Can Afghanistan’s Poppies Be Converted into Biofuel?

In a new brief by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Ambassador Marc Grossman, former U.S. Undersecretary for State for Political Affairs, argues that the U.S. should try converting opium into biofuel and transform Afghanistan’s destructive cash crop into a renewable energy source. Afghanistan’s massive and ever-growing poppy fields, if processed as fuel, can help Afghanistan cover its own growing energy needs.

The former senior diplomat says that the European Union, NATO, and U.S. governments should fund a “crash program” to actually discover whether Afghan poppies have a high oil content. According to Grossman, some poppy seeds harvested for opium and heroin are in fact rich in oils. “In an experiment in 2005, farmers in Australia used biodiesel made from poppy seeds for their tractors.” He adds that: “If poppies could be grown in a controlled manner and legally licensed, the Afghan government could build plants to turn the poppy into biodiesel and sell it on the market in South Asia.”

There would be multiple benefits to this approach — less illegal drugs, less money for narco-terrorism, and less financial support for the Taliban, along with reduced CO2 emissions. Given Afghanistan’s energy needs are growing with increased economic development, Afghanistan will need to produce its own energy or import more expensive options. To kick-start the local market for biofuels, Grossman thinks the U.S. and NATO forces in the country should be the first customers of poppy biodiesel if it proves to work.

The idea of expanding biofuels in Afghanistan has been batted around for a while. Last year, The Huffington Post said the U.S. could buy all of Afghanistan’s poppies, destroy them, and then seed plants known to work as biofuels in their place. “So instead of just fighting this war militarily- which results in countless deaths and billions of dollars spent- couldn’t we take a preemptive tactic to remove the Talibans main source of funding by buying up all of the poppy crops in Afghanistan (which produces more than 90 percent of the world’s opium supply)? Pay above market value and do it under the stipulation that every hectare of land be replanted with biofuels that would thrive in that climate/condition.” 

However, BioPact finds that the political economy of poppies in Afghanistan will make replacing the crops with another plant or turning them into biofuels problematic. Poppies grown for drug use provide the highest incomes for local farmers. Farmers will need additional incentives if they are expected to receive lower prices for poppy biodiesel or another plant energy source. Additionally, expanding poppy production for biofuels will tax Afghanistan’s very scare water resources.

Still, according to BBC News, the number of Afghan opium addicts in rural villages is rapidly rising, with many starting their habitat as children. Any funds invested in converting this major drug source into a renewable energy source may be well spent.

Read the brief and check out a report from Biodiesel Afghanistan.

Image credit: MSNBC

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