At the beginning of the 21st century, Jatropha curcas, an unassuming shrub-like tree native to Central America, was planted across the world. The rush to jatropha was driven by its promise as a sustainable source of biofuel that could be grown on degraded, unfertile lands so as not to displace food crops. But inflated claims of high yields fell flat.
Now, after years of research and development, the sole remaining large plantation focused on growing jatropha is in Ghana. And Singapore-based jOil, which owns that plantation, claims the jatropha comeback is on.
“All those companies that failed, adopted a plug-and-play model of scouting for the wild varieties of jatropha. But to commercialize it, you need to domesticate it. This is a part of the process that was missed [during the boom],” jOil CEO Vasanth Subramanian told Mongabay in an interview.
Having learned from the mistakes of jatropha’s past failures, he says the oily plant could yet play a key role as a liquid biofuel feedstock, reducing transportation carbon emissions at the global level. A new boom could bring additional benefits, with jatropha also a potential source of fertilizers and even bioplastics.
But some researchers are skeptical, noting that jatropha has already gone through one hype-and-fizzle cycle. They caution that if the plant is to reach full potential, then it is essential to learn from past mistakes. During the first boom, jatropha plantations were hampered not only by poor yields, but by land grabbing, deforestation, and social problems in countries where it was planted, including Ghana, where jOil operates.
Experts also suggest that jatropha’s tale offers lessons for scientists and entrepreneurs exploring promising new sources for liquid biofuels — which exist aplenty.
Miracle shrub, major bust
Jatropha’s early 21st-century appeal stemmed from its promise as a “second-generation” biofuel, which are sourced from grasses, trees and other plants not derived from edible crops such as maize, soy or oil palm. Among its multiple purported virtues was an ability to thrive on degraded or “marginal” lands; thus, it was claimed it would never compete with food crops, so the theory went.
Back then, jatropha ticked all the boxes, says Alexandros Gasparatos, now at the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Future Initiatives. “We had a crop that seemed miraculous; that can grow without too much fertilizer, too many pesticides, or too much demand for water, that can be exported [as fuel] abroad, and does not compete with food because it is poisonous.”
Governments, international agencies, investors and companies bought into the hype, launching initiatives to plant, or promise to plant, millions of hectares of jatropha. By 2008, plantations covered some 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) in Latin America, Africa and Asia, according to a market study prepared for WWF.
It didn’t take long for the mirage of the miraculous biofuel tree to fade.
In 2009, a Friends of the Earth report from Eswatini (still known at the time as Swaziland) warned that jatropha’s high demands for land would indeed bring it into direct conflict with food crops. By 2011, a global review noted that “cultivation outpaced both scientific understanding of the crop’s potential as well as an understanding of how the crop fits into existing rural economies and the degree to which it can thrive on marginal lands.”
Projections estimated 4.7 million hectares (11.7 million acres) would be planted by 2010, and 12.8 million hectares (31.6 million acres) by 2015. However, only 1.19 million hectares (2.94 million acres) were growing by 2011. Projects and plantations began to fail as expected yields refused to materialize. Jatropha could grow on degraded lands and tolerate drought conditions, as claimed, but yields stayed poor.
“In my opinion, this combination of speculative investment, export-oriented potential, and potential to grow under relatively poorer conditions, created a very big problem,” resulting in “underestimated yields that were going to be produced,” Gasparatos says.
As jatropha plantations went from boom to bust, they were also plagued by environmental, social and economic troubles, say experts. Accusations of land grabs, the conversion of food crop lands, and clearing of natural areas were reported.
Studies found that land-use change for jatropha in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Tanzania led to a loss of biodiversity. A study from Mexico found the “carbon payback” of jatropha plantations due to associated forest loss ranged between two and 14 years, and “in some scenarios, the carbon debt may never be recovered.” In India, production showed carbon benefits, but the use of fertilizers resulted in increases of soil and water “acidification, ecotoxicity, eutrophication.”
