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Central Asia's biofuel potential

By JOHN C.K. DALY, UPI International Correspondent   |   Dec. 18, 2008 at 6:06 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Dec. 18 (UPI) -- Of the former Soviet Caucasian and Central Asian republics, those clustered around the shores of the Caspian, particularly Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, have seen their economies boom because of record-high energy prices. Turkmenistan is waiting in the wings as a rising producer of natural gas, but the story changes as one moves farther east to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where geographical isolation and relatively scant hydrocarbon resources have largely precluded them from cashing in on global energy demands. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are largely dependent for their electrical needs on their Soviet-era hydroelectric infrastructure, but their heightened need for winter energy has led to autumnal and winter water discharges, severely impacting the agriculture of their western downstream neighbors Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

A partial solution to the regional energy wrangling may be on the horizon, however, in the form of an alternative energy resource that has received unprecedented publicity and funding worldwide in the last couple of years -- biofuel. Unlike Brazil, where biofuel is manufactured from sugarcane, or the United States, where it is primarily distilled from corn, Central Asia's resource is an indigenous plant, Camelina sativa.

Known in the West as false flax, wild flax, linseed dodder, German sesame and Siberian oilseed, camelina is attracting increased scientific interest for its qualities, with several companies jumping on the bandwagon to develop efforts to produce it in commercial quantities. The plant next month will receive a high-tech seal of approval when Japan Airlines on Jan. 30 plans to make a historic flight using camelina-based bio-jet fuel, becoming the first Asian carrier to fly on fuel derived from sustainable feedstocks. JAL will carry out a one-hour demonstration flight from Tokyo's Haneda Airport with the aircraft operated by JAL staff with no passengers on board, the test being the final stage in a 12-month process to evaluate camelina's operational performance capability and potential commercial viability.

As an alternative energy source, camelina has much to recommend it. It has a high oil content, which is low in saturated fat. In contrast to Central Asia's thirsty "king cotton," camelina is drought-resistant, requires less fertilizer and herbicides, and can be used as a rotation crop with wheat. An acre sown with camelina can produce 100 gallons of oil per acre; if planted in rotation with wheat, it can increase wheat production by 15 percent. Furthermore, nothing in camelina production goes to waste; after processing, the plant debris can be used for livestock silage.

Camelina, which is indigenous to both Europe and Central Asia, is hardly a new crop on the scene: Archaeological evidence indicates it has been cultivated in Europe for at least three millennia to produce both vegetable oil and animal fodder.

In an increasingly health-conscious West, camelina or flax oil may make a reappearance in the kitchen as well. As noted earlier, flax oil was widely used as a culinary oil in Russia for centuries, but primarily by poorer peasants in lieu of other, more stable cooking oils available, as it was susceptible to rapid oxidation, a problem that can be treated by modern processing techniques. For vegetable sources camelina oil contains high levels, up to 45 percent, of omega-3 fatty acids, while more than 50 percent of cold-pressed camelina oil's fatty acids are polyunsaturated.

Camelina's potential could allow Uzbekistan to begin breaking out of its most dolorous legacy, the imposition of a cotton monoculture that has warped the country's attempts at agrarian reform since achieving independence in 1991. Beginning in the late 19th century, the Russian government determined that Central Asia would become its cotton plantation to feed Moscow's growing textile industry. The process was accelerated under the Soviets. While Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were also ordered by Moscow to sow cotton, Uzbekistan in particular was singled out to produce the "white gold."

By the end of the 1930s the Soviet Union had become self-sufficient in cotton; five decades later it had become a major exporter of cotton, producing more than one-fifth of the world's production, concentrated in Uzbekistan, which produced 70 percent of the Soviet Union's output.

Independence wreaked havoc with this staple of the Uzbek economy, disrupting traditional markets, while an end to subsidies led to a precipitous drop in the level of mechanization in harvesting, from 50 percent before independence to its current level of 10 percent. Accordingly, the crop is now largely handpicked, and Uzbekistan has been criticized for using student and child labor during the harvest period.

Try as it might to diversify, in the absence of alternatives Tashkent remains wedded to cotton, producing about 3.6 million tons annually, which brings in more than $1 billion while constituting approximately 60 percent of the country's hard currency income. The importance of the plant is personified in the appearance of cotton bolls on Uzbekistan's state seal.

The Soviet government's directives for Central Asian cotton production largely bankrupted the region's scarcest resource, water. Cotton uses about 3.5 acre feet of water per acre of plants, leading Soviet planners, beginning in the 1960s, to divert ever-increasing volumes of water from the region's two primary rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, into inefficient irrigation canals, resulting in the dramatic shrinkage of the rivers' final destination, the Aral Sea. The Aral, once the world's fourth-largest inland sea with an area of 26,000 square miles, has shrunk to one-quarter its original size in one of the 20th century's worst ecological disasters.

At present the United States is the leading center of research into camelina's energy potential. The biofuel for the JAL test was produced in Montana, where the University of Montana is at the forefront of research into camelina's viability as an energy source. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer is an enthusiastic proponent of the plant's potential, commenting: "It's been my goal to help make Montana a leader in renewable energy. ... Through camelina, our state has the potential to create jobs, reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and decrease carbon emissions."

The Bush administration primarily looked toward Central Asia for its energy resources and its military bases, hoping to deny the region's assets to Russia, its competitor in the new "Great Game." By helping Uzbekistan diversify its agricultural production away from cotton by developing "green gold" camelina, Washington can reduce regional tensions over water disputes, lessen Russian influence and help develop an ecologically friendly energy alternative. What's not to like?

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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