Box 11: Jatropha – a “miracle” crop?

As an energy crop, Jatropha curcas (L.)(jatropha) is making a lot of headlines. The plant is drought-tolerant, grows well on marginal land, needs only moderate rainfall of between 300 and 1 000 mm per year, is easy to establish, can help reclaim eroded land and grows quickly. These characteristics appeal to many developing countries that are concerned about diminishing tree cover and soil fertility and are looking for an energy crop that minimizes competition with food crops. At the same time, this small tree produces seeds after two to five years containing 30 percent oil by kernel weight – oil that is already being used to make soap, candles and cosmetics and has similar medicinal properties to castor oil, but is also useful for cooking and electricity generation.

A native of northern Latin/Central America, there are three varieties of jatropha: Nicaraguan, Mexican (distinguished by its less- or non-toxic seed) and Cape Verde. The third of these varieties became established in Cape Verde and from there spread to parts of Africa and Asia. On Cape Verde it was grown on a large scale for export to Portugal for oil extraction and soap-making. At its peak, in 1910, jatropha exports reached over 5 600 tonnes (Heller, 1996).

The many positive attributes claimed for jatropha have translated into numerous projects for large-scale oil and/or biodiesel production as well as small-scale rural development. International and national investors are rushing to establish large areas for jatropha cultivation in Belize, Brazil, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Mozambique, Myanmar, the Philippines, Senegal and the United Republic of Tanzania. The largest- scale venture is the Indian Government’s “National Mission” to cultivate jatropha on 400 000 hectares within the period 2003–07 (Gonsalves, 2006). By 2011–12, the goal is to replace 20 percent of diesel consumption with biodiesel produced from jatropha, cultivated on around 10 million hectares of wasteland and generating year-round employment for 5 million people (Gonsalves, 2006; Francis, Edinger and Becker, 2005). The original target may well be ambitious, as Euler and Gorriz (2004) report that probably only a fraction of the initial 400 000 hectares allocated to jatropha by the Indian Government is actually under cultivation.

The plant also grows widely in Africa, often as hedges separating properties in towns and villages. In Mali, thousands of kilometres of jatropha hedges can be found; they protect gardens from livestock and can also help reduce damage and erosion from wind and water. The seed is already used for soap-making and medicinal purposes, and jatropha oil is now also being promoted by a non-governmental organization to power multifunctional platforms, a slow-speed diesel engine containing an oil expeller, a generator, a small battery charger and a grinding mill (UNDP, 2004). Pilot projects promoting jatropha oil as an energy source for small-scale rural electrification projects are under way in the United Republic of Tanzania and other African countries.

Despite considerable investment and projects being undertaken in many countries, reliable scientific data on the agronomy of jatropha are not available. Information on the relationship between yields and variables such as soil, climate, crop management and crop genetic material on which to base investment decisions is poorly documented. What evidence there is shows a wide range of yields that cannot be linked to relevant parameters such as soil fertility and water availability (Jongschaap et al., 2007). Experience with jatropha plantations in the 1990s, such as the “Proyecto Tempate” in Nicaragua, which ran from 1991 to 1999, ended in failure (Euler and Gorriz, 2004).

Indeed, it appears that the many positive claims for the plant are not based on mature project experiences. Jongschaap et al. (2007) argue that, on a modest scale, jatropha cultivation can help with soil-water conservation, soil reclamation and erosion control, and be used for living fences, firewood, green manure, lighting fuel, local soap production, insecticides and medicinal applications. However, they conclude that claims of high oil yields in combination with low nutrient requirements (soil fertility), lower water use, low labour inputs, the non-existence of competition with food production and tolerance to pests and diseases are unsupported by scientific evidence. The most critical gaps are the lack of improved varieties and available seed. Jatropha has not yet been domesticated as a crop with reliable performance.

The fear that the rush into jatropha on the basis of unrealistic expectations will not only lead to financial losses but also undermine confidence among local communities – a recurrent theme in many African countries – appears to be well founded. Sustainable jatropha plantations will mean taking the uncertainty outof production and marketing. Further research is needed on suitable germplasm and on yields under different conditions, and markets need to be established to promote sustainable development of the crop.

