Notably, one of the project’s development areas is “intense farming for propagation” along with irrigation and fertilization. Clearly, growing jatropha on large scales does not mean simply finding a rocky hillside, throwing down some seeds and waiting for a gas tank to fill up.
“There is no such thing as marginal land, not really, not when you’re trying to make money with a crop,” said , of Rocky Mountain Biodiesel Consulting.
“When you start looking at crops on an international scale, then you’re going to put in some resources, and eventually take up some relatively good quality land. To get that yield, you have to be on pretty good quality land, with sufficient water and fertilization, and you have to manage it.”
Small-scale jatropha farming may have more potential than scaling up to meet international fuel demands. McKeown said that small, rural communities in Asia that don’t have access to the electricity grid could benefit from the crop’s energy potential.
“You can bring in a biodiesel generator and then grow jatropha, that can significantly improve the quality of lives for these communities,” she said.
“It lets them have lights and all sorts of other advantages. So in that sense, I think jatropha will have a role to play in the biofuels future, I just don’t know that it is going to be the next sugarcane or the next corn. We just really don’t know about scale.”
A 2008 from USAID agreed on the plant’s local potential, especially given that when kept to the marginal lands it won’t compete with much-needed food crops in those areas.
Ecosystems and GHG Emissions
The other issue that often goes unmentioned is that even marginal lands aren’t complete wastes of space.
“They’re often providing habitats, they provide filtration services, they provide a lot of benefits,” McKeown said. “And if you put them under cultivation, some of those benefits are taken away. So it is not exactly free lands without any negatives.”
Also, research into jatropha’s potential as a greenhouse gas emissions saver has yet to be fully explored. The major sticking point that arose with corn ethanol, sugarcane and other feedstocks is the concept of indirect land use changes and other elements of total lifecycle emissions that reduce the overall benefits, with corn-based ethanol in particular.
“What are the material and energy needs to move into these marginal lands, and how would that compare to putting it on arable land?” Baka asked.
“Marginal lands are usually marginal for a reason: they’re off the main transportation routes, maybe they’re on rocky hillsides – what does it take to actually get out there? How are you going to get your water out there?”
It has only been a few years since jatropha burst on to the biofuels scene, but already that familiar refrain of too much hype and not enough benefit has gained volume. Whether or not projects like GM’s India partnership — which is starting with about 200 acres in India devoted to jatropha farming — or the Million Gallon Challenge in Central America herald a new major player in the alternative fuels world or just a flash in the pan remains to be seen.
“I think its going to be a bridge crop, trying to get us from the food grain-based feedstocks, the corn and the soybeans, into algae and cellulosic,” Baka said. “In the long term, it does require land, and I predict that there will be some competition with arable land. There is a still a high degree of uncertainty. Nobody really knows how to grow this thing properly yet.”