Does Jatropha risk a backlash from public opinion? Jatropha proponents have justifiably been promoting its benefits as a sustainable source of oil crops for years, but from the agro-business side it seems to be evolving in the opposite way: monoculture, hurting biodiversity, causing deforestation and competing for land with food crops.

JATROPHA FOR BIOFUELS

Steve Clemens | UBI

EarthToys Renewable Energy Article
Does Jatropha risk a backlash from public opinion? Jatropha proponents have justifiably been promoting its benefits as a sustainable source of oil crops for years, but from the agro-business side it seems to be evolving in the opposite way: monoculture, hurting biodiversity, causing deforestation and competing for land with food crops.

Jatropha For Biofuels, The Silver Lining Has A Dark Side.

By Steve Clemens, Lecturer Environmental Economics at UBI, Brussels


On December 30 2008, the world’s first Jatropha-fuelled Boeing 747 took to the air in an Air New Zealand flight test. One of the 4 engines was running on a 50-50 mixture of Jatropha oil on kerosene, and the 2-hour test was a great success. Air New Zealand was happy to announce its plans of using millions of barrels of Jatropha-based biofuels in the future, to reduce its carbon emissions. Virgin Atlantic did the same thing in February of the same year, but then with biofuels based on coconut and babassu oils.


Coconut oil as aviation fuel, Virgin territory.

Aviation, transport, shipping, they’re all looking to reduce their environmental impact and carbon footprint. While all-electric and possibly hydrogen are on the horizon, biofuels are an immediate and obvious choice for the coming decades. The hardware changes to planes, cars and ships are not significant, especially when the biofuels are used in mixtures with fossil fuels, Nor are the supply lines for biofuels very different from today’s fossil fuels channels. Moreover, many an oil company is currently directing large investments towards biofuels in order to enhance their sustainability, cfr. the BP and D1 oils $160million joint venture into biofuels from Jatropha, on a planned 1 million hectares of plantations in India, Southern Africa and South-East Asia.

Ideally, biofuels are made of waste products of food processes, like bagasse from sugar refining, but the Brazilian history of running about half its national transport fleet on sugarcane-based bio-ethanol, using only 1% of its arable land, undeniably demonstrates that biofuels, even so-called first generation biofuels, have a legitimate role to play in a sustainable future.

But which is the single best fuel crop to develop? This is a trick question as the answer is: a mix of crops. No community or nation should expose itself to the risks of monoculture, but there is one criterion that dominates the debate: produced oil per surface of land used. The below table lists a few popular oil crops and their per hectare (2,5 acres) yield.

Palm oil seems to be the winner and that is why countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have heavily invested in palm oil plantations in an effort to grow their own fuels source, but also in an attempt at creating a sustainable agro-export-industry.

Such monocultures, however, use up regional water supplies, displace indigenous people and habitats, and benefit (often government-subsidized) corporations and large landholders at the expense of the locals. In countries like Brazil, Chile and Argentina, natives forests and savannahs have given way to soy and palm oil plantation, leaving the poor both poorer and landless, and agribusiness giants like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge on a path of unsustainability.

Also in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, vast swaths of forest have been felled and burned, carbon rich peat bogs have been drained and rain forests destroyed to make way for extensive palm oil farming.

Clearly, biofuels from oil crops face the deforestation argument, as well as a loss of biodiversity issue, and a myriad of social issues. The debate on palm oil is a complicated one, not likely to be dissolved in a simple article. However, most of it comes down to land-use: should we burn forests and jungles (emitting stored greenhouse gases), which were converting CO2 into oxygen through photosynthesis, to clear land which contained a rich biodiversity DNA pool, to grow fuel crops in order to have lower-carbon transport and boost economies?

Public opinion has spoken and the answer is predominantly NO. Hence the ever declining spot and future prices for Crude Palm Oil (CPO), currently trading at $450/ton on the Bursa Malaysia Derivatives, a mere third of its former glory in May 2008.

