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Tue August 21, 2012
The Salt

How A Biofuel Dream Called Jatropha Came Crashing Down

Originally published on Mon October 22, 2012 8:37 am

From Congress to The Colbert Report, people are talking about the Midwestern drought and debating whether it makes sense to convert the country's shrinking corn supplies into ethanol to power our cars.

It's the latest installment of the long-running food vs. fuel battle.

But wouldn't it be lovely if somebody came up with a biofuel that didn't take food out of people's mouths?

A few years ago, some people thought they'd found it: A miracle tree called Jatropha. Unfortunately, the miracle turned out to be a mirage.

Jatropha does not, at first glance, seem all that enticing. It's a big bush that can grow into a small tree. Its leaves are poisonous. So are its little football-shaped fruit pods. But inside those pods are several black seeds, each one about twice the size of a coffee bean. Crush those seeds, and you get oil. The oil is good for making soap, burning in lamps — or converting into diesel fuel.

Ywe Jan Franken, an expert on biofuels for the FACT Foundation, a research group in the Netherlands, says this plant grows all over the tropics, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, India and Latin America. (It originated in Central America, and Europeans spread it to their various colonies several centuries ago.)

It's an extremely hardy plant, and grows in places where most plants would die. "If you grow it on sandy soil, with not too many nutrients, and with dry periods, the plant miraculously survives," says Franken.

This is what really caught people's attention about a decade ago.

At that time, oil prices were soaring. People were getting increasingly worried about global warming. And some governments came to the conclusion that part of the answer could be biofuels, such as corn or palm oil. These biological fuel factories take carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow, which reduces the planet's burden of greenhouse gases.

As soon as they started to scale up biofuel production, however, they ran into the food v. fuel problem. More fertile land for biofuels means less food or forests.

At that point, a few experts recalled the virtues of Jatropha. If this bush could thrive on unused land, barren land, they thought, the world could enjoy biofuel without the guilt of cutting into food production.

The Jatropha Boom, Then Bust

Investors loved the idea. Around 2007 and 2008, they threw money at Jatropha projects, including huge plantations covering tens of thousands of acres, all over the tropics.

Mozambique, in southern Africa, was among the most active new centers of Jatropha cultivation. The country's president himself went from village to village, telling people to plant Jatropha trees. Home-grown fuel, he said, could turn life around for small villages. Belchion Lucas, a former reporter for Radio Mozambique, says that the president "used to say that they can even produce oil at home, without a factory."

Within just a few years, though, the dream of the perfect biofuel collapsed.

This was partly due to the financial crisis. When it hit, late in 2008, the easy money dried up. Foreign investors pulled out of some projects, leaving them in limbo.

But there was a bigger problem. The miracle plant turned out not to be so miraculous, after all.

Ywe Jan Franken, from FACT Foundation, says much of the enthusiasm about Jatropha was based on a misunderstanding. It's true, he says, that the tree can survive droughts, and poor soil. But under those conditions, it won't produce many seeds. If you actually want a good harvest of oil, he says, the plant "needs nutrients and water, just like any other crop." (Here is FACT Foundation's full technical assessment of Jatropha.)

This means that Jatropha fields will compete for the same fertile land as food crops. Welcome back, food vs. fuel.

Many of the companies that jumped into the Jatropha business have now climbed back out again; others are cutting back their operations.

Franken says the collapse of the Jatropha boom is disappointing for everyone, but it's most disappointing for the small farmers who bought into the dream.

Some of the projects, he says, "promised the farmers high returns, as has been done so many times with new ideas, or crops. And in this case, they thought, 'Wow, we can make some money here, because there is such high demand for biofuels.' And they actually lost money, because they could have done something else."

The Future Of The Biofuel

But Franken also believes that the Jatropha story isn't quite finished.

Two things are happening. In some African villages, there's now some low-tech, small-scale production of Jatropha oil. Farmers can grow the trees as hedges or on poor land, and it costs them very little time or money.

Meanwhile, on the high-tech side, scientists are studying this tree for the first time. They're selecting plants that produce more seeds, breeding high-yielding varieties, turning it from a semi-wild plant into a real crop. Perhaps, after many years of such breeding, it will become as productive as corn or palm trees.

