Jatropha: A Failed Success?

By Sreenivas Ghatty | April 26, 2010
When I was asked if I would be interested in writing a column on jatropha, I, having personally been involved in the cultivation of this crop for the past seven years, thought it would be a good opportunity to share my thoughts with other jatropha enthusiasts. While it is one of the much talked about, domesticated wild species, in my opinion, it has yet to gain its popularity in terms of its yields. While the plant has shown huge potential to become a great success commercially, with the right approaches adopted, it has yet to generate satisfactory and profitable outcomes in my own farm or any other farm that I have known so far.

Cart before the horse While the commercial cultivation is not a success so far, perhaps we should take a look at the cultivation practices rather than blaming the plant. We are yet to fully understand the pests and diseases that affect this plant and the way to treat them. Going for large-scale plantations without the proper set of practices is risky, and more importance should be given to research and development work focusing on the genetic improvement of the species, and agronomic practices.

Competing with other crops Jatropha has to be grown on nonfarm and nonforest lands that are unused or underused with poor rainfall and marginal soils, so it would not compete with other crops. Hence, the focus of commercialization should be on growing jatropha in those regions of the world profitably rather than achieving the highest yield per unit.

Local production and consumption Ideally, power generation or fuel production should be done locally where jatropha is or where it is to be cultivated, as this would lead to energy self-sufficiency in regional, remote areas, promoting area development. If the developed areas need jatropha oil, they need to fund the plantation costs and take the risk. Biodiesel processors should start with plantation activity first, or go for backward integration and develop plantations without further delay.

Not a panacea Jatropha is not a panacea for biodiesel feedstocks, and there are other tree species such as Pongamia that are performing well. However, jatropha has great potential and needs huge investments and time to make it truly commercial. Pending that, it is advisable to go for an integrated and low-cost approach through biodiversity and ecological balance to mitigate the risks. Jatropha cultivation may pick up quickly and do well if it is done along with growing conventional crops. State subsidies and incentives coupled with carbon credits would go a long way in nurturing the nascent activity.

Operational issues Machinery has yet to be developed to harvest pods, and manual harvesting in large-scale plantations is practically impossible. This, and a few other issues related to postharvest operations, could produce losses. There is immediate need to address these issues before large-scale cultivation is taken up.

Unscrupulous players The hype created by unscrupulous players inflated the prices of jatropha seeds and oil, but the real benefits did not reach the farmers and project owners. While biodiesel plants suffered from unavailability of feedstocks at reasonable prices, the jatropha producers were losing due to the production, marketing and pricing issues. Dust from the middle men is settling down and the fly-by-night operators are vanishing after making their kill. The time has come for the serious players to take a big role in making the activity sustainable and viable.

Loss making Jatropha is not cost competitive as of now, but can be a profitable activity for all the stakeholders, only after sustainable and large-scale cultivation. Apart from the R&D, such cultivation also requires risk-taking private investments. Subsidies and other incentives can only be the icing on the cake.

Way forward The initial failures made farmers and project owners skeptical of commercial success of jatropha, and there is a need to establish jatropha trial-cum-demonstration farms in different regions of the world. The immediate task is development of high-quality genetic material that can perform in different agro climatic conditions along with the agronomic practices that minimize risks and maximize returns.

Sreenivas Ghatty is CEO of Tree Oils India Ltd. Reach him at gs@treeoilsindia.com.
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