Monday, September 10, 2007

[PBN] Jatropha: some critical observations


Jatropha: What the public should know

Last updated 10:49pm (Mla time) 09/08/2007

curcas (tuba-tuba) as a source of renewable fuel. Goldman Sachs recently
cited jatropha as one of the best candidates for future biodiesel
production. The plant, which produces golf-ball-size fruits that contain
oil, can be grown in any kind of soil. And it doesn't need much water
and fertilizer.

Leading the campaign for the propagation of jatropha in the country is
Philippine National Oil Co.-Alternative Fuels Corp. (PNOC-AFC).

The corporation has tied up with the military to set up a 500-hectare
nursery in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija. In Mindanao, the corporation is
looking at some 1.2 million hectares as its main hub for jatropha

Two weeks ago, Land Bank of the Philippines signed an agreement to
provide PNOC-AFC with P5 billion to P10 billion to finance the jatropha
development program. Part of the money will fund cooperatives developing
jatropha plantations.

Among the benefits of jatropha cultivation that government is trumpeting
are the reduction in air pollution and the country's dependence on
imported crude oil, creation of jobs, and construction of roads, bridges
and a refinery.

A group of agriculturists is claiming that proponents of the massive
cultivation of jatropha are peddling misleading information as facts.
The group advises people to study the facts first before going into
jatropha farming.

* * *

By Ted Mendoza, Oscar Zamora and Joven Lales

WILL PLANTING jatropha curcas L. or tuba-tuba provide the financial
benefits a government agency is promising farmers?

In our study, published in the Philippine Journal of Crop Science Vol.
32 No. 1 on Jan. 17 and titled "Towards Making Jatropha curcas (tubang
bakod) a Viable Source of Biodiesel in the Philippines," we found that:

Jatropha becomes a viable source of biodiesel if diesel is retailed at
P40 per liter; if the crop has a high fruit yield of 36,000 kilogram per
hectare (ha); if it has a high rate of oil extraction (34 percent and 38
percent); and if byproducts are included and provide 50-percent
additional income from the oil revenue.

The assumption is that the price of jatropha seeds corresponds to the
price of diesel.

But would a high yield of 36,000 kg/ha and high oil content (34 percent
and 38 percent) be achieved under Philippine conditions?

This question can only be definitively answered in some future time
because we do not have a plantation already on the optimum fruiting age
(five years after planting) and no jatropha variety is grown in the
Philippines that yields 34 percent oil. The current laboratory oil
extraction is in the range of 28 percent to 32 percent.

At a low-yield level (12,000 kg/ha), jatropha becomes profitable for
farmers growing it if the diesel price increases to about P140 per liter
at a 30-percent rate of oil extraction (revenue is from oil alone). This
implies that the buying price of jatropha seeds at the farm level is
P42/kg. The substrate cost shall be P42/.30 = P140/liter of biodiesel.

The estimates exclude processing and marketing costs. Current estimates
put the processing cost at P12/liter. Then, the price of biodiesel from
jatropha becomes P152/liter [P140 + P12]. What if the oil price
increases to more than P152 per liter? If so, let's be prepared to use
caleza and bicycle, or simply walk.

Jatropha's seed yield is inherently low, which explains partly the low
revenue. This low-yield trait is suggestive that researches must be done
to increase further its seed yield and to find ways to maximize total
farm yield and byproducts. However, will the results of these
experiments be realized soon?

For a perennial crop that gives optimum fruiting after five years,
hybridization and selection would require a minimum of 35 years (7
cycles of selection x 5 years = 35 years ). Genetic improvements to
enhance jatropha's overall trait as an energy crop could have been done
way ahead. But this is water under the bridge. We can not hurry up nature.

There are other information that the the public should know or
understand. These include the following:

1. The long wait for the crop to reach optimum fruiting (five years
after planting ) and its low-seed yield require a multiple-cropping
scheme. Short-maturing crops and high-value fruit and wood trees should
be planted along with jatropha to increase the total farm yield. The
scheme is also a risk-minimizing strategy.

Are the public and the agency promoting the massive planting of jatropha
putting equal emphasis on promoting multiple cropping? We support
diverse cropping but we should point out that jatropha is a sun-loving
crop. While it grows under the shade, photosynthesis (growth and yield)
will be affected in proportion to the degree of shading.

