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Swapping Bioenergy for Drug-Trade? One MASB IGERT fellow is set to make this a reality.


Phoenix Mourning-Star, a NSF-IGERT MASB fellow from the third cohort, is looking to foster research that will not only expand our frontiers here in the United States by creating a well-rounded interdisciplinary team of faculty members and undergraduate students to create a unique collaborative team transforming how science and engineering is produced in the future, but he also is hoping to foster a stronger relationship between the United States and the Middle East by providing an unlikely alternative to the opium trade in the form of bioenergy production using poppy seeds as a feedstock (Photo 1). No stranger to interdisciplinary work and teams, Phoenix comes from his masters project where he tied together statistics, environmental health, and mathematics to create a unique approach to a science question. Taking the lead for his Phd project, he now is expanding his breadth of science understanding to include subjects that are outside of his individual expertise to build teams of expertise.

Phoenix’s project focusing on the implementation of using poppy seeds as a biofuel source in Afghanistan has brought together scientists from many different fields such as Mechanical Engineering, Ecology, Economics, International Relations, Sociology, Anthropology, and Political Science. The drug trade in the Middle East is rampant and harbors many political tensions both internationally through exportation and regionally with legal and religious ramifications. The Middle East is a large producer of opium and more farmers regularly are either switching their crops to poppy growing or focusing more heavily on established poppy farms making this region a serious drug producer. The idea of farmers growing crops for biofuels in this region is not new, in fact, the USDA currently is in discussions with the Afghani government to help them transition some of the farm land to growing false flax (camelina sativa) for biofuel production instead of poppies. However, this may not be an easy transition considering poppies have been grown for thousands of years in the region rendering a long-term relationship between the farmers and plants, and the landscape has evolved with poppies.

Changing to growing a different crop may put the farmers in a precarious situation where there is no education lineage on how to grow a new crop, information on how to manage a new crop on the landscape or how productive the new crop will be, and what may happen to the landscape by introducing an invasive species. Phoenix’s idea would offer Afghani farmers an alternative product from farming poppy plants without changing the landscape/plant infrastructure the know so well. Phoenix’s relationship with the US State department led him to meet Steven Kraft, the office director of the Afghanistan/Pakistan Office for the U.S. Department of State, Narcotics & Law Enforcement Division, where Phoenix pitched the idea of the link between poppies, biofuels, and regional stability in Afghanistan. The idea was initially not deemed feasible so Phoenix used his own resources to visit Afghanistan on a 3 week fact-finding trip to Kabul, Afghanistan to gather first-hand information of the viability of his PhD dissertation proposal of using poppy oil as a renewable energy product and investigate status of agricultural development, feasibility of such as project and citizen and governmental interest in pursuing an alternative use program for poppy from a humanitarian, non-economic perspective.

Once there, he met Agricultural Extension Officers, Officers of the Diversity/Gender Outreach and the Office of Alternative Livelihoods, and the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, Mr. Nazari, to pursue an engagement program with poppy farmers (Photo 2). His idea of this project being a gateway technology transfer for relationship building to facilitate the introduction of other alternative high value crops being a valuable and unique alternative to utilize a problem crop for positive purposes received a positive response so he continued on building his team.

His initial CSU team consists of undergraduate students from Mechanical Engineering (ME), Economics, Political Science, Ecology, and International Studies who receive credit in a class derived by Phoenix and several CSU faculty to test and analyze the economic, political, and environmental viability and feasibility of growing poppies as a source of biofuel production in Afghanistan. ME students created and built an oil seed crusher to crush the poppy seeds with a hand crank to simulate what farmers in the field with little government support could use (Photo 3), economics students estimated the market viability of poppy seed oil for bioenergy and other products, the ecology students mapped out the environmental impacts of growing poppy seeds, and the political science students assessed the political success of such a venture. Phoenix plans to use Daycent modeling to measure soil fertility to estimate production and harvest potential. Politically, by legalizing poppy farms, farmers would have more ability to make money through producing biofuel.

This project has the potential to bring together many different scientific experts from many different realms as Phoenix continues on his efforts to create stability in Afghanistan and also create more interdisciplinary teamwork ventures in the US and at CSU through the creation of more undergraduate courses and the melding of many different scientists from various backgrounds at CSU on his PhD advising committee. If this project is successful, this will pave the way for more research projects that integrate many different experts to help society answer complex questions expanding the frontiers of science and how it is created.

Address Goals

This project will change the scientific landscape of how future projects may be conceived and carried out. Bringing a varied group of scientists with different knowledge-base and backgrounds together in one project will increase the ability of science to answer multiple questions in one project rather than marrying results from several research projects together. This approach will transform how we think of science and the role it plays in answering society’s questions. If successful, this project may stand as a template for other research projects where PI’s perceive research projects differently, conceive of them to answer a multitude of questions in one project, and build a team of experts that will be best to answer these questions. As this practice becomes more accepted as an effective scientific approach, the science and engineering workforce will reflect this creating more opportunities for collaborative research both within and outside of the US, with the US leading the way.