Miracle plant's monstrous potential

'Day of the Triffids' - movie posterIt began innocently enough, like any other workshop — a large university auditorium, speakers from the UN, business, government and an obscure member of the Thai Royal family ringing an auspicious gong.

However, the delegates were not investors or scientists but raw-boned, Thai rice farmers, plied with a lavish two-day luncheon and meditation sessions to hear that if they chose to grow jatropha they could make profits within 12 months.

They were even offered free seeds to start their own plantations and 'grow a golden egg that could be passed from father to son to grandson'. However, unlike the fabled Jack and the Beanstalk, the Thai farmers would be giving up much more than a cow for their handful of seeds and promise of untold wealth.

Much has been written about jatropha, the so-called miracle plant that the New York Times recently called the darling of the second-generation biofuels, and which Goldman Sachs, the world's largest investment bank, has identified as a promising source of biofuel in the future.

Farmers in China, India, Indonesia and Africa are rushing to plant jatropha in what can only be compared to the mass hysteria to grow tulips in the Netherlands in the late 17th century — before the speculative bubble burst.

Jatropha plantHowever, some say the farming of jatropha is a future natural disaster waiting to happen, especially if hybrid strains outgrow plantations and propagate wildly across farmlands, contaminating soil and displacing native species — and eventually people.

While the monstrous, animal-like plants of the post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids remain science fiction, it is worth noting that the jatropha plant propels insects and animals, lives up to 50 years, and that its cuttings take root quickly and easily.

Some claim jatropha will relieve poverty throughout the Third World by allowing the poor to cash in on a low maintenance cash crop that grows anywhere, including rocky and saline soil. There is no evidence though that it can produce seeds under these conditions, especially in the longer term. In fact, there has to date been no substantive research into the long term benefits or effects of farming jatropha.

With corporations currently sizing-up jatropha as a socially acceptable biofuel alternative to fossil fuels, what we do hear is the hype of a potential billion dollar industry — that is billions of dollars of savings and profit for corporations and governments.

Air New Zealand, in collaboration with Rolls Royce and Boeing, claims it will soon launch a test flight of a 747 powered by jatropha biofuel. Phoenix-based Honeywell Aerospace, Airbus, JetBlue Airways and others are working on a Jatropha-based biofuel to reduce costs and increase profitability.

Jatropha effect on Thai ecosystem The military regime of Burma has ordered poor subsistence farmers to stop growing rice, once a major export crop, and plant Jatropha as biofuel for domestic consumption and export.

In India, the widespread popularity of Jatropha farming has taken on such epidemic proportions that many are comparing the phenomenon to the 1956 sci-fi film, Invasion of the Body Snatches, where townsfolk are subverted by alien imposters grown from plant-like pods.

However, not everyone is blinded by the hyperbole and hysteria of farming Jatropha. An India-based Yahoo internet group has formed to fight the growing craze and expose the dangers of jatropha, reporting that 50 children were hospitalised by eating jatropha seeds from a plantation near a school.

In Australia the farming of jatropha has been banned in two states as it was deemed harmful to livestock, other plants and people. The ingestion of only four small seeds is said to be fatal.

In the Philippines farmers have already begun abandoning their Jatropha plantations after discovering poor yields and a non-existent market for seeds.

Chiang Mai viewIn East Africa there is concern that Jatropha plants in large project areas may invade farmland with a devastating impact on the local food chain and natural biodiversity.

In Thailand, the farmers at the workshop were encouraged to plant Jatropha without being told that there are no trucks, storage facilities or refineries to process the seeds into oil.

The real cost to Thai farmers is much more than any biofuel profits could ever hope to restore. Seventy per cent of all Thais live and work in rural areas outside of Bangkok. Rice farming is part of their traditional lifestyles and history. The planting and harvesting of rice is also celebrated in Thai art, music and poetry.

Biofuel profits would only be spent on a new Toyota pick-up truck or Honda motorbike enriching those corporations and impoverishing the Thai farmers who have to run them at today's fuel prices.

With many of the world's poorest nations teetering on collapse because of rising food prices and civil unrest, how many more farmers will be beguiled — and subverted — by biofuel's blue-sky promise before the speculative greening of the gold rush ends?

Resist? They're here already! You're next!

Harry NicolaidesHarry Nicolaides is a Melbourne-born freelance writer and author who enjoys writing idiosyncratic portraits of the exotic places and people from Saudi Arabia to Northern Thailand where he has lived.

Topic tags: harry nicolaides, 'jatropha, miracle plant, third world poverty, damage to ecosystems



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Existing comments

Jatropha gossypifolia is the reason for the ban, not curcas. There is 10+ studies that it produces in non arable land for the long term. I've personally seen the poverty alleviation in India and Indonesia (I have reports, photos etc.). Many farmers' fields are "exhausted" and jatropha is putting food in their bellies and fuel in their motorbikes.