It should be expected that jatropha yield per plant will decrease under
multiple-cropping conditions due to a reduction in space and sunlight.
But it is logical for farmers to adopt multiple cropping. If something
happens to jatropha and the price does not improve over time, farmers
will have some crops to fall back on. But we do not know much about this
age-old practice of multiple cropping.

Jatropha produces a toxin called curcin. Will this substance exert toxic
effects on companion crops? Due to this toxin, planting of jatropha was
banned in Northern Australia. The Australians are afraid that their
cattle will forage on jatropha during the dry months. Besides, they are
afraid that it will become weeds later on.

2. Many people are enticed to plant jatropha because of the massive
government campaign to promote it. One million hectares are targeted.
But construction of the processing plant has not started and it will
take some time to set up the processing system.

It should be pointed out that three or five years after planting
jatropha is too short a time. Are the processing plants ready by that
time? Furthermore, it is necessary that the know-how to accelerate the
optimization of processing raw oil into trans-esterified oil before it
can be used as biodiesel oil, and processing of byproducts (press cake
and/or glycerol) into high-priced products be acquired soon. Will these
technological know-how be ready in three or five years?

This is one of the worries aired by those who were earlier enticed to
plant jatropha. "Planting jatropha without knowing all the facts can be
a very painful and costly experience. Knowing the pitfalls can help make
planting more worthwhile and successful. While wealthy companies plant
jatropha on a massive scale, small farm owners like many of us must be

Wealthy companies know what they are doing. They plant in huge tracts of
idle land that they do not own (leased to them cheaply by government or
owned by others) and with very little or no expense (while we have to
buy seeds and seedlings from suppliers who promise to buy our
produce—assuming there will be some to buy.) Yes, these companies are
speculating on a potentially valuable product that will produce biofuel
in the future, but they are doing it using other people's money, time
and effort. Speculating is good but only if you know the odds."

For those who are planning to plant jatropha, clearly there are still
many unanswered questions.

3. Planting tuba-tuba is primarily aimed at making productive idle
public and private lands, particularly denuded mountains and forests,
unfit for food-crop cultivation, and at producing in commercial volume a
renewable and environment-friendly biofuel (biodiesel), thus alleviating
poverty in the countryside and addressing ecological concerns.

This is a very inviting statement among jatropha proponents. We should
point out, however, the following facts:

First, jatropha can grow in marginal soils but growth and yield will
also be slow and marginal or low. There is a saying "you cannot get
something from nothing!"

Second, for us agriculturists, there is no land, which is unfit for
food-crop cultivation. Where jatropha grows, mangoes, cashew,
siniguelas, duhat, jackfruit, bignay and many other tropical fruits will
grow. Moreover, cassava, sweet potato and many legumes will also grow.

Third, jatropha can survive dry weather but it will shed off leaves as
an adaptive measure, to avoid dying due to excessive loss of water. But
then, there is no growth and no fruit set. It will resume growth once
the soil is moist again.

Fourth, jatropha grows well under a favorable environment (high soil
fertility, adequate moisture and weed management during its early years
of growth). But using these lands will compete with lands grown to food
security crops, which the proponents try to avoid.

What are the latest observations? Fertilized jatropha plants grow well
when irrigated but they become vegetative. This means that they do not
yield the quantity of fruits that we expect.

4. There is a big push for growing jatropha using imported seeds as they
are high yielding.

Importing the high-yielding varieties may also mean the importation of
"unknown" bad traits like susceptibility to pests. Using imported seeds
should be done with utmost care. It would be frustrating if the imported
seeds were planted in large tracts of land and we later came to know
that the plant was susceptible to viral or fungal diseases.

Moreover, it might just serve as a source of inoculum, thus infecting
even the indigenized varieties in the country.

5. The main feature being claimed about Jatropha curcas or tubang bakod
is that it could yield yearly as much as five to seven tons of seeds per

As pointed out earlier, there is no standing crop to validate this
claim. We tried to validate this using known scientific procedures. This
could be easily done by transforming the sugar equivalence of oil as
illustrated below:

30 percent oil x 5 tons x 3.03-gram glucose equivalence of oil in seed
(3.03 x 1.50) = 4.54 tons

2.42-gram glucose equivalence of seed coat and the press cake = 9.80
tons (2.8 x 3.5)
TOTAL = 14.34 tons/ha (4.54 + 9.80)

There's a remote possibility that jatropha would give such seed yield as
the sugar equivalence is so high, estimated at 14.34 MT/ha. Sugarcane,
the highest-yielding energy crop, which produces sugar via the C4
pathway of photosynthesis could only give a maximum of 10 tons of
sugar/ha in the Philippines.

