Mass planting of jatropha as a biofuel crop could benefit poor areas as well as combating global warming, but only if a number of scientific and production issues are properly addressed, a review has warned.
Growing jatropha for biofuel on degraded land unsuitable for food and cash crops could help improve the earnings of small farmers and counter poverty, reports the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in the review published last month.
The plant is an alternative crop for small farmers 'particularly in semi-arid, remote areas that have little opportunity for alternative farming strategies, few alternative livelihood options and increasing environmental degradation,' notes the FAO.
And biofuels produced in sufficient volume could make a significant impact on global warming, as it is estimated that transport accounts for a fifth of total greenhouse gas emissions.
But, so far, decisions about jatropha 'have been made without the backing of sufficient science-based knowledge,' the FAO says in the review, which includes case studies from South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
For jatropha planting to meet its 'pro-poor' objectives, international support is needed for research on genetic improvement of varieties, and on cultivation practices such as water conservation and integrated pest and nutrient management, the review recommends.
More research is also needed on oil processing techniques and new oil products to help smallholders reap maximum profits.
The review also notes that, in India, low yields have been reported despite farmers using a range of seed varieties that are available worldwide. But low yields need not be a barrier if other broader objectives are met, such as reclamation of wasteland, job creation and affordable biofuel for the lighting of homes, for cookers and for operating small milling machines, grinders, irrigation pumps and two-wheeled tractors.
Experts should also ensure that projects to help small farmers grow jatropha can qualify for certification under the clean development mechanism (CDM), which allows organisations to earn credit for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.
Other jatropha policies could include targeting remote areas with poor transport links and ensuring large-scale plantations do not compete with food crops.
But Balakrishna Gowda, biofuel project coordinator in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, where jatropha is grown, and professor at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore, said that it would be unrealistic to expect jatropha to reverse poverty 'overnight' in developing countries.
'The plant requires water and nutrition like any other plant [even if it grows on degraded land],' he told SciDev.Net. 'And it takes at least five to seven years for the plants to mature and grow their first fruit. We can rule out expectations of a great 'overnight' yield.'