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November 10, 2009

Jatropha has promising future but has been over-hyped

by Kirk Haney

Imagine if corn were the size of your pinky finger and tomatoes were no larger than marbles. Now imagine the impact that would have on our global food supply.

The reality is, that’s the size they were before selective breeding and genetic enhancement. Today, we have the opportunity to achieve a similar evolution in jatropha that could drastically impact our supply of renewable energy.

The true promise of jatropha comes from unlocking its potential through breeding and genetics, employing proper agronomic practices, and developing a value chain that creates a viable global marketplace.

Unfortunately, many early adopters have pursued strategies that turned a blind eye to the unique characteristics of the plant, setting unrealistic expectations before proper research and crop improvements had taken place.

Jatropha is a non-edible plant that produces seeds containing high amounts of sustainable, low cost oil. Because it is non-edible, it does not compete with global food supplies, and can be effectively harvested on abandoned land that is considered undesirable for food crops.

Most importantly, it is undomesticated. And, until recently, it had never been planted on a large scale. These are critical factors to consider when reviewing recent efforts to plant and harvest the crop, as well as its future commercial opportunities.

Jatropha curcas has long been recognized by indigenous cultures as a source for cooking and heating oil and for its various medicinal properties. Its oil can also be used for sustainable bio-based materials and petroleum substitutes including biodiesel, chemicals and jet fuel. Its overall greenhouse gas emissions are 70 percent less than traditional petroleum.

In 2007, governments and businesses in Europe, India, Africa and South East Asia quickly jumped onto the jatropha bandwagon, emphasizing its ability to grow anywhere with little to no irrigation or agronomic management while producing high quantities of oil. Estimates of yields varied greatly, most based on little knowledge or research into how it would respond at plantation scale.

As quickly as the hype regarding jatropha escalated in 2007, it came back down to earth. Jatropha’s emergence was stalled by cumbersome community-based farming models using inferior strains of jatropha planted in climates and on land that were not optimal for the crop. Adequate supply chains had not been established. As a result, producers and growers fell woefully short of their ambitious targets.

Jatropha did not fail, but the business models did. Jatropha remains one of the most sustainable and commercially viable feedstocks available when the entire value is taken into consideration—from land costs and impacts to the quantity and quality of oil. Unfortunately, jatropha had similar fates of other early technologies: over-hype and missed expectations.

Understanding the unique characteristics of jatropha—its opportunities and limitations—is a critical component of any successful jatropha project. Through research and evaluation of recent failures of others, we now see that three key elements are necessary for the success of jatropha:

  • Crop improvement
  • Proven plantation management practices
  • Creation of a viable supply chain

First, location and climate are critical factors impacting yield. The "Jatropha Belt," a band of latitude where the species is found today, is located between 30 degrees North and 35 degrees South, both tropical and subtropical areas. This geographical belt includes considerable variation in climate and seasonality, which is partly responsible for the range of results and expectations experienced to date. Not all conditions in Jatropha’s wide geographic band are ideal for cultivation.

Additionally, it’s important to realize the fact that jatropha has not yet been domesticated results in variable production levels. Variability is found in the size of the trees, the number of seeds per tree at maturity (five years after planting) and the oil content of the seeds. The process of domestication, which eliminates plant variability, has just been started for the crop.

The characteristics of jatropha are ideally suited to rapid improvements through breeding and genetics. It’s a fast growing plant yielding seed-bearing fruit within nine months of planting. It produces separate male and female flowers—a critical asset for accelerated breeding—and can be propagated through cuttings, also called clones.

Through its Genetic Resource Center, SG Biofuels has assembled a large, diverse library of jatropha genetic materials—the necessary foundation of any crop improvement program. The company has already identified desirable traits focusing on yield, vigor, fruit and seed size, pest resistance, cold-tolerance and improved water efficiency.

Based on experience with other crops, the genetic improvement of jatropha through traditional plant breeding could increase yields 50 percent to 100 percent, and quite possibly much higher. By way of comparison, yield of the rubber tree was increased by 400 percent through similar breeding efforts. The use of biotechnology could increase the yield even more, while decreasing agronomic inputs.

Finally, experienced agronomists agree that a scientific approach to professional plantation management can also dramatically improve growth and yield, as well. For example, growth and yield can be improved by fertilization with nitrogen, phosphate, potassium and micronutrients, irrigation and pruning. Optimization of these inputs maximizes yields while minimizing costs.

As an undomesticated crop planted in appropriate soils with proper management, jatropha can currently produce crude plant oil with a cost of less than $1.50 per gallon. With genetic improvements, including plant breeding and responsible genetic engineering, we can produce jatropha crude oil for less than $1 per gallon.

Lowering the cost of feedstock, which comprises 70 percent to 80 percent of the biofuel production cost, will unlock value in the entire biofuels value chain. In a sector where demand will continue to exceed supply, raw material suppliers have a significant advantage in the marketplace.

By enabling growers to produce feedstock at a lower cost while both learning from and overcoming the challenges experienced by previous efforts, we can realize the promise of jatropha as a low-cost, sustainably produced plant oil on the global market.

The developmental process of jatropha as a sustainable energy crop remains in its infancy. However, we have the very real opportunity to achieve a quantum leap in yield, profitability, and short-term commercialization.

Kirk Haney is the CEO of SG Biofuels, a sustainable plant oil company with operations in San Diego, Calif., and Latin America. Haney has held senior and executive management positions for 3Com, ArrowPoint Communications, Cisco Systems, and Green Millennium.


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