the last week have precluded us from reporting on this topic until now.

The Forum, a ten year old organization, is devoted to meeting the world’s growing needs for food and bio-based materials through sustainable agricultural practices both in the developed and developing worlds. The organization is particularly concerned with the plight of the hundreds of millions of individuals around the world engaged in subsistence agricultural.

We contacted the Forum after receiving a press release relating to a new program for fostering the cultivation of jatropha beans in emerging nations as a feedstock for biodiesel. We found both the endorsement of jatropha on the part of an international philanthropic body and the crafting of a concrete promotion program by that same body to be intriguing developments. Hitherto, the jatropha plant has been subject to a good deal of scholarly consideration as a fuel crop by agronomists, but actual commercial ventures involving jatropha have been sporadic at best and have generally involved wealthy speculators looking to raise highly profitable cash crops. In other words, jatropha cultivation has tended to be a big money venture when it has been initiated at all.

That it has not been undertaken on a larger scale, incidentally, has to do with the relative lack of co-products or secondary markets. In the regions where jatropha grows naturally, palm oil has become the preferred feedstock for biodiesel, both because of a somewhat higher yield of oil per acre and because palm oil, which is edible, can be readily sold in any number of commodity markets. Jatropha, being inedible, is more of pure fuel crop, though the oil can serve certain other applications.

So why does the Forum endorse jatropha? “We’re not necessarily wed to it,” says Cesca. “It has traditionally been raised to form hedges around fields, and by producing it a farmer is not diverting land away from food crops.” This, of course, is not the case with the oil palm which is typically grown as a monoculture on vast and frequently environmentally destructive plantations.

The Forum argues that the combination of jatropha combined with small, inexpensive, multi-function diesel engines can significantly increase the energy budget of economically marginal rural communities and lead to a substantial growth in overall wealth, which in turn will result in better health in the community, higher levels of education, and a more robust natural environment. We ourselves are less certain that such outcomes are inevitable—the overall energy balance of biodiesel is not good, and the pressure to export the fuel could lead to the same kind of insidious monocultures we’ve already seen with oil palm—but notion that at least some individuals are thinking of biofuel as something than simply a way to fill American gas tanks is reassuring.

Cesca also stresses the benefits of biofuels such as jatropha based biodiesel in promoting self sufficiency and economic independence among scale farmers, and he indicates that biofuels will be a major topic at the upcoming Forum meeting in St. Louis. At the same time he admits that an emphasis on biofuels on the part of the Forum is a relatively recent phenomenon. “We really only started looking at biofuels in 2003. It became a major issue in 2005-2006.”

In this I am reminded of proposal I myself produced in 2003 for a print magazine devoted to alternative energy and presented to a major publisher of energy trade journals. In it I gave fairly short shrift to biofuels even though I was convinced that a crisis in supply was looming with respect to conventional petroleum. In those days I still subscribed to the notion that hydrogen was the fuel of the future, and I ventured the prediction that biodiesel would never be more than a tiny niche market.

But in truth biofuel was the orphan of the alternative energy business at the time, and biodiesel, while already used as a gasoline additive, was seldom mentioned as a possible replacement for gasoline. In fact I recall someone recommending that I should focus on biofuels “because they’re close to being invisible”.

Of course, these kinds of shifts do not conduce to a comprehensive energy policy on any level and one hopes for the sake of farmers as well as consumers of energy that the commitment of governments as well as groups such as the World Agricultural Forum to bioenergy is better founded in science and sound economics than was the so-called hydrogen economy. We shall see.

Further information on the Forum is available at their website