The world is in the midst of three crises: energy, environment and poverty. Jatropha contributes positively to all three.

One of jatropha’s true strengths is that it's "non-edible", not interfering with the food chain. However, as such great care should be taken to keep away from children just like diesel.

Tyson Bennett | 14 July 2008  

A very interesting commentary on jatropha. It is evidence of the power of promotion by a "big corporation" which is often able to jolly local bureaucrats along with sweeteners like lavish presentations. I was surprised while doing a coconut consultancy in Indonesia two years ago to discover that the name jatropha was buzzing around like it was expected to surpass any other source of raw material for biofuel.

Harry points out the lack of infrastructure for handling a new comodity like this, which is typical. Farmers would be trapped very quickly if they began production, being totally at the mercy of whatever collectin system was put in place. Coconut is another source of biofuel feedstock, but that works for it only in very remote locations where other fuels are very costly, although the recent rapid rise in fuel cost makes biofuel in general more attractive. However, edible oils should never be diverted into biofuel, with the exception already mentioned, as food shortage is looming globally and demand is likely to sustain a high price for the likes of coconut and palm oil for the foreseeable future. jatropha on the other hand sound quite menacing, not only for the wed threat but for the toxicity of the oil-bearing seed.

Mike Foale | 14 July 2008  

You can't blame the scientific community for having doubts. Couldn't the seeds be used for a coal substitute if they did have a sufficient BTU desity and burned to generate electricity? Mainstream publications such as Newscientist reported about ten years ago about planting jojoba to use as a diesel substitute but interest died down quickly.

ken | 15 July 2008  

The Portuguese planted jatropha all over the tropics as a living fence more than 300 years ago. These fences didn't spread, so why is there now talk of them spreading like pods from outer space? Jatropha is not ideal, but neither is petroleum. If you say "no" to jatropha you are saying "yes" to petroleum. Can you resist petroleum? It's already here! You're next!

simplicator | 15 July 2008  

CONGRATULATIONS. Wonderful reading. As a jatropha planter in India, it is interesting to get as much information possible.

I can share experience on commercial plantation of jatropha if anyone wish to know.

UMESH DHAGAT | 15 July 2008  

Like so many authors in Eureka Street, condemnation comes easier than proposing a solution. Can you suggest a workable solution to the liquid fuel problem that is going to satisfy 5 billion Chinese and nearly as many Indians?

You might like to start to quantify available energy resources in a market economy and see if there aren't pointers towards using atomic energy for the production of hydrocarbon gases from carbon dioxide and hydrogen as well as using the traditional variations on solar inputs and atomic energy as a replacement for natural gas currently used for power generation?

Peritech | 16 July 2008  

Great article. Jatropha sounds a lot like the Kudzu craze that took place in the US back in the 1920s and 30s. It also was touted as the 'miracle' plant that would end poverty and other associated ills of the day. Probably won't be long before it appears in your local Home Depot nursery dept. What I don't get is if the "fossil fuel theory" is correct, why don't they make petroleum directly

Jack Baumgard | 08 October 2008  

How long will it take for the world to realize that there is no magic bullet re fuels. The only solution is use less and live a simpler lifestyle. Jatropha is a great moneymaking scheme for some but in the long run it will fizzle out just like so many others.

sceptic2 | 31 December 2008  

This is the most dangerous situation to promote the Jatropha to be planted without having any testimoial hard fact of this miracle energy crop.

So far none could provide the solid hard fact regarding the secured productivity yield of Jatropha.

There are only speculation and expectation that it will be a future energy crop.

The question is At what cost we are going to have for this unknown new crop.

In fact the productivity yield is relatively very low and inconsistent.
It is not economical viable at all for such low productivity yield.

How the people move forward full swing w/o knowing this energy crop especially the proper cultivation methodologies.

All were misguided with the wrong information in cultivation as the commercial crop.

It can be a big disaster when all went into trouble because the production cost of such energy crop is far too higher than the other energy .
It should be the time that some known people should speak out for the negative view as well.

chumroen benchavitvilai | 16 April 2009  

WONDERFUL artitle. As one of the new planters of jatropha in Zimbabwe we are looking forward to getting rewarded from our fields which are now exhausted. We are now planting jatropha and the crop is promising. As any other new kid on the bloc there are so many thoughts on the would-bes etc.

I think at the moment I am more concerned on rewards and any future repercussions will be dealt with then.

Money and fuel to the people!!!

Kenneth Mhlanga | 15 April 2010  


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