Source: FAO, The State of Food and Agriculture, Biofuels: Prospects, Risks and Opportunities (2008) , Chapter 5, p.68-69

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Other Figures & Tables on this publication:

TABLE 1: Biofuel production by country, 2007

TABLE 2: Biofuel yields for different feedstocks and countries

TABLE 3: Hypothetical potential for ethanol from principal cereal and sugar crops

TABLE 4: Voluntary and mandatory bioenergy targets for transport fuels in G8+5 countries

TABLE 5: Applied tariffs on ethanol in selected countries

TABLE 6: Total support estimates for biofuels in selected OECD economies in 2006

TABLE 7: Approximate average and variable rates of support per litre of biofuel in selected OECD economies

TABLE 8: Energy demand by source and sector: reference scenario

TABLE 9: Land requirements for biofuel production

TABLE 10: Water requirements for biofuel crops

TABLE 11: Import bills of total food and major food commodities for 2007 and their percentage increase over 2006

TABLE 12: Net importers of petroleum products and major cereals, ranked by prevalence of undernourishment

TABLE 13: Share of net staple food-seller households among urban, rural and total households

Box 1: Other types of biomass for heat, power and transport

Box 2: Biotechnology applications for biofuels

Box 3: Biofuel policies in Brazil

Box 4: Biofuel policies in the United States of America

Box 5: Biofuel policies in the European Union

Box 6: Main sources of uncertainty for biofuel projections

Box 7: Biofuels and the World Trade Organization

Box 8: Biofuels and preferential trade initiatives

Box 9: The Global Bioenergy Partnership

Box 10: Biofuels and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Box 11: Jatropha – a “miracle” crop?

Box 12: Agricultural growth and poverty reduction

Box 13: Cotton in the Sahel

Box 14: Biofuel crops and the land issue in the United Republic of Tanzania

Figure 1: World primary energy demand by source, 2005

Figure 2: Total primary energy demand by source and region, 2005

Figure 3: Trends in consumption of transport biofuels

Figure 4: Biofuels – from feedstock to end use

Figure 5: Uses of biomass for energy

Figure 6: Conversion of agricultural feedstocks into liquid biofuels

Figure 7: Estimated ranges of fossil energy balances of selected fuel types

Figure 8: Support provided at different points in the biofuel supply chain

Figure 9: Biofuel production costs in selected countries, 2004 and 2007

Figure 10: Breakeven prices for crude oil and selected feedstocks in 2005

Figure 11: Breakeven prices for maize and crude oil in the United States of America

Figure 12: Breakeven prices for maize and crude oil with and without subsidies

Figure 13: Maize and crude oil breakeven prices and observed prices, 2003–08

Figure 14: Price relationships between crude oil and other biofuel feedstocks, 2003-08

Figure 15: Food commodity price trends 1971–2007, with projections to 2017

Figure 16: Global ethanol production, trade and prices, with projections to 2017

Figure 17: Major ethanol producers, with projections to 2017

Figure 18: Global biodiesel production, trade and prices, with projections to 2017

Figure 19: Major biodiesel producers, with projections to 2017

Figure 20: Total impact of removing trade-distorting biofuel policies for ethanol, 2013–17 average

Figure 21: Total impact of removing trade-distorting biofuel policies for biodiesel, 2013–17 average

Figure 22: Life-cycle analysis for greenhouse gas balances

Figure 23: Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of selected biofuels relative to fossil fuels

Figure 24: Potential for cropland expansion

Figure 25: Potential for yield increase for selected biofuel feedstock crops

Figure 26: Potential for irrigated area expansion

Figure 27: Agricultural trade balance of least-developed countries

Figure 28: Distribution of poor net buyers and sellers of staple foods1

Figure 29: Average welfare gain/loss from a 10 percent increase in the price of the main staple, by income (expenditure) quintile for rural and urban households