Sunday, April 11, 2010


Tobacco plant was known to man since 6000 BC and smoking cured tobacco plant is still an addiction, enslaving millions of people across the globe. According to a conservative estimate more than 1.1 billion people use tobacco in one form or the other to enjoy the pleasure of nicotine derived sensation. Nicotine the major chemical constituent of tobacco leaves is a neurotoxin and about 5.4 million deaths an year are attributed to tobacco use, more than 10% of the total death world wide. Besides Nicotine, Tobacco specific Nitrosamines, generated during smoking are also considered dangerous to life. Extensive scientific research over the last few decades has brought out the role of smoking in causing cancer, especially the lung cancer and other human disorders. Tobacco is the fourth biggest killer to day and world has to wake up to this reality sooner or later.

Practically every country in the world wants to curb tobacco consumption in any form, at least as a policy but only "smoking" has received major attention in all official and non-governmental campaigns probably because of its predominance in the western societies. In a country like India only 20% of the tobacco cultivated goes into cigarette making, the rest being used in different forms like chewing, bidi making, cheroots, snuff products etc. Millions of people are engaged in economic activities connected with tobacco cultivation, curing, processing and end products manufacture. Probably it is difficult for any country to totally ban its cultivation for fear of the consequent economic impact. Like alcohol, tobacco is here to stay for good though its user base may shrink in the coming years.

About 5 million hectares of land are under tobacco cultivation and 33 million people work for tobacco industry. This poses an enormous challenge to the global community in protecting the livelihood of those depending on tobacco. Any coercion to stop tobacco cultivation may meet with the same fate as similar efforts made in the case of cultivation of opium and other opiate plants. Is it possible that tobacco production can be continued while minimizing its impact on human health in some way or the other? True, the land being used can be diverted to food crops, if tobacco cultivation some how "fades" away but that is unlikely to be accomplished in the foreseeable future. A recent suggestion that tobacco can be a source of biofuel deserves some consideration in the light of the dilemma world is facing on this issue.

Tobacco seed is known to contain triglyceride oils to the extent of 40% but its yield is hardly 600 kg per hectare making this option economically non-viable. As for the plant itself, the dried mass has only about 1.7 to 4% oil which again is not an economic option. Where tobacco can score is its amenability to be genetically modified in the hands of bio-technologists to increase the oil content to as high as 40%, a feat which can be easily achieved. If that happens the entire tobacco production can be diverted for biofuel processing that will cause minimum hardship to the existing growers. Some varieties of tobacco are also known to be useful in tackling Toxic Pond Scum, Microcystin-LR, that makes water unsafe for drinking, swimming or fishing in some areas.

If tobacco ever finds its use in biofuel industry, the task of the grower becomes simplified because all it requires is drying of the crop before shipping to the biofuel processor. The existing curing houses, requiring energy for efficient curing will become redundant. Probably the revenue for the governments may come down drastically because tobacco products attract one of the highest rates of taxation and how far this vested interest of the exchequer coming in the way of orchestrating policies to encourage use of tobacco for biofuel generation remains to be seen.

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