Biofuel plant Jatropha put to the test

World’s largest study of Jatropha projects exposes unsolved problems

First considered a salvation, then treated as a curse: the biofuel plant Jatropha is symbolic for the fate of the entire biofuels industry. Biofuels are not strictly speaking sustainable; they are blamed for rising food prices, land grabs, and the loss of biodiversity.  “Jatropha once represented the solution to these problems, however our study shows just how complex sustainability assessments actually are,” explained Prof. Dr. Stefan Schaltegger, Director of the Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM) at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. In the world’s largest study about the current state of jatropha cultivation, Leuphana’s sustainability researchers presented a complexly differentiated picture while emphasizing the enormous challenges the sector faces.   

111 Managers in Africa, Asia and Latin American surveyed 

Until quite recently jatropha was considered a “miracle plant.“  The jatropha hype led to massive investment in new cultivation, though many of these projects collapsed a few years later.  The study conducted by Leuphana University of Lüneburg sheds light on the current situation regarding world-wide jatropha cultivation.  In cooperation with the Inocas GmbH, the researchers conducted a survey of 111 managers of cultivation projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

World-wide jatropha production lags behind initial high expectations

The study’s most important conclusion: the main problem are the low yields, hence many projects are unable to secure further financing.  The researchers focused on seed quality as the greatest obstacle to achieving sufficiently high oil yields.  The level of carefully bred seeds available for cultivation remains low.  Thus, three quarters of the surveyed projects have relied upon local, mostly wild seeds. The most important factor in the initial promise of jatropha’s projects, the oil yield per surface area, has now become a risk factor.  

200 Million Euros in Investments are threatened by low revenues

A return on the high investments can be secured only if the oil yield continues to rise with next year’s crop.  The managers in our survey have invested more than 200 million Euros as of 2011.  Meanwhile, the projected world-wide growth in the amount of land under jatropha cultivation has not materialized.  The capital investment needs are anticipated to be too high and the harvest size too low.  Managers report seed harvests between zero and six tons per hectare, and these calculations include older plants.  It no longer seems certain that the existing investments will ultimately pay off.

No Bio-kerosene with Jatropha

The aviation industry treats jatropha oil as a possible raw material for sustainable bio-kerosene production.  Prof. Dr. Stefan Schaltegger sees the situation more critically: “On account of the difficult situation that many jatropha projects face, the large-scale introduction of jatropha oil as a raw material in the near future seems questionable.  Local biodiesel refineries remain the most important market for the majority of jatropha producers.”

Small farmers could profit—if the yield is right

On the other hand, researchers offer a positive assessment with regard to the structure of many jatropha projects: more than half (58%) work together either exclusively or in part with small-scale contract farmers. This produces a significant investment in small-scale farming within tropical and subtropical countries.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stressed the importance of small farmers in their most recent report of the state of world food supplies.

 “A combination of small-scale farming structures with professional and sustainably run agriculture can in the case of jatropha —but also with other agricultural products—become the recipe for a socially balanced economic success,” according to Schaltegger.

Leuphana is developing innovative concepts for sustainable plant oil cultivation

Socially, ecologically and economically sustainable plant oil production will not develop on its own, instead it requires innovation at all levels.  An interdisciplinary team at Leuphana University of Lüneburg is therefore using the framework of the Innovation-Incubator KT Bio-kerosene to investigate, along with jatropha, additional concepts in sustainable plant oil production. The Lüneburg researchers are working on innovative intercrops for northern Germany, as well as on palm cultivation in Brazilian grazing fields.  These researchers hope their new ideas will contribute to the sustainable transformation of energy use in Germany and throughout the world.