Thursday, May 31, 2007

Proposed New Biofuel Crops in Australia - Is Jatropha a Weed?

New biofuel crops or just more bloody weeds? [reprinted from Rural press sources]
Australia Wednesday, 30 May 2007

With climate change so much in the news, new biofuel crops are attracting interest but initial investigations by the Invasive Species Council (ISC) have found that many of these are potential major weeds- putting the economy and the environment at risk.

An ISC spokesmand, Tim Low, said they have found that some of the plants being promoted by biofuel organisations in Australia to be serious weeds. "For example, a biodiesel company in Queensland has called on farmers to grow jatropha (also called physic nut), an Indian plant that is banned in Western Australia and the Northern Territory because of its weediness. "Jatropha is also closely related to bellyache bush - one of the worst weeds of grazing lands in northern Australia - and like bellyache bush it is poisonous to livestock. It could be a disaster if this plant was deliberately put in the ground as a crop in Australia," Mr Low said.

The ISC has found that other known major weeds touted as biofuel crops include Chinese tallow tree, castor oil plant, reed canary grass, giant reed and Chinee apple. For example Chinese tallow tree is one of America's worst weeds, and it was recently declared a noxious weed in northern NSW because it was invading land so rapidly.

In September last year six scientists published an article in the journal, Science, warning about the weed risk posed by biofuel crops.

In the US, corn is grown as a biofuel, but the costs of cultivation are so high that without subsidies it is not a viable alternative to petroleum.

The search is on for hardy low-maintenance biofuel crops, but unfortunately some of those proposed are well known weeds. This poses a potential major risk to Australian agriculture and the Australian environment. Due to the risk the Invasive Species Council is preparing a comprehensive report on the weed risk posed by some biofuel plants.

BUT...........the following article appeared in Scientific American May 2007.

Green Gold in a Shrub
Entrepreneurs target the jatropha plant as the next big biofuel
By Rebecca Renner

Image from D1 OILS PLC
Jatropha seedlings JATROPHA SEEDLINGS are planted in Zambia for U.K. biodiesel firm D1 Oils--part of an increasing effort to harvest the shrub, which favors hot, dry climates, as a source of biofuel.

A woody shrub with big oily seeds could be the ideal source for biofuel. For hundreds of years, Africans in places such as Tanzania and Mali have used Jatropha curcas (jatropha) as a living fence. Now biodiesel entrepreneurs in tropical zones in Africa and India are buying up land, starting plantations and looking forward to making fuel from the seeds, which, they argue, will be better for the global environment and economy than conventional biofuel crops grown in temperate climates.

Ethanol from corn or sugarcane and biodiesel from canola, soy or palm oil have become major players in renewable energy. In principle, biofuels do not increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, because as the plants grow they trap the CO2 that is released when the biofuels are burned.

Still, biofuels face a great deal of criticism. Food commodities such as corn, canola and soy all yield oil, but they are expensive, require intensive agricultural practices and threaten food supplies. Jatropha seems to offer the benefits of biofuels without the pitfalls. The plants favour hot, dry conditions and hence are unlikely to threaten rain forests. There is no trade-off between food and fuel either, because the oil is poisonous.

John Mathews, a professor of strategic management at Macquarie University in Australia, notes that many tropical developing countries have huge swaths of degraded and semiarid land that can be utilized for fuel crops. The cost of labor there is cheap, too. Biofuels made from plants such as jatropha, he argues, "represent the best bet for a last-ditch effort to industrialize the poor south and end poverty." He advocates large-scale plantings to aid energy independence in expanding economies such as China and India and to boost exports in the less developed countries of Africa.

Mathews's vision may be coming true. U.K. biodiesel company D1 Oils has planted 150,000 hectares of jatropha in Swaziland, Zambia and South Africa, as well as in India, where it is part of a joint venture. The firm plans to double its crop sizes this year. Dutch biodiesel equipment manufacturer BioKing is developing plantings in Senegal, and the government of China has embarked on a massive project. "People aren't making much jatropha oil right now, because everyone wants seeds for planting," says Reinhard Henning, a German technology transfer consultant and expert in jatropha.

