Jatropha: A Hard Nut to Crack
by Alexandra Friedman:
“It is a complete failure,” sighed Jenn Baka from her hotel room in Tamil Nadu, India.
After months of studying a unique plant on a Fulbright Scholarship, Baka has deemed it—the jatropha curcas—a flop. Just a few years ago, it was hailed as the crown jewel of Indian sustainable energy. The renewable energy industry began to explore the biofuel potential of jatropha, a plant that produces toxic, non-edible nuts. With a readily extractable 45 percent oil content and the ability to run in any diesel machine after processing, jatropha caught the attention of governments, private companies and NGOs alike.
The Indian government championed jatropha from the start, largely due to the energy needs of its burgeoning population and its dependency on foreign fuel as the fourth largest consumer of oil in the world. With over one billion people and nearly all of its fertile land allocated to food crops, India’s land shortages render most biofuel cultivation impossible.
Still, the Indian Ministry of New and Renewable Energy pledged to achieve 20 percent biodiesel consumption by 2017 and to provide the entire Indian population with a source of renewable energy by 2015. For a while, jatropha seemed like the answer, launching to the top of the national Indian energy agenda due to its purported ability to grow anywhere.
In 2003 the Indian government began to set aside officially designated “wasteland” as jatropha test sites, where a combination of public and private investment enabled the planting of jatropha plantations. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005, which guarantees rural Indian households 100 days of employment on manual labor projects, provided the necessary workforce to plant jatropha. “It was promoted as a crop that can survive in marginal environments under rain-fed conditions, meaning no fertilizer or extra water required, so farmers took up the crop. Surprise, surprise—it doesn’t grow well in marginal conditions,” explained Baka.
At first glance an almost messianic plant, jatropha promised to bolster employment levels and turn wastelands into producers of clean, renewable energy. Researchers had estimated that one acre would yield between 200 and 400 gallons of oil, significantly more than current biofuels like soy and canola oil. But after years of trying to harvest the nut’s potential, researchers and farmers have begun to accept failure. “Jatropha is a pandemic like H1N1. It is not going to solve the energy crisis of the world, but rather take away land where large populations are growing,” said Dr. K.K. Tripathi of the Indian Department of Biotechnology, who has conducted multiple government and private studies revealing poor yields of jatropha.
Dr. Robert Bailis of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, who is currently researching the lifecycle of jatropha as a biofuel, agreed: “Unfortunately, the plant was really over-hyped if you go back four, five years. It was pitched as this miracle crop that can grow in really poor conditions and give great yields with very little input and very little attention from the farmer,” he said, “and none of that is true.”
This trend is especially apparent in the private sector, where companies are steadily decreasing investment in jatropha projects. In 2009 British Petroleum sold its rights in an estimated $12.1 million jatropha project joint venture with D1 Oils for a mere $818,900, making a timely departure before D1 Oils fell into financial woes.
Megha Rathee, chief operating officer at green consultancy firm Earth 100, commented on dwindling governmental investment: “The expected yield of jatropha never came into being, so the government lost interest.” The haphazard implementation of projects like these causes skepticism among researchers like Bailis, who questions the motives of corporations and the Indian government behind the push for jatropha. “People don’t act ethically when it comes to business,” he insisted.
Unfortunately, farmers have suffered much more than private investors. A lack of buyers and refineries means that many of these farmers cannot sell their product, even with the government’s push for jatropha. On top of that, many farmers have reported poor yields and insist that in the three-year-plus period it takes to grow, process, and sell jatropha, they could turn a higher profit by planting crops like sorghum or sugarcane.
Over a third of the 700 farmers Baka interviewed were promised loans from agricultural banks to replace their normal food crops with jatropha, many more receiving encouragement from the local government. Few have received compensation for their efforts.
Jatropha’s final redeeming quality—that it grows in fallow and otherwise unused land—also falls short. Proponents of the plant argue that regardless of yield, jatropha does not compete for valuable food crop space, especially when planted in “wasteland” areas. But Baka found discrepancies in the government terminology of “wasteland.” Baka noted that one village leader she met while doing survey work in Tamil Nadu told her that “the local state government body had forced him to plant jatropha in his village even though he said he didn’t have land. The government was trying to promote it so heavily and do these propagation schemes that they even forced him [to find land] to plant it.”
Because of this external pressure, villages that grow jatropha are often forced to cultivate it in common land areas, normally used as public space for gathering fuel wood or grazing animals. The Indian government definition of wastelands is “lands that can be put to more productive use with effort.” In many instances, “there is this whole other energy economy situated there that’s not mentioned in any of the government assessments of wastelands,” said Baka. These wastelands are often home to trees used for fuel wood, charcoal production, electricity production and tire retreading.
In some locales, jatropha has achieved success: A handful of private companies promoting the plant have implemented an effective system of jatropha production, refinement and exportation. Gold Star Biofuels, a private jatropha oil manufacturer, is one such company. Through its unique humanitarian focus on its farmers, Gold Star, “helps the economy of the country by providing jobs to unemployed farmers, keeps the families together on the farms, pays all of our farmers U.N. wages on levels projected for 2015 and pays national insurance,” explained Jack Holden, the company’s executive director.
Earth 100, part of Goldman Sachs Group’s efforts to reduce its carbon foot-print in India, has similarly achieved success as a buyer in the jatropha oil manufacturing industry. They provide companies with ‘green fleets’ of cars that are powered solely by nonedible biofuels like jatropha. Most of Earth 100’s jatropha comes from wild sources, picked and collected by villagers in an alternative, organic manner of cultivation.
Aside from the social benefits, jatropha seedcakes produced as a byproduct of oil extraction can help replenish the soil. “The technology needed for avoiding chemical fertilizer is very important and significant in reducing the carbon footprint as well as energy use and improving the scenario towards sustainability [of jatropha],” said Dr. Alok Adholeya of the Energy and Resources Institute.
Despite these small-scale successes, the overriding failure of jatropha has left many projects abandoned. The true sustainability of the plant is yet to be determined: Factors influencing the yield, the carbon balance of jatropha, and the amount of energy used to manufacture the oil and the seedcake must still be researched.
The enigma of jatropha remains unsolved. As Rathee explained, “Jatropha is not the ideal solution, but it’s the only one that we have right now.”
Alexandra Friedman ’14 is in Pierson College. Contact her at email@example.com.