“If you look at most of the plantations in Ghana, they claim that the jatropha produced was situated on marginal land, but the idea of marginal land is very elusive,” explains Abubakari Ahmed, a lecturer at the University for Development Studies, Ghana. He studied the implications of jatropha plantations in the country over several years, and found that a lax definition of “marginal” meant that assumptions that the land co-opted for jatropha plantations had been lying untouched and unused was often illusory.
“Marginal to whom?” he asks. “The fact that … currently nobody is using [land] for farming doesn’t mean that nobody is using it [for other purposes]. There are a lot of nature-based livelihoods on those landscapes that you may not necessarily see from satellite imagery.”
Learning from jatropha
There are key lessons to be learned from the experience with jatropha, say analysts, which should be heeded when considering other auspicious second-generation biofuels.
“There was a boom [in investment], but unfortunately not of research, and action was taken based on alleged advantages of jatropha,” says Bart Muys, a professor in the Division of Forest, Nature and Landscape at the University of Leuven, Belgium. In 2014, as the jatropha hype was winding down, Muys and colleagues published a paper citing key lessons.
Fundamentally, he explains, there was a lack of knowledge about the plant itself and its needs. This vital requirement for upfront research could be applied to other potential biofuel crops, he says. Last year, for example, his team released a paper analyzing the yields of pongamia (Millettia pinnata), a “fast-growing, leguminous and multipurpose tree species” with biofuel promise.
Like jatropha, pongamia can be grown on degraded and marginal land. But Muys’s research showed yields to be highly variable, contrary to other reports. The team concluded that “pongamia still cannot be considered a significant and stable source of biofuel feedstock due to persisting knowledge gaps.” Use of such cautionary data could prevent wasteful financial speculation and careless land conversion for new biofuels.
“There are other very promising trees or plants that could serve as a fuel or a biomass producer,” Muys says. “We wanted to avoid [them going] in the same direction of premature hype and fail, like jatropha.”
Gasparatos underlines crucial requirements that must be met before moving ahead with new biofuel plantations: high yields must be unlocked, inputs to reach those yields understood, and a ready market must be available.
“Basically, the crop needs to be domesticated, or [scientific understanding] at a level that we know how it is grown,” Gasparatos says. Jatropha “was practically undomesticated when it was promoted, which was so weird.”
How biofuel lands are acquired is also key, says Ahmed. Based on experiences in Ghana where communally used lands were purchased for production, authorities must ensure that “guidelines are put in place to check how large-scale land acquisitions will be done and documented in order to reduce some of the problems we observed.”
A jatropha comeback?
Despite all these challenges, some researchers still believe that under the right conditions, jatropha could be a valuable biofuel solution — particularly for the difficult-to-decarbonize transportation sector “responsible for approximately one quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.”
“I think jatropha has some potential, but it needs to be the right material, grown in the right place, and so on,” Muys said.
Mohammad Alherbawi, a postdoctoral research fellow at Qatar’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University, continues holding out hope for jatropha. He sees it as a way that Qatar might reduce airline carbon emissions. According to his estimates, its use as a jet fuel could result in about a 40% reduction of “cradle to grave” emissions.
Alherbawi’s team is conducting ongoing field studies to boost jatropha yields by fertilizing crops with sewage sludge. As an added benefit, he envisages a jatropha green belt spanning 20,000 hectares (nearly 50,000 acres) in Qatar. “The implementation of the green belt can really enhance the soil and agricultural lands, and protect them against any further deterioration caused by dust storms,” he says.
But the Qatar project’s success still hinges on many factors, not least the ability to obtain quality yields from the tree. Another crucial step, Alherbawi explains, is scaling up production technology that uses the entirety of the jatropha fruit to increase processing efficiency.
Back in Ghana, jOil is currently managing more than 1,300 hectares (1,830 acres) of jatropha, and growing a pilot plot on 300 hectares (740 acres) working with more than 400 farmers. Subramanian explains that years of research and development have resulted in varieties of jatropha that can now achieve the high yields that were lacking more than a decade ago.