In addition to establishing plantations, jatropha boosters are starting to identify, select and propagate the best varieties for biodiesel production. Henning has found Brazilian jatropha seeds that contain 40 percent oil--about the same as canola and more than twice the 18 percent contained in soybeans. Indonesia has a dwarf variety that is especially easy to harvest.

Finding the variety best suited to particular growing conditions is crucial, explains D1 Oils agronomy director Henk Joos, because right now not much hard scientific information exists about jatropha--just lots of stories. "We know that this plant is environmentally elastic and drought-tolerant. But the aura that this is a wonder crop that you can plant in the desert and harvest gold" is a dangerous notion that threatens social and economic sustainability, Joos says, adding that jatropha needs to be managed like any other crop. He notes that at D1 Oils plantations, farmers plant in land that is as good as possible without replacing food crops, then apply first-rate farming practices: prune branches, apply manure and provide water.

But the realization that successful large-scale operations have to function like well-run farms raises the issue of competition with food crops for water and land, says agronomist Raymond Jongschaap of Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Jongschaap is spearheading one of the research projects looking for different types of jatropha with the goal of matching plants to growing conditions and maximizing oil yields. He has the most faith in small-scale efforts based on hedges or intercropping jatropha with other plants-- a method used in projects in Kenya and Madagascar, where jatropha is planted alongside vanilla.

Henning agrees that it is smart for jatropha growers to start small. Biodiesel cannot compete with current petroleum prices, which are relatively low, so jatropha would be better suited for local projects that improve rural livelihoods and basic energy services. These small projects have already started to build a framework of familiarity and expertise--in parts of Tanzania, kids learn about jatropha in school. Then, as fuel prices increase, jatropha cultivation can go to a larger scale. The wild shrub could then become a "sustainable cash crop," Joos believes, and a fuel for the future.


There is a definite sense of deja vu about these proposals. As an agronomist that has seen all this before in two earlier oil shocks, there is a VERY large distance between concept and actual sustainable production with plant biofuels. The idea of "livelihood" production is especially useful, with biofuels able to replace expensive and often difficult to obtain petroleum products in rural communities across Africa and even India. That may have merit and fits with the ideas in the recent UN document on biofuels. Developing the agronomic systems for large scale is more difficult.

I have no doubt we will hear more about several other species, most of whom have had considerable work done on oily / gum / latex constituents that might be suitable for fuel or fuel conversion. Many of these are semi arid or arid zone plants eg Euphorbia tirucalli . But the agronomy required to develop them to meet the requirments of modern agricultural practice in western countries and their labour costs AND yield enough is a very tough call, especially in the short to medium term - say 7-10 years.

BUT.......for Australia the case being developed by the Invasive Species Council against jatropha should be carefully examined. It is weedy........and can be very weedy!

All the promoters wish to do is make a lot of $$, and they are all commercial firms without a lot of "public good' among them. Cynic I may be, but experience does lead one to that conclusion.


Paul Langford said...

Perhaps "weedy" is EXACTLY the indicator that the plant is suitable for mass agriculture in the location? Let's face it, a lot of farmers spend huge amounts on fertiliser and weedkillers to try and get something to grow where it doesn't want to! Perhaps there's a message there?

Peter H said...

True.......And I have heard some data about a sterile form that only propagates vegetatively. I have no doubt that for small farmers the plant is potentially very useful. It is questionable for Australia though with so few people to manage the inland land areas where it would be grown, if it became an escaped plant. There are many of those in Australia, and which cost a lot of $$ to manage. Introduced with good thoughts, but are now pest plants.

Don said...

I am confused by the very negative picture of Jatropha drawn by the WA authorities. I used that plant in Burma as a soil erosion control measure many years ago and did not see or hear of any invasive characteristics. Nor were animals and people poisoned in large numbers.
I will make it quite clear that I not involved in any jatropha enterprise and am a little afraid that it could be a bit like the ostrich and goat boom/busts in the past.

However the manner in which it has been banned from WA Australia when it seems to be relatively benign in other countries is disturbing. There is an unfortunate parallel with another plant that has been declared invasive in WA. Vetiver grass (Chrysopogon zizanioides) is a non-invasive erosion control grass that I have almost 20 years hands on experience with through about 14 countries. Here are some conversations on the Weeds CRC Enviroweeds blog:
"Date: Thu, 25 Jan 2007
From: Scott Edwards

Can someone shed some light on which Vetiver species are invasive.