In comes Jatropha.

Jatropha Curcas is a plant that originated in Central-America but now grows all over the tropical belt. The main benefits are:

  • Jatropha does not compete with food crops as it is inherently toxic.
    Some medicine-men used to distil a very potent laxative from the Jatropha seeds, but in more recent ages its toxicity limited its use to a perimeter shrub of food crop fields, to keep the animals from eating the corn and wheat at the centre. Unfortunately, there are reports of more frequent deaths due to misinformation, e.g. 5 children confusing the Jatropha seed with some other food item were killed last November in India’s Mandwar village, Bijnore district. On a more optimistic note, researchers Makkar, K. Becker and B. Schmook at the University of Hohenheim in Germany have laid the ground work for detoxifying Jatropha products as to make them edible, based on a few Mexican strains of edible Jatropha seeds.
  • Jatropha is very drought resistant.
    This does not mean it will yield oil during a period of insufficient irrigation but merely that the plant will have survived the period of drought, so replanting is not necessary after prolonged water shortage. This makes Jatropha ideal for area’s occasionally affected by drought, be it from natural or political cause. Some area’s depend on irrigation and drinking water from other regions and thus politically depend on others, cfr. Gaza vs. Israel, or Murcia in Southern Spain depending on water from more Northern provinces.
  • Jatropha cultivation provides local employment as harvesting requires manual labour, year-round.
  • Jatropha can be grown on land of lesser agricultural value, also called marginal land. In its native habitat, Jatropha is actually a weed. So it proliferates, in part due to its drought resistance, in arid and semi-arid areas in countries like Tanzania, Egypt, Kenya, etc. Whether or not it depletes soils after years of monoculture remains to be seen.

The truth is that the rush for sustainable sources of biofuels has pushed Jatropha farmers mostly in tropical areas to plant it in massive and extensive plantation, just like palm oil, in a monoculture context. Cfr. picture below.

Reality shows that, if unchecked, Jatropha is mainly NOT planted on marginal lands, and NOT in arid areas, but in tropical areas, where the climate - warm winters and heavy rainfall - is largely conducive to food crops, which will inevitably be displaced by biofuels crops.

Does Jatropha risk a backlash from public opinion?

The Jatropha proponents have justifiably been promoting its benefits for years as a sustainable source of oil crops, but from the agro-business side it seems to be evolving in the opposite way: monoculture, hurting biodiversity, causing deforestation and competing for land with food crops. How does public opinions react to what will ultimately be perceived as nothing less than betrayal?

Palm oil planters have never claimed their produce was planted in any other way than in large extensive plantations. They have never claimed you could grow palm oil on land otherwise unsuitable for food crops, they have never claimed very low water usage. They never claimed any of these sustainability issues other than offering their existing produce to a new sales channel: biofuels producers in Europe and the US.

If crude palm oil futures are low based on public opinion’s distrust due to its land-use, biodiversity and food-vs-fuel record, what will happen to the Jatropha crowd once people find out its dark side, i.e. the failing practical execution - of planting palm oil style – going against all the sustainability claims that were made at the outset?

Public opinion works on perception more than facts or perspective, so the single most important factor for a new product, brand, technology or industry is to be perceived as at least matching its created expectations. Any delivery of value below the expected amount risks attracting a lot of attention and risks having its record being blown out of proportion.

I’m afraid that if & when public opinion finds out about Jatropha’s dark side, including the fact that Jatropha delivers less than half the amount of oil per ‘destroyed’ acre of jungle than unassuming palm oil, thàt is exactly what will happen: people will be surprised, then appalled, then outraged.

Let’s draw comparisons with recent events where public opinion felt betrayed, like the melamine scandal in Chinese milk products, lead-contaminated Barbie-dolls (again from China), a €200million bribery at Siemens, a $75billion evaporation of funds by Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld, etc.

Or maybe we should ask Bernard Madoff how it feels to be at the receiving end of public opinion turning on you…

 

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