Jatropha panned on NPR

An interesting report on the bursting Jatropha bubble in Africa on NPR (via Paul):

There were two thoughts that I debated while reading this:

  1. Is it irresponsible for leaders and policymakers to promote feedstock crop cultivation before the fuel processing infrastructure to process it is in place?  That seems like a recipe for the farmers doing the cultivation to get burned when the processing facility doesn’t materialize for any variety of reasons (financial crisis, fossil fuel price fluctuations, short-term drought, policy change, etc.).  This is a clear chicken-an-egg problem: there’s no market for feedstock until the processing facility goes in, but no reason to build a facility until the feedstock is there.  Here in the US the risks to the farmer are mitigated by long-term contracts with the processor or government support such as the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP).  What’s the equivalent in Mozambique, where the innovative small-scale farmer or landowner probably has more riding on their cultivation decisions?
  2. Is there ever a ‘free lunch’ with regard to growing feedstocks with low inputs on marginal lands?  While there are some plants that are ‘hardier’ (e.g. more drought resistant, or having a higher nitrogen use efficiency) than others, even hardy crops tend to have good yields on good lands and marginal yields on marginal lands.  Miscanthus seems like one of the last ‘wonder-feedstocks’ since it achieves fantastic yields with minimal inputs because it fixes its own nitrogen, but even it is widely limited by water requirements.  I get the sense that even though some crops are more efficient than others in any given landscape, marginal lands are marginal for a reason, and the capacity for using marginal lands for feedstock production are probably often over-estimated.

What do you think?

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3 Responses to Jatropha panned on NPR

  1. The questions you are raising make sense. The original article you are referring to is another useless item about the subject recycling again and again the same basic story. Jatropha curcas is a wild crop which needs to be developed. There are a number of activities going on around the world doing just that. One is our own.

    People should understand that it took the oil palm over 50 years from when it was taken from the shores of West Africa to South East Asia before it started to become a commercially usable tree crop. Things will be much faster with Jatropha. See my Jatropha Breeder blog for more.

    • John says:

      Thanks for the comment! I’m preparing a follow-up post highlighting some recent work in jatropha as reported in the journal Energy for Sustainable Development, and I will include a link to your own blog as well.
      -John

  2. Pingback: … and Jatropha responds. | Energy and the Future

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