"Green" Chemicals Could Be Boon For Africa

seeds In July, the government of Ethiopia signed an agreement allowing a British biotechnology firm to commercialize the oilseed plant vernonia as a renewable source of industrial chemicals. Long dismissed by Ethiopian farmers as a nuisance shrub, vernonia, also known as ironweed, is considered a potential replacement for petroleum in a variety of industrial uses. The plant’s shiny black seeds produce an oil rich in epoxies, which can be used to manufacture innovative bio-based paints, adhesives, and plastic products.

Though it has been grown successfully in a variety of locations, vernonia thrives naturally within 20 degrees of the Equator, and has been particularly prolific in Ethiopia. The new commercialization deal, which took place under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity's Access and Benefit Sharing Agreement, gives the British company Vernique Biotech access to the plant for the next 10 years. In exchange, the Ethiopian government will receive royalty payments and profit shares, while hundreds of local farmers will have an opportunity to boost their earnings by growing the oilseed on land too poor for food crops. 

Studies show that use of vernonia-derived oils has the potential to significantly offset petroleum use and related fossil-fuel emissions. In 1992, the United States consumed roughly 227 kilograms of petroleum per person to produce plastics and industrial petrochemicals; according to scientists, replacing those feedstock with vernonia oil could have reduced emissions by up to 73 million kilograms annually. In 2004, the U.S. industrial sector consumed about 5.1 million barrels of oil per day, or 23 percent of the nation’s total. The naturally epoxidized vernonia oil is also being considered for pharmaceutical uses, such as alleviating psoriasis.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.