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?
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
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 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.
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