Jatropha curcas failing to live up to expectations as sustainable biofuel

The UK newspaper, The Independent’s online edition recently reported how jatropha curcas, the oil-bearing plant that has been touted as the remedy for our transport fuel woes of high prices and greenhouse gas emissions, is failing to live up to expectations. The non-edible plant has been promoted as currently the most sustainable source of biodiesel because it supposedly will grow just about anywhere, requires little water and needs little management. The Indepedent article, citing a report by the UK charity, ActionAid, says that actual experiences by farmers in developing countries growing the plant have shown poor results. Cultivating jatropha on poor soil yields low yields that provide no profits for farmers. In India, farmers were enticed to plant jatropha with the promise of a boom in demand but have found no buyer for their oil-bearing seeds. Similar articles have appeared at OneWorld UK. The Philippine government, in its alternative fuel program, has also promoted jatropha as an ideal biodiesel source (instead of expensive coconut oil) but has not progressed beyond experimental plantations and field tests and has built no infrastructure to support the industry.

The debate on the impact of industrial biofuels on the poor and on the climate continues. This is partly due to the EU directive that seeks to require that 10 percent of its transport fuels be sourced from renewable sources by 2020. Locally, the biofuels law already mandates a 5 percent biodiesel blend with producers clamoring to raise that to 10 percent. Such a law is an implicit subsidy on these more expensive fuels and forces motorists to use biofuels even if their supposed social and environmental benefits are are doubtful. ActionAid has two publications on the negative impacts of biofuels, particularly jatropha on farmers and food that may be accessed here and here . A Friends of the Earth report on jatropha in Swaziland is available here. More materials on contrarian views on biofuels are available on these organizations respective websites (ActionAid and Friends of the Earth ). These reports complement AER’s own report on biofuels development in the Philippines and the apparently minimal benefits on the poor farmers who supply the feedstocks.

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