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Jatropha can be toxic
A top biotechnologist in the country said the government should not encourage marginalized farmers to plant jatropha on a massive scale because that would put them at a disadvantage.
Dr. Saturnina Halos, chairman of the Department of Agriculture-Biotechnology Advisory Team, told The Manila Times that farmers would be at the receiving end if they plant jatropha because the only big market for that crop is biodiesel.
Halos said jatropha is "toxic" to the soil, and may contain a neurotoxin that can harm or kill humans.
"The farmers will be placed at a disadvantage, because the only big market for jatropha is biodiesel. What if that market suddenly disappears … the farmer would be left in a pitiful state," she added.
While jatropha planting is encouraged along lands where rice cannot be planted, Halos said the biofuel crops that the government should propagate should also have a market for food. Among these are coconut, malunggay, cassava, sweet sorghum, and sugarcane.
She added that there is no need to devote so much land for biofuel crops, as far as complying with the Biofuels Law is concerned.
Halos said her son, Ari Halos, a former professor at University of the Philippines-Los Baños, undertook a study in 2007 on the planting requirements of the Philippines to comply with the Biofuels Law. The study showed the country needs to devote only 60,000 hectares of lands for planting bioethanol crops, particularly sweet sorghum.
Bioethanol refers to the plant additive for gasoline, while biodiesel is for diesel.
Halos said her son's study showed that there may be no need to devote new areas to plant biodiesel crops, because the Philippines already has 324 million coconut trees, and 16 million more trees will be planted through a program of the Philippine Coconut Authority.
While coconut is also a source of food additives such as cooking oil and condiments, she agreed that the biodiesel market will provide opportunities for poor coconut farmers to earn more, because they will have an alternative market for their products.
Halos said the findings of her son's studies showed that biofuel production for domestic demand will not have a negative impact on farmland planted to food crops, because there is no need to devote millions of hectares to plant biofuel crops.
"If we need to export biofuel stocks, then that might need the planting of biofuel crops in more lands. What I have heard is California is now looking at the Philippines for biofuel [stocks]," she added.
The country has 10 to 11 million hectares of lands planted mostly to food crops, with another two to four million hectares available for planting new crops.
Other biofuel crops Halos strongly recommends are malunggay and sweet sorghum, which can be planted in rice farms after two seasons of planting rice.
Malunggay, like coconut, she revealed, can be planted even in areas near the seashore, where traditional food crops cannot be cultivated. Also, malunggay oil, like coconut oil, is now being used in the manufacture of processed foods, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.
Another versatile biofuel crop is sweet sorghum. Halos said this crop can be planted in rice fields after two croppings of rice, since sweet sorghum needs less water to grow.
"Usually after two croppings of rice, there is little water left to plant [rice]. So farmers can plant sweet sorghum [for the third cropping], she added.
Fortunately, unlike other government agencies, the Agriculture department is not encouraging the mass propagation of jatropha.
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