Biofuel in Madagascar

Since publishing “Jatropha Reality Check” we’ve received comments, but also direct emails to the Editor. Many of these were from growers – and one new writer, a grower also located in Madagascar, provided some interesting insights.

We planted Jatropha in 2003 and have been taking care of the plantation by pruning, irrigating, applying fertilisers and managing pests and diseases. However, in 2007, the average yield was 100 Kg of seeds per hectare. It could be possible that the yields were low due to powdery mildew, sudden drop and raise of temperatures on a few days and heavy rain on a few days last year. We are investigating the matter and are conducting further trials this year and hope to achieve minimum of 3 tonnes per hectare this year (June – Dec 2008). It is in this context I thought that exchange of information with the concerned people in Madagascar would improve our understanding.

FYI – 100 kg seeds per hectare, at 25% oil recovery, equals 47 barrels per square mile per year. If the writer achieves their goal of a much improved 3.0 metric tons of seeds per hectare per year, that will equate to 1,400 barrels of oil per year.

The same writer immediately followed up with a 2nd email with a most interesting dialogue regarding biofuels. The context is this: Biofuel proponants have been counterattacking vigorously, defending themselves against growing (and we would say long overdue) accusations that 1st generation biofuel crops have raised food prices and caused habitat destruction all over the world. This letter – and the links within the letter – were published earlier this month in the Financial Times of London:

Elliott Mannis (Letters, March 3) argues in favour of the jatropha plant for biodiesel production on the grounds that it ‘can use marginal and poor quality land that won’t support arable crops.’ Prof. Christopher Gilbert (Letters, March 5) supports him, saying that ‘jatropha does appear to be a strong candidate [for biodiesel production] in areas of arid terrain.’

While one can hope that jatropha’s apparently miraculous ability to grow without water or fertiliser on degraded land will help to alleviate the oil import burdens of the world’s poorest countries, reason suggests that grave disappointment is the more likely outcome. The main proponents of its cultivation are entrepreneurs who, quite understandably, seek to maximise the yield of biodiesel from wherever they plant it.

They will not seek out genuinely arid degraded land for the simple reason that it is hard to establish jatropha without initial substantial irrigation, and harder to optimise the yield of crude jatropha oil without reasonably fertile soil. This suggests its cultivation will in practice encroach upon land that is perfectly suitable for food production, or else its yield will be so poor as to render it uneconomic as a source of biodiesel.

Being highly toxic, jatropha has no alternative use as a food crop if the economics do prove unattractive, unlike palm, soy, wheat or maize. It also runs the “buggy whip” risk that, as a first-generation biofuel crop, it will soon be made redundant by the development of second-generation biofuels derived from wood chips, straw, miscanthus and vegetal matter. This would be a tragedy for poor farmers bewitched by its apparent cash appeal.

There may be a future for jatropha in small-scale ventures run by intermediate-technology non-governmental organisations, but the risks associated with its wide-scale cultivation should not be underestimated.

Bravo. Jatropha – and some of the other 1st generation biofuel crops – hold promise to stablize arid soils and fight the desert, and contribute to fuel self-sufficiency for farmers in many parts of the world. But that isn’t where the money is going. And until 2nd generation biofuels are here – or until we dig up the Orinoco basin and let the oil flow until solar and fusion power become financially viable – the catastrophe will continue.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.