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August 10, 2011

Have we seen the end of jatropha as a potential biofuel?

by Brian Westenhaus

According to Promode Kant from the Institute of Green Economy in India and Shuirong Wu of the Chinese Academy of Forestry, some 12.8 million ha (49,421 square miles) are expected to be planted with jatropha by 2015. Most anyone would be thrilled that such a large area is going to support jatropha oil for fuel production and offer incomes to subsistent farmers.

But it’s not looking good. One wonders how that can be.

The report is authored by Wu and Kant in an article published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology, ‘The Extraordinary Collapse of Jatropha as a Global Biofuel.’

For India the story starts in 2003 with the decision by the Planning Commission of India to introduce mandatory biofuel blending over increasingly larger parts of the country with a target of 30% by 2020. The Planning Commission pushed for jatropha as it was considered to be high, early yielding, nonbrowsable and requiring little irrigation and even less management.

That followed with encouraging millions of marginal farmers and landless people to plant Jatropha across India. In 2006, China decided to meet 15% of its transportation energy needs by 2020 and, following India’s example, focused on jatropha, with plans to raise it on more than 1 million ha of marginal lands. Other developing countries took similar measures, in the hope that the crop would provide enhanced income for farmers as well as renewable energy. By 2008, Jatropha had been planted on more than an estimated 900,000 ha, of which 85% was in Asia, 13% in Africa and the rest in Latin America.

What happened in India was the provisions of mandatory blending could not be enforced because seed production fell far short of the expectation. Very little oil, very little blending obviously. A recent study has reported jatropha cultivation has been discontinued by 85% of the jatropha farmers in India.

Things look little better in China where very little production of biodiesel from jatropha seed oil can be found.

To make the potential matters worse some real research has come in from Tanzania where jatropha research found the net present value of a five-year investment in jatropha plantation was negative, with a loss of US$ 65 per ha on lands with yields of 2 tons/ha of seeds and only slightly beneficial at US$9 per ha with yields of 3 tons. Its even more discouraging when the average expected jatropha seed yield on poor barren soils is only 1.7 to 2.2 tons/ha.

There is basic reason for this – the plant has not been domesticated, hybridized and developed across growing conditions. In comparison, U.S. corn has been in development since before the U.S. Civil War, from the simplest farming practice of saving the best of a crop for the next year’s seed to billions of dollars of investment in genetic study and engineering.

... jatropha is busy self propagating – not busily producing seed oil.

It seems obvious now that a few select areas where jatropha grows and excelled was a basis for a conclusion – by a bureaucracy. The authors offer a story form of indictment saying, “These observations are, however, nothing out of ordinary and should have been anticipated by the Planning Commission of India, the powerful apex body that decides national priorities and allocates funds for them, before taking up such a continent sized program involving millions of low income farmers. But the Commission may have relied too heavily on the opinion of one of its top functionaries, who expected an internal rate of return ranging from 19 to 28% across India. National planners’ enthusiasm for the species rubbed off easily on research organizations and universities that rely heavily on the Planning Commission for funding and some of these institutions themselves became partners in raising jatropha plantations.”

The authors also reach into the motivations, and that is where they depart from your humble writers opinion.

“It appears to be an extreme case of a well intentioned top down climate mitigation approach, undertaken without adequate preparation and ignoring conflict of interest, and adopted in good faith by other countries, gone awry bringing misery to millions of poorest people across the world. And it happened because the principle of “due diligence” before taking up large ventures was ignored everywhere. As climate mitigation and adaptation activities intensify attracting large investments there is danger of such lapses becoming more frequent unless “due diligence” is institutionalized and appropriate protocols developed to avoid conflict of interest of research organizations.”

Maybe the authors are right, but they miss the point. Jatropha very well could develop into a major cash crop offering a bonanza of alternative fuel. But it “ain’t gonna happen” without a common sense approach with research, development, investment in hybridization, genetic engineering and dedication by the supplies of the seed and other inputs, the farmers and oil processors – and finally consumers.

The jatropha catastrophe isn’t about jatropha; it’s about central planning, big government, and the concentration of power. It can backfire with astonishing results:

The whole of the U.S. corn crop, some 40% of the world’s production, takes less than 20,000 square miles. Jatropha is set to be planted across 2 ½ times that area. An average U.S. corn acre makes about 420 gallons of ethanol. The best jatropha makes nearly 75 gallons. That’s something to consider very carefully when biofuels are discussed.

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