Monday, May 25, 2009


The Blunder Crop: a Biofuels Digest special report on jatropha biofuels development

by Jim Lane


March 24, 2009

Willie Lester and Rodney Brown penned the song "I Can't Win for Losing", but it's Lester Brown's critique of biofuels that comes to mind when considering the hopes for, and stumbles of, the jatropha industry.

Kirk Haney tells me there’s nothing to worry about with his jatropha biofuels company, SG Biofuels, and I believe him. A successful practioner of sustainable forestry in Central America via the teak trade, Haney has assembled a top-tier team for SG and is doing the soil testing and the extensive planning — the “hard, dirty work of progress”, to borrow Rob Elam’s memorable phrase — that will turn jatropha dreams into actual viable industry.

He’s joined by a handful of jatropha developers like Mission New Energy and GEM that are getting it done, making it happen.

Elsewhere, things would be going great if they weren’t going so badly.

Well-organized efforts are in the minority. More typical: back-of-the-comic book jatropha seed and seedling marketers that prey on the hopes and fears of cash-strapped farmers; the farcical disaster that has developed in Myanmar’s national biofuels project; and a number of non-profits (some well-organized, some dreamy) running around in Haiti trying to save the country from deforestation with projects as small as one designed to provide heat and power to a local bakery.

Jatropha is realizing less than half its projected yields in most projects, and less than a third of optimistic estimates that led jatropha to be labeled “the wonder crop”.

The problem? Countries like Myanmar that planned 8 million acres of jatropha and then forgot about harvesting technology, crushers, biodiesel processing or anything approaching a distribution system. The Result? Jatropha seeds rotting in Myanmar’s fields. The cure? Getting back to sound planning, extensive soil testing, and excellence in project management.

Here are some updates from the field. It’s a fairly shocking portrait of progress inhibited.

Main factors?

1. Hype that cites jatropha’s “poor soil” tolerance and high yields without noting that jatropha survives, but hardly thrives, in very poor soil.
2. The lack of mechanical harvesters.
3. The lack of adequate soil testing in the rush to plant.

A world with half as many seedlings and twice the number of harvesters and crushers would a better world be.

Here are some reports from the frontiers:


In 2007, China Confidential said that China aimed to have 13 million jatropha hectares planted, with a yield of 0.4 tonnes of oil per hectare on an ongoing basis. As of today, just a handful of plantations in fact exist.

D1 Oils.

It started with gigantic promise, and remains jatropha’s biggest project developer and biggest hope. However, D1’s operations in Africa have proven disappointing, with a regional management shakeup announced last September and an annoucnement that “the planting position will continue to be kept under review.”

Former chairman Lord Oxburgh told National Geographic that initial production would commence in 2007. Former CEO Elliot Mannis later predicted to Reuters in January of 2008 that the first significant harvests of jatropha would be in the second half of 2008, but only 1,000 tonnes of oil were harvested in all. That’s roughly enough for 300,000 gallons of biodiesel.

Overall the company is reporting 257,370 hectares under cultivation, the majority in northeast India in a JV with tea giants Williamson Magor. In January 2008, the company told Reuters it had 202,000 hectares under cultivation (which later was trimmed in company stock filings to 192,016 as of March 2008). The company predicted in September 2008 that it would increase its plantations to 300,000 hectares by year end but confirmed in February that total planting had not increased since the September update.

The growth rates suggest it will be some time before the company realizes its overall goal of planting 2.5 million acres (1.01 million hectares), and to this reporter there appears to be persistent difficulties in projecting the timing and volume of production.

Overall, the company appears to be bearing down into the realities of the business, but the numbers do not suggest robust yields are in sight for the near-term. The departure of CEO Mannis and chairman Lord Oxburgh in a boardroom coup late last year was suggestive of troubles at D1, although sources have pointed as much to troubles with the company’s UK-based biodiesel processing operations, which were closed.

Variations in yield estimates.

