Jatropha Reality Check

Back in 2005 we published the feature “Jatropha in Africa – Fighting the Desert & Creating Wealth.” About two years later we rewrote the editor’s introduction to this story, stating, among other things “the yields claimed in this story have been challenged by many of our readers, and the author may have been optimistic.” Today yet another reader challenged the yields noted in our feature. Their comments – coming from someone with operating experience in Madagascar – add useful data to the ongoing question as to the economic and ecological sustainability of first generation biofuels:

Dear Sir: Your suggestion that Jatropha curcas could make an ‘incredible contribution to economic development in Africa’ overlooks a number of important points. Assuming your seed/ oil yield claims are achievable, it would require a harvest of about 400 million tonnes of seed to deliver the volume of oil you refer to. Under most circumstances, Jatropha curcas produces one crop per year with a maximum harvest window of about 12 weeks. Currently, hand harvesting is the only practical option. An average worker can pick and shell 10 – 15 kilograms of seed by hand per day. If you assume 6 working days per week, the maximum harvest ‘potential’ per worker is 1 tonne of seed per season. So you would require 400 million people hand picking Jatropha curcas seed to meet your objective. In reality, suggestions of seed yields of 8 tonnes per hectare and 30% oil content are extravagent in the extreme. We are growing Jatropha curcas commercially in Madagascar. We are seeing average oil contents in the range 25 – 27% of which 20 – 22% is recoverable by mechanical expression. In a well managed plantation setting, we expect that yields in excess of 200 pods per tree are unlikely. This equates to about 1 tonne per hectare at a population density of 2,500 trees per hectare. We anticipate seedling trees would need to be 7 years old to achieve this yield level. We are averaging about 60 pods per tree/ 300 kg per hectare from 5 year old trees this year. Yield from our 4 year old seedling trees was neglegible ( aprox 3.3 kg per hectare ) in 2007. We initially approached the production of Jatropha curcas with great enthusiasm but now have grave doubts as to the commercial viability of the exercise. Certainly, it is unrealistic to suggest tying up vast areas of African land for 4 non productive years and finish up with a crop that will eventually provide a maximum of 3 months productive work with very meager returns to a participating farmer. At least this is our opinion based on practical experience rather than media hype.

Taking the best case figures referenced here, mature Jatropha curcas trees will yield one ton per hectare per year, and about 25% of this tonnage can be extracted as oil. Since there are roughly 7.3 barrels of oil per ton, and 259 hectares per square mile, then mature Jatropha curcas trees will yield 473 barrels of oil per square mile per year. This is one of the lowest yields we’ve ever heard of – but this is from someone on the ground.

Another interesting point made by the writer is the labor required to harvest meaningful amounts of Jatropha oil. Amidst our belated awakening to the environmental and climatological havoc wreaked by deforestation to make way for biofuel plantations in the tropics, as well as growing realization first generation biofuel will not make much of contribution to total global energy production, is a lingering unawareness of the human cost. Biofuel may or may not bring economic benefits to the tropics, but how the workers on these plantations are being treated is a completely separate issue that deserves far more attention.

Returning to yields, as we reported in “Biofuel’s Potential,” if you are able to get biofuel yields up to 10x what is currently our best case – from 5,000+ barrels per square mile per year to 50,000+ barrels per square mile per year, then all the petroleum currently used each year worldwide could be grown in an area of only about 650,000 square miles. That is only about 6% of the arable farmland in the world. But is this honest math based on realistic estimates?

According to our writer, 500 barrels per square mile per year is their reality – for a crop we have believed to be one of the most promising first generation biofuel feedstocks in the world. At a yield of 500 barrels per square mile per year, it would take 65 million square miles to replace 100% of the petroleum used each year worldwide – and the entire land surface of the planet is only 56 million square miles.

What is the overall yield today, on average, for first generation biofuel crops? We know sugar cane in Brazil can yield over 5,000 BBLs per square mile per year, as can oil palms in Indonesia. But corn in Iowa only comes in around 2,500 BBLs per square mile per year, and apparently, Jatropha in Madagascar is only delivering about 500.

Categorized | Energy, Energy & Fuels, Other, People
8 Responses to “Jatropha Reality Check”
  1. charles wong says:

    This is a nice article,however, if you are only getting 60 pods per tree, 60 x 2500 trees= 150,000 pods , ( approx 1400 pods / 1 kg ) then you only have 107 kgs per tree per year.
    therefore my conclusion is that , perhaps the species you have may not be the right one that produces much pods. Also did you prune the trees when they are about 8 months old, how tall are you trees now?
    Looking forward to hear from you,by return email to cycwong33@yahoo.com
    or fax me at (852)-23688551 in Hong Kong
    As we also have our small plantation in Mindanao,Philippines

  2. It is interesting to know the facts from a real agri entrepreneur. We strongly feel somethng is wrong in the whole operation of farming activity at this Madagascar Plantation. Getting 1ton of seeds from a hectare of land is non viable activity. It is not economical at any stage. Some of the following factors may influenced for low yields. Please check the following factors
    1. Climatic conditions. Jatropha needs warm and dry climate. In frost it never flourishes. The plantation may be in the region where the Jatropha cant survive healthy.
    2. If the soil water holding capacity is high, if the drainage is poor, if the water is lying in the land for a long time in any season it will works negatively on Jatropha growth. It flourishes well in the soils where water holding is very less or zero.
    3. Irrigation is very much required. On rain fed conditiosn you cant expect yields. It should be irrigated accordingly. Rainfed jatropha plantation in erradicated rains not advisable. In irrigated condiions round year yields can be expected with small intervals.
    4. Mot important quality of planting material. Planting materila shold be from a genuine source. It should be from marked trees of private planttions not from the wild. It should be uniform quality in entire farm land.
    5. Plant training is very important and very much required. It should be in a scientific and organised way. With out plant training with pruning techniques, no one can get good yields. With right pruning, plant can be trained to have more branches, more bunhes and more fruits.

