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June 08, 2009

Views on Jatropha as biofuel mixed

by Dave Harcourt

Three different news items highlight the vast differences in viewpoint and the continuing uncertainty around the farming of Jatropha by small scale farmers as a feedstock for Europe's refineries moving towards meeting the EU's renewable liquid fuel goals.

Clarity on What Jatropha Can DeliverAt the recent Africa Biofuels Conference in Midrand South Africa, Vincent Volckaert the Regional Manager for Africa of D1 Oils Plant Science presented a paper titled "Jatropha curcas: beyond the myth of the miracle crop."

Besides making it clear that Jatropha is not a miracle plant and like any other it needs water and fertiliser to produce biomass, he noted it was particularly sensitive to pests and disease when not grown as an intercrop. Volckaert stated that D1 Oil expected to release new seed in 2010 or 2011, that would have a yield of 2 tons of oil per hectare on well managed estates at maturity.

The information in this paper needs to be seen against the background of D1 Oils' experience in the Jatropha biodiesel sector. D1 Oils were unable to meet their initial business targets and were forced to adjust strategy and sell production facilities mainly. Much of this appears to be related to their inability to deliver the Jatropha oil they had projected when they first contracted farmers in Africa and India.

But Africa Just Carries OnAt a recent meeting with farmers in Uyo, Chief Michael Udo Akpan, the Chairman of the Akwa Ibom branch of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), stated that "Jatropha grows short and adapts to all weather conditions so you farmers should as a matter of urgency commence cultivation".

[social buttons]He further claimed that a hectare of land is capable of producing "more than 226 gallons of biodiesel" and that trees had a lifespan of 40-50 years, can be harvested three times in a year and could "do well on any type of soil".

His claim which is equivalent to 10,106 litres when compared to D1 Oil expectations from their new seed of only 2,558 makes a massive difference to the potential of farming.

This is unfortunately a typical African development scenario which is based on unfounded optimism, implemented/promoted by those not directly effected and typically leaves the already struggling farmer to suffer.

And Perceptions are What Drives Small Farmer's ActionsFriends of the Earth (FOE) have published a report cautioning that the widespread introduction of Jatropha by D1 Oils through the contracting of small scale farmers in Swaziland might be counterproductive. They call on the EU to include a thorough analysis of Jatropha in its 2010 report on indirect land use change due to biofuel production and the UK Government to carry out an urgent review into the current impacts of biofuels in developing countries for crops. They also call on the EU to put biofuel targets on hold until it can be proven that they can be met sustainably and D1 Oils to halt production while Environmental Impact Assesments (EIA) are undertaken.

They make a strong statement that Jatropha cannot currently be considered a sustainable biofuel crop because its supposed benefits are unproven.

D1 Oils has responded to Biofuels Review by admitting much of the report's information regarding the negative aspects of Jatropha farming for biofuel is valid for biofuel but makes a number of statements, intended to deflect criticism, which deserve some analysis.

"We have made very clear in our recent materials that marginal land is likely to deliver only marginal yields. We have never claimed that Jatropha is a plant-and-forget crop" - its clear they have, even if inadvertently, contributed much to the "Jatropha hype" that has swept through countries looking for quick and easy development solutions. After all they were essentially mislead by what they expected from Jatropha.

"We monitor closely how farmers are planting the crop and we do not encourage planting on food grade land. We aim to work to the highest standards in partnership with local people" - as outlined in a previous post, even with the best of intentions, it takes real serious effort to protect the interests of farmers' especially when objectives are essentially contrary. According to grassroots NGOs in Swaziland there have been difficulties in meeting these implementation goals.

"We disagree fundamentally with FOE's conclusion that Jatropha development should be halted because not enough is known of the crop" - FOE seem only to say they should halt production until appropriate EIA's prove sustainability and D1 Oils have anyway effectively already halted production in Swaziland by withdrawing to "as part of the reorganisation of the business that is currently underway". A disquitening comment here was a statement that FOE must understand that to achieve progress risk must be taken. FOEs constituency, the small scale farmers, need to be carefuly protected and can not suffer while other try things out.

These stories, like a growing number of reports, confirm that Jatropha is not realizing the oil yields that drove the "Jatropha euphoria" and that it never can while the plantings are based on wild seeds. Like any other crop Jatropha needs development to come to a stage where it can predictably produce oil to feed a biodiesel industry.

It needs to asked again if the industry is repeating this kind of "Jatropha euphoria" with other biofuels like algal biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol which will eventually lead to the same disillusion.


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