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July 26, 2010

FAO warns against jatropha 'hyped claims and half-truths'

In a significant implication for the country’s biofuel policy, a specialised arm of the United Nations has warned that the developing countries should not buy blindly into the ‘jatropha for biodiesel’ argument. Warning against the hype and half-truths around jatropha curacas, an oil seed plant touted as a major potential source of biofuels, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned in a special report that yields need to improve significantly for the crop to give an adequate return.

“Although there have been increasing investments and policy decisions concerning the use of jatropha as an oil crop, they have been based on little evidence-based information,” the report said, adding that identifying the true potential of jatropha requires separating the evidence from the hyped claims and half-truths.”

The report comes two weeks after two researchers at Belgium’s University of Leuven said that the crop requires more water than had been thought, and was best suited for small-scale farming in remote areas, where alternative fuel supplies are erratic and expensive.

The cautioning report is also a pointer to several giant corporate houses worldwide such as GM that have invested in the crop. US automobile giant GM was one of the companies that invested in jatropha following a surge of interest five years ago in the potential for biofuels.

In April, it announced a five-year programme with the US Department of Energy and India’s Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute to demonstrate the oilseed’s commercial potential. A good chunk of India’s biofuel programme rests on the success of jatropha as a green diesel alternative, but the FAO report has said that it is unrealistic to expect jatropha to substitute oil imports significantly in the developing countries where it is grown.

The FAO has also punctured the argument that growing jatropha utilizes marginal lands effectively. The level of economic returns needed to secure private sector investment “may not be attainable on degraded land”, FAO said, noting considerably better gross margins which can be gained on sugar cane and oil palm plantations. The UN organisation, however, does not rule out the oilseed completely, but has flagged an urgent need to multiply the yields.

The FAO acknowledged that while there was limited information available on private sector work in jatropha, “it may be assumed that advances have been made”. Interestingly, recently shareholders of D1 Oils, the loss-making, London-listed jatropha specialist, foiled a coup by activist investor Brian Myerson, who last year lost an attempt to switch the group’s resources to producing cane ethanol.


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