Yet it still will do best on fertile land, with plenty of water, just like every other crop, whether for food or biofuel.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This summer, as drought has been shriveling corn across the Midwest, there's been a renewed debate over whether it's really a good idea to convert some corn into fuel for cars. It's a conversation that goes beyond the United States. Around the world, inventors and entrepreneurs are searching for biofuels that won't compete with food production. A few years ago they thought they had found one - a miracle tree called Jatropha. Unfortunately, the miracle turned out to be a mirage. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: At first glance, there's nothing too enticing about the Jatropha plant. It's a big bush that can grow into a small tree. Its leaves are poisonous. So are the little football-shaped fruit pods. But inside those pods are black seeds about twice the size of coffee bean. Crush those seeds and you get oil. The oil is good for making soap, or burning in lamps, or converting into diesel fuel. Ywe Jan Franken, an expert on biofuels for the FACT Foundation, a research organization in the Netherlands, says this plant grows all over the tropics.

YWE JAN FRANKEN: Indonesia, Philippines. I've seen it in Cambodia. It grows in India, Latin America.

CHARLES: Also, Jatropha grows where most plants die.

FRANKEN: If you grow it on sandy soil, so with not too many nutrients, and with occurrence of dry periods, the plant miraculously survives.

CHARLES: And that's what really caught people's attention about a decade ago. Oil prices were high. People were really worried about global warming. Some people said part of the answer could be biofuels like corn or palm trees. These little fuel factories take carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow, so less global warming. But here's the problem. More fertile land for biofuels means less food or forests. And then people said what about Jatropha.

FRANKEN: This plant that could grow in, yeah, in unused lands, barren lands, degraded lands, and could produce a lot of oil.

CHARLES: It Jatropha could grow on that land, you could have your fuel without cutting into food production. Investors loved the idea. Around 2007, 2008, they threw money at Jatropha projects. Big plantations all over the tropics. One of the companies that got involved was Bio Engeria in the African country of Mozambique. Silvester Boan is one of the company's executives.

SILVESTER BOAN: (Speaking foreign language)

CHARLES: We heard about Jatropha projects in India and Ghana and Egypt, Boan says. It sounded so good, Bio Engeria made plans to grow Jatropha on 25,000 acres. Meanwhile, the president of Mozambique himself was going from village to village, telling people to plant a few Jatropha trees. Home-grown fuel, he said, could turn life around for small villages. Journalist Belchion Lucas saw one of those presidential visits.

BELCHION LUCAS: He used to say that even they can produce the fuel even at home, without like a factory.

CHARLES: Within a few years, though, the dream of the perfect biofuel collapsed. Part of the problem was the financial crisis which hit late in 2008. The easy money dried up. Silvester Boan's Italian partner dropped out, which put all their plans on hold. But the bigger problem was the miracle plant turned out not to be so miraculous after all. Ywe Jan Franken says yes, Jatropha can survive in poor soil and without much rain, but it won't produce many seeds. If you actually want a good harvest of oil...

FRANKEN: It needs nutrients and water, just like any other crop.

CHARLES: Which means Jatropha plantations are going to be looking for the same fertile land as food crops. Many of the companies that jumped into the Jatropha business have now climbed back out again. Others are cutting back their operations. Franken says the collapse of the Jatropha boom is really disappointing, especially for the small farmers who bought into the dream.

FRANKEN: The larger projects, they - yeah, they promised the farmers high returns, as has been done so many times with new ideas, or crops, et cetera. And in this case, yeah, they thought, wow, we can make some money here, because there is such a high demand for bioenergy and biofuels, and they lost actually money because they could have done something else.

CHARLES: But Franken also says this isn't quite the end of the Jatropha story. Two things are happening. In some African villages there's now some low-tech, small-scale production of Jatropha oil. Farmers can grow Jatropha trees as hedges or on poor land, and it costs them very little time or money. Meanwhile, on the high-tech side, scientists are studying this tree for the first time. They're selecting plants that produce more seeds, breeding high-yielding varieties, turning it from a semi-wild plant into a real crop.

Maybe it will become as productive as corn or palm trees. But it still will do best on fertile land, with plenty of water, just like any crop, whether for food or fuel. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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