Im being told of 'sterile' Vetiver being used in large scale gully rehabilitation projects, but im not convinced. I also know of it being used in remediation wetlands.


Date: Thu, 25 Jan 2007
From: "Randall, Rod"

Vetiveria zizanioides (L.) Nash now called Chrysopogon zizanioides (L.) Roberty is the ONLY Vetiveria species being used for rehab and it IS invasive. The clonal form may well be sterile but as the non-clonal form is also in Australia is a moot point and there are many sterile plants that are highly invasive.

The references below all refer to V. zizanioides as a weed in various circumstances and countries. Its not worth the risk to use this species and I will continue to argue against its use anywhere."

"Date: Fri, 19 Jan 2007
From: Danielle Frohlich

I'd like to get some information about the potential invasiveness of the clump-forming grass Chrysopogon zizanioides, or Vetiveria zizanoides. It is being considered for use in erosion control here in Hawaii. Since it has not yet been introduced here, we're concerned it may present yet another weed problem. Anyone have any information?


Date: Sun, 21 Jan 2007
From: "Randall, Rod"

Chrysopogon zizanioides is most definitely is invasive wether it be in its seeding form, or its highly promoted clonal form." (He follows this untruth with a list of references that have all proved to be irrelevant on close examination.)

Now the USDA has given the Monto/Sunshine non-seeding vetiver grass its lowest invasiveness rating of -8. I agree with that rating as I have never seen any sign of it being invasive. It has been established on one island I am very familiar with in the SW Pacific since 1912 and has not spread at all.

This is the same invasive weed expert that is behind Jatropha curcans being declared a highly invasive plant and it being banned from WA.

Go figure.......

Don Miller

Peter H said...

A response to Don

I too have used Vetiver extensively in both Australia and mostly Asia. NEVER found it invasive, and like you my experience with the species covers about 20 years. Most Australian states do not ban it.

As for Jatropha curcas, I think the jury is still sitting regarding weediness. Weediness as a concept can vary....and for the inland of Australia with vast areas and few people, the cost to clean up jatropha problems now [ albeit different species] are already VERY expensive. Erring on the side of caution now for a few years might be the superior option. The debate about using J curcas is not yet over in Australia. For India, parts of Africa - it is a very likely sound biofuel crop, particularly for rural areas where local oil presses can produce fuel close to the crop areas for local use. Considerable development along these lines is already occurring.

For Australia, caution is needed. At least for now.

ricard said...

Jatropha is a plant producing oil-based material that is easy to live anywhere so it is not difficult to provide learning for farmers dipedalaman

Kentbiofuel said...


Growing Jatropha is Cool if you can do it you should! You can fly planes on CJO - Crude Jatropha Oil and yes it is a weed!

You can use this process to turn Jatropha Oil into Bio Diesel


Peter H said...

in response to kentbiofuel

While I think the plant does have a very interesting future as a biofuel source, in Austraia where we have several jatropha species as weeds, it is highly unlikely that it could be imported and developed as a crop.

Would not say never......but very unlikely. a biofuel crop in Africa, India and several other areas in the tropics, especially at smaller scales it has considerable promise. In fact, already in use in many locations.

viswanath said...

A much better option- Pongamia-it is tree native to India and an avenue tree. One of the few tree that has green canopy in summer and fragrant flowering. Its seeds are bitter and have 30%+ oil.Yields range between 10KGs to 50KGs per trees I have done extensive domain data mining and would be happy to interact with all interested. Vishwanath

Peter H said...

Pongamia is being researched in Northern Australia, and is favoured by quite a few research people.

Some modest areas are established.

Larger developments will take longer. It is often the non agronomic issues that constrict alternative developments - $$, scaling up, logistics, etc.

Thanks for the comment - V.

Biodieselize said...

Jatropha takes a major role in Biodiesel industry. Which helps to get bio-oil. Thanks for giving such infomative blog. Keep it up.

Jatropha biodiesel