Reality check for `miracle` biofuel crop


Source: SciDev.Net

The hardy jatropha tree as a biofuel source may not be the panacea for smallholders that some have claimed, say Miyuki Iiyama and James Onchieku.

It sounds too good to be true: a biofuel crop that grows on semi-arid lands and degraded soils, replaces fossil fuels in developing countries and brings huge injections of cash to poor smallholders.

That is what some are claiming for Jatropha curcas, the 'miracle' biofuel crop. But studies on the ground suggest a lot more research and development (R&D) is needed before farmers can come close to seeing any of the promised benefits.

So what exactly is jatropha, and what has a 'reality check' on its potential revealed?

About jatropha

Jatropha is a small tree that grows to 3–5 metres in height and a member of the Euphorbiaceae family. It is native to Central America but is now grown in many parts of the tropics and subtropics. The seeds, which contain up to 35 per cent oil, can be processed into biodiesel for transport and biofuel for lighting and cooking.

It is poisonous and cannot be used for food. In many places, it is also grown as a fence to exclude livestock, and is also used for traditional medicine. The seed cake, a by-product from biofuel production, can be used for fertiliser and animal feed, provided it is detoxified. The roots, which are able to reach water and nutrients deep in the soil, can cut soil erosion.

A report by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) found that in 2008 jatropha was planted on about 900,000 hectares globally, the bulk -  760,000 hectares -  in Asia, along with 120,000 hectares in Africa and 20,000 in Latin America.

But by 2015 jatropha planting will have risen more than ten times to 12.8 million hectares worldwide, the report estimates

The hype

It has only been in the past few years that interest in jatropha as a biofuel crop has mounted, particularly because of its purported ability to thrive on marginal land and in drought conditions.

As for claims about the tree's fast-growing nature, early fruiting, pest and disease resistance due to its toxicity, and its potential to not only produce biodiesel, but also as fuel for light and heat for cooking.

The media has chimed in too, with articles about the potential for jatropha to stop deforestation and provide greatly-increased incomes as international investments promise to convert wasteland into plantations that create thousands of jobs. Typical statements have been: 'Jatropha doesn't have to compete with food crops for arable land', and 'even in the worst of soils, it grows like weeds.'

In an attempt to test the claims, Endelevu Energy, the World Agroforestry Centre and the Kenya Forestry Research Institute embarked on the Reality Check study supported by the German government, which we published last December.

The reality

The main finding of the Reality Check is that jatropha is not economically viable when grown by smallholders in Kenya, either in a monoculture or intercrop plantation model. This is due to low yields and high production costs, and a lack of guidelines for applying agronomic and silvicultural best practices.

Hundreds of farmers we interviewed for the study spoke of extremely low yields and uneconomical production costs. Many had paid as much as US$12–20 per kilogram for seeds, but received little or no advice on crop management, and were unable to access markets for the small number of seeds harvested. They chose to abandon the jatropha they had planted.

The only case where we would recommend jatropha cultivation — and where it makes economic sense — is as a natural fence, as this needs few inputs. This is the way jatropha has been grown in East Africa since it was introduced centuries ago.

As for the claim that jatropha can grow almost anywhere, our research found that while this may be the case, high yields are not guaranteed. Even in ideal conditions, the tree requires management to become productive, including pruning to increase the number of flowering branches, and adequate fertiliser and water.

In addition, more than 75 per cent of farmers we spoke to reported at least one pest or disease in the course of a year, including golden beetle, leaf spotting, mildew and fungus.

Meeting of minds

While we were analysing the situation in Kenya, the FAO and IFAD were conducting their review into the anti-poverty potential of jatropha at a global level.

Our report shares many of their conclusions, in particular that yields are marginal, at best, and many of the investments and policy decisions on developing jatropha as an oil crop have been made without sufficient scientific evidence.

'Realising the true potential of jatropha requires separating facts from the claims and half truths,' the FAO/IFAD report says.

It does recognise that if well exploited, jatropha could provide opportunities for good returns and rural development, but 'expecting jatropha to substitute significantly for oil imports in developing countries is unrealistic'.

Too soon for promises

So, while it is possible that jatropha could eventually evolve into a higher yielding oil crop that is productive on marginal lands, and markets could be established for its oil and other useful by-products, it is far too soon to make such promises.

The reality is that jatropha is still essentially a semi-wild plant and as such its seed yields, oil quality and oil content are all highly variable. Considerable research is needed into the agronomy of jatropha and crop improvement.

The FAO/IFAD report recommends short-term research focused on producing superior clonal plants, with longer-term work on developing improved varieties with reliable trait expression and a seed production system that ensures farmer have access to productive and reliable planting materials.

