The results of massive plantings of Jatropha worldwide for use as a biofuel feedstock—some 12.8 million ha (49,421 square miles) are expected to be planted by 2015—are “anything but encouraging”, according to Promode Kant from the Institute of Green Economy in India and Shuirong Wu of the Chinese Academy of Forestry.
In a Viewpoint published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology, Kant and Wu suggest that what they call the “extraordinary collapse of Jatropha as a biofuel” appears to be due to “an extreme case of a well intentioned top down climate mitigation approach, undertaken without adequate preparation and ignoring conflict of interest, and adopted in good faith by other countries, gone awry bringing misery to millions of poorest people across the world”.
The current situation began in 2003 with the decision by the Planning Commission of India to introduce mandatory biofuel blending over increasingly larger parts of the country with a target of 30% by 2020. The Planning Commission pushed for Jatropha as it was considered to be high, early yielding, nonbrowsable and requiring little irrigation and even less management.
India encouraged millions of marginal farmers and landless people to plant Jatropha across India, Kant and Wu said. In 2006, China decided to meet 15% of its transportation energy needs by 2020 and, following India’s example, focused on Jatropha, with plans to raise it on more than 1 million ha of marginal lands. Other developing countries took similar measures, in the hope that the crop would provide enhanced income for farmers as well as renewable energy. By 2008, Jatropha had been planted on more than an estimated 900,000 ha, of which 85% was in Asia, 13% in Africa and the rest in Latin America.
According to the authors:
In India the provisions of mandatory blending could not be enforced as seed production fell far short of the expectation. A recent study has reported discontinuance by 85% of the Jatropha farmers.
China is seeing very little production of biodiesel from Jatropha seeds.
Research on Jatropha planting in Tanzania found the net present value of a five-year investment in Jatropha plantation was negative with a loss of US$ 65 per ha on lands with yields of 2 tons/ha of seeds and only slightly beneficial at US$9 per ha with yields of 3 tons when the average expected Jatropha seed yield on poor barren soils is only 1.7 to 2.2 tons/ha.
Jatropha, the authors note, was never considered economically important enough for domestication; as a result, seed and oil productivity is highly variable.
...its phenotypic, physiological, and biochemical variability expressed in flowering age, intensity, and frequency, and seed size and oil content, is largely an epigenetic response to the varied environment it encounters as the phenotypic plasticity of genetic traits allows morphological and physiological adjustments with the environ. But such epigenetic accommodation lowers plant efficiency which is also reflected in its lowered seed production capacity.
These observations are, however, nothing out of ordinary and should have been anticipated by the Planning Commission of India, the powerful apex body that decides national priorities and allocates funds for them, before taking up such a continent sized program involving millions of low income farmers. But the Commission may have relied too heavily on the opinion of one of its top functionaries, who expected an internal rate of return ranging from 19 to 28% across India. National planners’ enthusiasm for the species rubbed off easily on research organizations and Universities that rely heavily on the Planning Commission for funding and some of these institutions themselves became partners in raising Jatropha plantations.
It appears to be an extreme case of a well intentioned top down climate mitigation approach, undertaken without adequate preparation and ignoring conflict of interest, and adopted in good faith by other countries, gone awry bringing misery to millions of poorest people across the world. And it happened because the principle of “due diligence” before taking up large ventures was ignored everywhere. As climate mitigation and adaptation activities intensify attracting large investments there is danger of such lapses becoming more frequent unless “due diligence” is institutionalized and appropriate protocols developed to avoid conflict of interest of research organizations.—Kant and Wu
Promode Kant, Shuirong Wu (2011) The Extraordinary Collapse of Jatropha as a Global Biofuel. Environmental Science & Technology Article ASAP doi: /10.1021/es201943v