    Apart from this something is wrong in the yields. If every aspect is take care of one can get a minimum of two tons from an acre not from hectare. This is TRUE.

    Contact us for any other clarifications. We re in a position to do something fruitful for your plantation at Madagascar.

    Raghu Ram
    Managing Consultant

  3. Anonymous says:

    I came across the article ‘Jatropha in Africa’ by chance yesterday and perhaps responded rather hastily. You are indeed correct. It was published in 2005 and drafted by a contributor. I am pleased to hear that you are active in alerting the limitations and dangers of biofuel hype and I will certainly look for some of your more recent material with interest. I should point out that we remain keen supporters of the biofuel concept and have not ruled out Jatropha curcas as having a useful role to play. However, it seems clear to us that it will only succeed if dual cropping strategies are employed in the earlier plantation years with mechanisation being essential for large scale plantation projects. Currently, we are evaluating a number of native Malagasy species which we see as offering a great deal more biofuel potential than Jatropha curcas. We hope to launch a major new, highly innovative biofuel initiative later this year. I will keep you posted.

  4. Dear All,

    Well this is indeed a healthy sign for the biofuels industry. Discussion and the fredom of ideas to help each other. In this sprit I will share what I know I am Chief Researcher for Biosynergy Fuels my specialty is jatropha curcas mainly of the cape verde cultivar. We have 5000ha in Indonesia 3 years old and I have vast research links elsewhere in the world including Africa and India with companies like India’s Reliance.

    Firstly without wanting to alarm anyone we have 8ton per hectare already proven. With 12 ton per hectare on the drawing board. The following are crucial for high yields:-

    1. Genetic Modification of Cape Verde crossed with Nicaraguan (many pods with large seeds).
    2. Sandy or Loam soil not clay.
    3. Hormones Growth Regulators like Paclobutrazol ie. Au-Star.com (regulate growth/fruiting, reduce pruning cost, increase yield 60%-80% and oil content 1-3%)
    4. Fertigation system or High Rainfall 2000mm+ (High yield = Higher inputs required)
    5. Cheap Organic Ferts 1.5kg+ per year – think outside the box (waste = fert = fuel) remember is not to be eaten any way.
    6. Dehull and dehusk mechanically then crush with sterling press heat controlled for 42%. (sliding grator style de-huller and combine dehusker).
    7. Intercrop with legumes in the first 2 years for turbo charged growth and yields 1.5-2.5ton in year 2.
    8. Pruning to maximise yield increasing nodes and shape.

    Email me if you like but remember I am busy and my employer won’t let me say something due to confedentiallity.

    Tyson Bennett
    R&D Director
    Biosynergy Fuels

  5. federico says:

    Jatrophashop.com is the first website where you can find a wide selection of Jatropha seeds from all over the world.

    Seeds are selected and tested in pilot plantations and are sold opportunely treated: coated, incrusted and pelletted. These processes improve seeds conservation (up to two years) and the absorption of water and nutrition in the first phases of growing.

    Try our seeds and tomorrow you could become a biofuels producer too.

  6. S Krishnan says:

    I am a farmer and a researcher who had and has the opportunity quite a lot of farmers. I am against any crop being cultivated as PLANTATION crops. Particularly crops like Jatropha are wild and at the most hedge line crops. The oil extract and the oilcakes form a part of the farmers own input for his farming. Commercial yields will never prove a success. Instead study and use all renewable sources of energy wind, sun, biomass, cattle dung at the farm and save the oil for transport WHERE NEEDED. I have made Audio Visuals and CDs on ‘The Power of Gobar (Cowdung)” which highlights the fulfillment of small farmers energy reguirements for his cooking and lighting purposes. I quite agree that JATROPHA and others plants Biofuel hype is a little too much for the present day world.


  7. santiago ramirez says:

    Does anyone know what is the most effective pruning technique in terms of branching, flowering and fruit production?

  8. It is indeed a very good sign for the Jatropha and its plantation. We have been planting Jatropha for last four years in the valley of Uttarakhand, which is one of the northern states of India. I am not hesitating to say that we have reached little to date. There may be climatic condition not suitable in some places but we have chosen the best areas as we could. There are really something which is not sure yet. According to the different literatures the average yield from the Jatropha plant is 2.5 to 3 kg / plant /season after three years of plantation. As per the calculation the average yield would be 5.6 tones seeds in one hectares of land (As we grow 2250 plants in one hectare of land). But after seen that article, it is quite confusing now to lead with this data. Is anybody here who can provide genuine figures? Please visit http://www.ubfb.org or give me your valuable opinions here kailash@ubdl.co.in


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