They’re certainly looking into it. Ever since it became apparent that smoking might not be the healthiest life choice, the number of smokers has been plummeting, at least in the West where the anti-tobacco campaign has been most strident. As a result, production and consumption has moved to the developing world, where hundreds of thousands of farmers in Asia and Africa now making a living from the crop. But as anti-tobacco campaigns pick up here too, it could leave growers hardest hit. So what if there was a way that these small farmers could have their livelihoods protected even as the number of tobacco users declines?
As it turns out, there is an unlikely use for the tobacco plant that doesn’t result in the deaths of millions of people a year: jet fuel. That’s right, using selective breeding and genetic engineering, researchers have grown varieties of tobacco plant that are low in nicotine, but high in sugar and seed oil content, meaning they are great for burning in combustion engines, not just in cigarettes. According to Tyton Biofuels, who own a biorefinery in Raeford, North Carolina, right in the heart of tobacco country, what they call energy tobacco “can produce up to three times the amount of ethanol per acre as corn and three times the oil per acre as soy.” While the use of the whole plant, stalks and all, means that nothing goes to waste, it also means that one silage chopper can clear a field in one fell swoop, reducing the need for human labor.
Promisingly, however, South African airlines in a collaboration with Boeing, recently announced the world’s first tobacco-fueled flight between Johannesburg and Cape Town. The crop was grown in the Limpopo region of South Africa on a 50-hectare farm owned by Sunchem, an industrial research and development company started in 2014. The refined seed oil extracted from the patented plants can blended with traditional fuels meaning that no alterations to the aircraft ‘s engines are necessary. The seed cake, which is leftover after the extraction process, makes for a great source of high-protein animal feed. The zero-waste approach to the harvest has won the venture, dubbed Project Solaris, a Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) certification, one of the strongest sustainability standards going.
For the future, the plan is that all flights out of OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg should run on sustainable biofuels. It’s a short flight for a Boeing 737-800, but a giant step forward for renewable jet fuel, and considering that there over 100,000 flights taken around the world each day, this kind of relationship between local growers and airlines could help maintain the livelihoods of tobacco farmers in developing countries.
Which is where it is most needed, because most of the world’s tobacco production and consumption now takes place in the developing world. But as these countries too begin to adopt tobacco-free habits, growers in places like China, India and Indonesia are going to take the hit. For example, the US has seen a 50% decline in the number of adult cigarette smokers since 1965, and the number of tobacco farms fall from 180,000 in the 1980s to less than 10,000 now. China is now the worlds’ biggest producer of tobacco, growing 3.2 million tons of the stuff in 2012, and it’s the third biggest industry in Indonesia, employing over 1 million people and contributing $12.91 billion to the economy in 2015.
In many respects, it is the perfect meeting of ways between two. For the industry, a transition to biomass production also holds out the prospect that tobacco companies may finally stop being treated like pariahs. Currently the tobacco industry is being given a pretty hard time by national governments in terms of how they employ the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). According to the Framework Convention’s article 5.3, signatory governments’ public health policies regarding tobacco control should be protected from the “commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.”
While the article in itself is not binding, the FCTC has pressured governments to regard it as such and forbid any interaction between the industry and officials. In their defense, tobacco groups, while recognizing that in principle people shouldn’t smoke, point out that it is still a legal activity and a considerable generator of tax revenues and it deserves to be treated as such.
However, in July, the European Commission decided not to renew the anti-smuggling agreement it had with Philip Morris International, which ensured that contraband cigarette sticks would not make their way into Europe, citing the same article 5.4. For their turn, the industry argues that issues like smuggling, which is particularly prevalent in countries with the highest tobacco-related deaths, are exactly the kind of thing that governments and industry should be working on together.
It is undoubtedly in the interest of growers that the industry thrive in some form, and it is in everybody else’s interest that tobacco consumption continue to fall. The advent of tobacco biofuel may go someway towards meeting both of these objectives. In the meantime, tobacco execs could consider adding ‘renewable energy company’ to their business cards.