Jatropha fixes carbon dioxide via the C3 path way. It lacks nature's
gift to photosynthesize the way the jatropha proponents want it to be.
Besides, it is supposed to be planted in marginal soils to avoid the
concern that it will compete with food crop production. Simple logic:
marginal soils—marginal yield as pointed out earlier.

6. A private company is buying jatropha seeds at P4 per kilo. "Is this
the right buying price?" one jatropha-planter enthusiast asks.

Before answering the question, it is important to quote the pricing
scheme being spread around ("Tuba-Tuba for oil," Ed Velasco, Oct. 9,
2006, Philippine Graphic Magazine). The article says that PhilForest
buys 1 kg of dried tuba-tuba seeds at 15 percent of the prevailing
diesel pump prices (0.15 x P34/liter = P5.10/kg, P34 is the price per
liter, then, of diesel).

Before buying the produce, the dried tuba-tuba seeds should contain less
than 10 percent of the moisture level set by the Department of Science
and Technology. If seeds containing more than 10 percent of the moisture
level are processed, the diesel will be less effective and might cause
engine problems.

Jatropha seed at P4/kg? What does this price mean? Consider the
following simple estimates:

1 kg seed = 5.1 kg dried fruit or 9.7 kg fresh (yellow fruit) = 7.41/kg
average weight of fruits.

On the average, 1 kg seed at P4 kg = P 0.54/kg fruit.

What does this figure imply? Harvesting the fruits in the field, hauling
and initially drying them, and then dehulling the fruits to get the
seeds will only fetch a price of P0.54/kg fruit.

Will there be people in the rural areas who would be willing to harvest
and extract the seeds and be paid a measly P0.54/kg fruit? This is a
further insult to injury. It is shamefully making the poor poorer in the
guise of energy security.

7. To entice people to plant jatropha, an income of P50,000/ha is being
promised. A promised financial bounty or simple deceit?

Our estimates reveal the following: If the crop would yield, say, 1,500
kg-seeds/ha/year at P4-P5/kg = P6,000/ha to P7,500/ha.

Or, if the seed price is P33.33 /kg. Granting without accepting that the
yield would be 5t/ha, then the gross income will be P4/kg x 5,000 =
P20,000/ha or 5/kg x 5,000 = P25,000/ha.

They [Philippine National Oil Co.-Alternative Fuels Corp.] reported that
it costs about P50,000 to establish and maintain the crop in two years.
The figures they are citing do not match.

It was claimed that P50,000/ha was needed to establish and maintain the
crop in two years. The seedling cost alone is already P37,500 at P15/pc
x 2,500 plants per ha. Or seed yield should already be 5-7.5 tons/ha.

We pointed out earlier that 5 tons/ha is not a realizable yield. It is
difficult now to imagine how to realize an income of P50,000/ha.

We are reminded of the pyramiding scam! There are groups which are
thinking about multi-level marketing.

''Can we make use of Jatropha curcas as a product for multilevel
marketing para bumilis ang pagtatanim at benta (to expedite planting and
selling )?" one asked.

''I am researching a company in the Philippines [engaged] in multilevel
marketing (MLM) of agricultural products. Good Harvest in Bataan sells
stocks for grafted mango tree for a P30,000 investment. All we need is a
manufacturer of Jatropha Methyl Esther (JME) to sell the seeds. So it's
like a big MLM cooperative. If we hit the right system for this, I think
this will be successful. This is a crazy idea, but this will be good for
the growers who already have planted Jatropha curcas plants and are now

What does this thinking reveal? Friends, our answer is as good as yours!

8. Jatropha oil has high saponification value, making it an excellent
substrate for soap-making. Two products may then be obtained from
jatropha: soap and biodiesel.

This could be a positive attribute of jatropha. Could we teach farmers
how to produce soap from jatropha in case its buying price will not be
profitable for them?

These are but few of the truths about jatropha that we think the public
should know.

* * *

(Professors Ted Mendoza, Oscar Zamora and Joven Lales are on the Faculty
of Crop Science, College of Agriculture, University of the Philippines
in Los Baños, Laguna.)

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