For now, the main potential of jatropha is as part of a strategy to reclaim degraded land, provide a source of locally processed and used oil, and as a hedgerow to control grazing. Until further R&D is conducted — by establishing jatropha trials in various agro-ecological zones, with farmers informed of best practices — significant plantations remain risky and uneconomical. Only 'business as usual' should continue.

Miyuki Iiyama is a fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre; James Onchieku is principal research officer at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute.

Customer comments

  1. By ASHOK RAINA on

    Dangers of Jatropha overweight its goodness. More we study and understand the biology of Jatropha more disappoints great our way. The greatest cause of concern is the severity of JMV virus, a broad-spectrum and very aggressive pathogen that destroys Jatropha plantation within a matter of 3 years from the appearance of first symptoms in the plantation. Still more alarming is the cross-infection from various secondary hosts, adding to the epidemiology of the VIRAL infection. The consequences are devastating. Another equally worrisome is the spread of fungal blight. More about it next time.

  2. By Neil Faulkner on

    @ Scare-mongering like this does nothing to progress the cause of sustainable energy. Indeed it hampers efforts to develop dependable solutions when poorly informed individuals spout half truths without a balanced, unbiased counterspective. I found a technical site describing the JMV (Jatropha Mosaic Virus): It appears that it does not have been recorded affecting J. curcas and is only noted as being found in Kenya and Puerto Rica. It is spread by aphids which are readily managed with an organic pest repellent Clean Development Projects Limited ( designed for whitefly infestation in Pakistani cotton. Additional methods to reduce the potential for vector borne disease is the co-planting of certain plants to attract predatory insects and so attract insectivorous birds as well as the rearing of poultry amongst the trees. Regarding fungal blight, the disease can be prevented by companion planting of companion species, use of beneficial sub-soil treatments to mobilize copper compounds. Essentially, sensitive plant husbandry will overcome the above. Industrial management of vast plantations will only exacerbate and incubate such problems until they do become disastrous. Contact Clean Development Projects for more complete information:

  3. By ASHOK RAINA on

    Thank God! Jatropha was a non-starter. Ashok K Raina Phytotron Research Foundation, Bangalore – 560 064. Yes – It continues to be the fascinating endure for me like many others, spending past, present and even future few years, just wondering which non-food oilseed, how and where to grow for more seeds per unit area and time to create a renewable energy substitute to black gold. Jatropha easily passed as a surprisingly and simply too, the logical answer. Why not? It was easy to grow, multiply, and process for non-edible oilseeds. But but, but ---- and many more buts were soon to be discovered. I once convinced a friend of mine to bet few bucks with me on Jatropha. Upon my later very apologetically imploring, he did sermon me “--- it was nothing more than Akal Khateer Jamha”. Right he was, but did he succeed in stopping me – not even in my dreams. Saddled on the Trojan horse, I once again braved, thus looking for the treasure trove. How I could not ignore the Maharashtra and Andhra failed Jatropha ventures of ‘80s and ‘90s, and again all the while continued to reason and convince myself, and how I could not but ignore such hardbound planning commission drafts, and redrafts on Biofuel Policy from the past, present and surely future strategies of Nation building. Comedy of Error – You may dare say so? Jatropha is high Yielding oil seed crop only after Oil palm on planet Earth. But then it is a wild bush, with very little genetic variability of the sorts that can be usefully utilized for obtaining high and more importantly stable yields. Jatropha bears fruit for a very, very, -- God only knows how much, long, long time. But then needs pruning and tending, watering and fertizers, so was very wisely professed without knowing how, when and to what consequences. Jatropha must be divine, to be free from disease and pest, but then pest and diseases are not. So Jatropha often is found severely infested with fungal, bacterial and viral diseases and damaged by major and minor pest attacks. Jatropha is a fence plant and well know from its wild occurrences. But when grown and intercropped, innocent children could not be protected from food poisoning due to the consumption of few seeds. The real Bad news is that commonly occurring Jatropha Mosaic Virus has a very wide host range and cross-infection between crop and non-crop species does occur and JMV spread can cause pandemic with serious implication, threatening several food, vegetable and fiber crops. Before it is too late, it is time to sound a National Alert on threat from Jatropha Viruses to crops and the indiscriminate and unplanned plantation must be removed. I shall be pained more than any one else to see Jatropha go from our neighborhood, but believe me it is only for the common good. So please do not hesitate. Jatropha eradication is necessary for food security and that is definitely not anti-social act. Ashok Raina can contacted at: