Biofuel Jatropha Doesn’t Measure Up

Jatropha, a biofuel-producing plant once touted as a wonder crop, is turning out to be much less dependable than first thought, both environmentalists and industry players say.

Some biofuel producers found themselves agreeing with many of the criticisms detailed in a report launched by campaign group Friends of the Earth this week “Jatropha: money doesn’t grow on trees.”

Jatropha has been widely heralded as a wonder plant whose cultivation on non-arable land in Africa, Asia and Latin America would provide biodiesel and jobs in poor countries without using farmland needed to feed growing numbers of local people.

“The plant can withstand dry conditions, low nutrient levels and exposed conditions,” according to the website of the Netherlands-based Jatropha Investment Fund. “Many desert areas and land which is not currently cultivated will be very suitable for the establishment of plantations.”

But some biofuels producers have found the plant less robust than first thought.

“Jatropha is not the miracle crop that many people think it is,” said Dominic Fava, business development manager of British biofuels firm D1 Oils, which processes jatropha grown in Asia and Africa.

Other company managers say that while the plant needs no irrigation, high yields depend on good soil and chemical additives.

“The idea that jatropha can be grown on marginal land is a red herring,” Harry Stourton, business development director of U.K.-based Sun Biofuels, which cultivates jatropha in Mozambique and Tanzania, told Reuters.

“It does grow on marginal land, but if you use marginal land you’ll get marginal yields,” he said.

Sun Biofuels estimates its Mozambique plantation, once it matures in two years, may yield two tonnes of oil per hectare of jatropha, and notes it is grown with fertilizers and pesticides on the fertile land of former tobacco fields.

“It is perhaps inappropriate to be offering guaranteed returns at such a stage of domestication, when we’ve still got a lot to learn about this crop,” said Fava.

The report was launched amid a heated debate in the European Union about biofuels, which critics charge are competing for land with food crops and creating unwanted side-effects around the globe.

“It’s good that developers agree jatropha is no wonder crop. But it means they’ll grow on fertile land,” said Christine Pohl, author of the report. “We think such land should be used for food production, particularly in light of growing populations and in light of global food insecurity,” she said.

WFP Monitoring Food Prices Closely

The World Food Program’s budget could come under pressure this year if food prices continue to rise, a senior official with the UN agency said Jan. 19.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization said in January its measure of food prices had hit its highest since records began in 1990, topping levels seen in 2008 when price spikes sparked deadly riots in some countries.

The WFP, which brings food aid to over 90 million people and sources most of its food from local countries it operates in, said it expected to have a budget of around $6 billion this year, about the same as in 2010.

“Our donors are in this era of austerity and they are rightly seeking… that we stretch every penny we get from them. It is tight,” Sheila Sisulu, deputy executive director with the WFP, told Reuters.

“It is not crisis proportions yet. But we suspect that if the high prices get worse and we are forced to go into the global market it will be more than tight, it could be serious.”

Sourcing grain locally, the WFP says, helps tap into the potential of local agriculture and also boosts their economies. Sisulu said southern Africa and parts of eastern Africa were reporting good harvests.

“At the moment local purchases are in fact very competitive compared to buying elsewhere on the open market,” she said on a visit to London. “We are cautiously optimistic.”

She said the WFP was monitoring market movements closely.

High food costs have triggered violent protests in North African countries contributing to unrest which toppled Tunisia’s president, while prompting neighbouring states to speed up wheat purchases to secure supplies.

“If you overlay the volatility in the food market with very high youth unemployment then the potential of a blow-up is very great,” Sisulu said. “The majority of countries in Africa have youth unemployment but not all of them are suffering high food prices thankfully.”

Sisulu said growing signs of drought in the Horn of Africa could lead to food shortages in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia. “Certain regions that are prone to drought and weather variation are showing signs of cyclical food shortages,” she said.

“Much as they (Ethiopia) have some areas where they have enough grain, the Somali area is also being affected not only by the fighting but also by what seems like a drought developing.”

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