“We were able to hasten the yield cycle, improve the yield variety and enhance the fruit-bearing capacity of the tree,” Subramanian says. In essence, he states, the tree is now domesticated. “Our first project is to expand our jatropha plantation to 20,000 hectares.”
Biofuels aren’t the only application JOil is looking at. The fruit and its byproducts could be a source of fertilizer, bio-candle wax, a charcoal substitute (important in Africa where much wood is still burned for cooking), and even bioplastics.
But it is the transport sector that still beckons as the ideal biofuels application, according to Subramanian. “The biofuels story has once again reopened with the energy transition drive for oil companies and bio-refiners — [driven by] the search for alternative fuels that would be emission friendly.”
A complete jatropha life-cycle assessment has yet to be completed, but he believes that cradle-to-grave greenhouse gas emissions related to the oily plant will be “competitive … These two aspects — that it is technically suitable, and the carbon sequestration — makes it a very strong candidate for adoption for … sustainable aviation,” he says. “We believe any such expansion will take place, [by clarifying] the definition of degraded land, [allowing] no competition with food crops, nor in any way endangering food security of any country.”
Where next for jatropha?
Whether jatropha can truly be carbon neutral, eco-friendly and socially responsible depends on complex factors, including where and how it’s grown — whether, for example, its production model is based in smallholder farms versus industrial-scale plantations, say experts. Then there’s the nagging problem of achieving high yields.
Earlier this year, the Bolivian government announced its intention to pursue jatropha plantations in the Gran Chaco biome, part of a national biofuels push that has stirred debate over potential consequences. The Gran Chaco’s dry forest biome is already in deep trouble, having been heavily deforested by aggressive agribusiness practices.
Many past plantations in Ghana, warns Ahmed, converted dry savanna woodland, which became problematic for carbon accounting. “The net carbon was often negative in most of the jatropha sites, because the carbon sequestration of jatropha cannot be compared to that of a shea tree,” he explains.
Other researchers chronicle the “potential of Jatropha curcas as an environmentally benign biodiesel feedstock” in Malaysia, Indonesia and India. But still other researchers remain doubtful of the ecological viability of second-generation biofuels. “If Mexico promotes biofuels, such as the exploitation of jatropha, the rebound is that it possibly becomes so successful, that we will have a lot of associated land-use change,” says Daniel Itzamna Avila-Ortega, co-founder of the Mexican Center of Industrial Ecology and a Ph.D. student with the Stockholm Resilience Centre; he has conducted research on the possibilities of jatropha contributing to a circular economy in Mexico.
Avila-Ortega cites past land-use problems associated with expansion of various crops, including oil palm, sugarcane and avocado: “Our law enforcement is so weak that it cannot cope with the private sector doing whatever they want, in terms of creating environmental problems.”
Researchers in Mexico are currently exploring jatropha-based livestock feed as a low-cost and sustainable replacement for grain. Such uses might be well suited to local contexts, Avila-Ortega agrees, though he remains concerned about potential environmental costs.
He suggests limiting jatropha expansion in Mexico to make it a “crop that conquers land,” growing it only in truly poor soils in need of restoration. “Jatropha could be one of those plants that can grow in very sterile wastelands,” he explains. “That’s the only way I would ever promote it in Mexico — as part of a forest recovery strategy for wastelands. Otherwise, the associated problems are higher than the potential benefits.”
Jatropha’s global future remains uncertain. And its potential as a tool in the fight against climate change can only be unlocked, say many experts, by avoiding the litany of difficulties associated with its first boom.
Will jatropha projects that sputtered to a halt in the early 2000s be fired back up again? Subramanian believes its role as a sustainable biofuel is “imminent” and that the comeback is on. “We have strong interest from the energy industry now,” he says, “to collaborate with us to develop and expand the supply chain of jatropha.”
Banner image: Jatropha curcas trees in Hawai‘i. Image by Forest and Kim Starr via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
This article was originally published at Mongabay.com