Jatropha Too Much Too Soon
An unfortunate and serious consequence of the drive for Biofuels has been an increase in the price of food. Demand for corn for conversion into Biofuels has sent prices rocketing. Some years ago Jatropha was advanced as the miracle solution. ‘Jatropha curcas’ is not consumable as food because its fruit is poisonous.
But the plant contains seeds which are a ready source of Oil. Jatropha can grow on arid ground that can’t be used for farming. So it can be grown on wasteland in developing countries enabling small farmers to make extra money by selling the seeds. Ecuador and India in particular grow the plant for use as biofuel. Its a remarkably hardy plant which grows where others won’t, including in sandy soils during drought.
Jatropha started receiving plaudits in the early 1990s when scientists and environmentalists started to conclude that wild seeds might deliver up an abundance of high quality biodiesel. Initial experiments were successful but finding out the size of the potential harvests which might emerge from cultivating the plant in poor soil proved to be something of a challenge. The plant requires at least three years to reach acceptable productivity levels. Attempts were made to persuade Indian farmers to plant seeds in their fallow land. It was
suggested to them that they had nothing to lose by planting Jatrophabut the Indian farmers having acted upon ‘advice’ from foreigners before were sceptical. The farmers realised that the scientists had omitted to take into account the fact that Jatropha bushes still require irrigation during the summer months when they traditionally leave their fields barren and go to work in the cities or spend the time looking after their better fields. The result was that the plants failed to thrive or were not planted at all.
In 2009, Ecuador tried a different more practicable route. The government there has been encouraging small farmers in the Manabi coastal region to refine their husbandry techniques, Manabi farmers had for generations been relying on Jatropha as farmland fences. The poisonous plants keep animals away, Following some initial difficulties where the farmers would devastate the bushes by cutting them back rather than carefully harvesting the seeds the experiment has had some success. In year one 50 participants harvested 24 tons of Jatropha seeds but by 2012, 1500 families harvested 215 tons. The region is one of the poorest in the country so backed by a government
guarantee that it will buy the seeds the venture has been a valuable extra source of income. The harvest has become the occasion for festival with people carrying large sacks of Jatropha seeds on their donkeys and the whole venture benefits from the fact that the time of year when Jatropha is harvested would otherwise be a time when there’s nothing else to gather in.
The Ecuador Jatropha experiment runs parallel with the Galapagos Islands Renewable Energy Project which is supposed to bring the Ecuador islands to complete reliance on renewable energy sources by 2020. It is hoped that Jatropha will be an important ingredient on the renewables mix.
The Jatropha Boom
Despite its initial problems cultivation is finally booming in India. Jatropha is cultivated on wasteland and many buses are run on its biodiesel product. The wider cultivation of Jatropha however is still in doubt. One difficulty is that even its leaves are poisonous as are the football-shaped Jatropha fruits containing the
The seeds which in turn contain the Jatropha oil. As few as three Jatropha seeds can be fatal to humans and the effects on livestock which are not familiar with the plant might be devastating. It is not yet clear what Jatropha’s long term effect on soil might be. In parts of Australia the Jatropha plant is banned. On the other hand however, subject to proper processing (detoxification) Jatropha can be used as fertiliser, for medicinal purposes, as animal feed, and to fuel Biomass power stations.
In the years immediately prior to 2008 however, large sums of money were invested in projects, all over the tropics including some plantations of tens of thousands of acres of Jatropha bushes. Mozambique, in southern Africa, was a Jatropha centre. The president of Mozambique went from settlement to settlement, urging people to cultivate Jatropha. The president promised that Jatropha would deliver better lives in the form of fuel and money. The president even advised villagers that they could produce their own Jatropha diesel at home ‘without a factory’.
The Jatropha Bust
However the reality was not so great. The ‘miracle plant’ Jatropha did not live up to its miraculous reputation. To be fair to Jatropha the later difficulties were partly the result of the post 2007 financial crisis. The high price of oil which underpinned the economics of biodiesel as a whole fell dramatically. The money dried up and foreign investors withdrew.
But there was a root fundamental misunderstanding of the Jatropha plant itself. Jatropha survives in extreme arid conditions and grows in poor soil. But under those conditions it does not produce the high yield of seeds necessary for economic viability. I good yield of Jatropha seeds needs good nutrition and a ready supply of water. And there was a misunderstanding of basic economics. If Jatropha plants are planted in any soil something else goes unplanted and even in the rare instances where nothing else would have been cultivated there is still cost in production in the form of the labour which could be doing something else or in the capital required to keep the irrigation going and to run the rest of the Jatropha operations. And even uncultivated land might otherwise be used for something.
Perhaps the sceptical Indian farmers were right to be so. In this instance the Jatropha boom has been a let down for everyone but as ever the real losers are the people at the bottom, the Third World farmers who accepted the assurances of the Western advisers (and of the President of Mozambique). It is they who lost money they couldn’t afford to lose because they spent their time doing something that didn’t pay when they could have been doing what they had always done and which they knew would.
But the Jatropha story might not be over. Small scale production of Jatropha oil is still flourishing in parts of Africa where like the Ecuadorian farmers smallholders can grow Jatropha on very poor land which they wouldn’t have used for anything else, or where the bushes fit in with their other operations and so the venture costs them little time and money. Meanwhile scientists are doing what they arguably should have done at the outset, selective breeding plants for yield and breeding what is still in reality a wild plant into real agricultural Jatropha crop. Given its natural head start there is no reason to believe that if Jatropha is nurtured and bred in the way that palm and corn has been over the millennia it won’t become equally or more productive in only a very few years. At that point farmers will be able to judge for themselves on a case by case basis whether Jatropha is worth planting.