It’s understandable that crop yields vary based on inputs, climate and the skill of the farmer. But, even allowing for that, jatropha yields forecasts seem to me as scattered as atoms after a supernova.

Here is a selection.

Frost & Sullivan (2007): 1-5 tonnes of oil per hectare. Cited 8-10 tons of seeds per hectare sourced to “enthusiastic promoters”. Biofuels Revolution: Cited 10 tons of seeds in a report. Here’s an article that said that actual yields were one fifth of government estimates - at 1.5 to 2 tons per acre.

Here’s another at 10 - 12 tons per hectare of seeds. Here’s one that covers all the angles with a stupendously un-useful range of 0.5- 12 tons per hectare. Here’s the winner of the optimist award: The Philippine National Oil Company weighing in with a forecast of a minimum of 15 tons per hectare on the fifth year. A report distributed by (but not from) UNCTAD cites 13 tons per hectare.

Whew! That’s 0.5 to 15 in about 10 seconds. Sounds more like an accelerating Jaguar than jatropha yield data. But there you are.


In the South Asian heartland of jatropha, Chahattisgarh state takes the absolute cake for predictions of wealth that have not come true. Asia Clean Tech reported in 2007 that the state-owned Indian Oil Co has partnered with Chhattisgarh state to deploy jatropha. ‘No less than 500,000 people will get jobs across the state during the next 4-5 years due to these jatropha plantations,’ a senior Creda official was quoted in the ‘07 report. The JV was reported to produce up to 300 tons of biofuel per day within 4-5 years. That’s about 33 Mgy of fuel.

How does that employ 500,000 people? That’s 66 gallons - or about $150, per worker. At yields of 250 gallons per acre, that’s four workers an acre. Even in one of the poorest states in India, that’s a poor excuse for economic development and a ruinous, blundering exaggeration that is a standout reason that jatropha has earned the nickname “the wonder blunder crop”.


Moving from comically far-off-predictions to another dimension of hype that would be funny if it were not tragic, let’s consider the case of Myanmar.

As reported previously in the Digest, the Myanmar government set out in 2006 to cultivate 8 million acres of jatropha, in hopes of making the country more energy self-sufficient and potentially develop an export trade in jatropha oil.

The program was handed down to individual states in the form of a dictat: 500,000 acres or more per state. Individual farmers and even city dwellers were dragged into forced-planting campaigns to meet planting goals. Supervision of planting was handed off to the Army, which detailed numerous young, non-commissioned officers to supervise the work. Planting took place in plantation-style field, in hedges and home gardens.

What was missing? Besides soil testing, uh, just a few things. Like a harvesting plan. According to a Time magazine report, “My friend dutifully tends his jatropha trees and then watches the seeds fall on the ground and die. In his case, the spindly physic-nut shrubs in his garden are supplanting a fragrant frangipani tree or colorful hibiscus bush. But elsewhere in Burma — a nation where UNICEF estimates malnutrition afflicts one-third of children — farmers have had to put aside valuable crop land for a wasted plant.”


Beyond the tragedy of Myanmar there is the deeper tragedy of Haiti, a land stripped of economic opportunity as well as forest cover.

Kathleen Robbins has been active down in Haiti for quite some time putting together a jatropha cultivation education program, next to the UN Model School. Other NGOs, it appears, have been more focused on planting than educating. According to, at least three dozen projects are active in Haiti now. One is so small it’s aim is to support a single Haitian bakery with power through cultivation of jatropha as an oil source. Would not these incredibly well-meaning NGOs do better to band together to achieve some economies of scale?

Voodoo economics

Apparently in Haiti, jatropha is used in voodoo rituals. That seems right, because the cultivation of the plant has been beset, and seems to remain so, with voodoo economics and announcements of yields and harvest potentials that are way ahead of science.

The workers actually putting jatropha seedlings in the ground and harvesting the yields, who face the daily disconnect between jatropha reality and jatropha dreams, can use all the magic they can get.

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