"Jatropha Is Not Competing with Existing Food Crops to Produce Biodiesel”

The biofuel market is growing, and with it the development of certain crops to meet energy needs. One of which is Jatropha, a plant that is gaining importance in this sector. Ian Graham the Deputy Director of the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products and professor at the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" /?>University of York in the UK answers scitizens questions.

A new kind of biofuel is being produced derived from a plant called Jatropha. Can you explain a little about this plant?

Jatropha is bush that grows in the warm regions of the world as it is sensitive to colder climates. Once it’s planted it grows and produces nuts that contain oil within a few years, and produces these annually for up to 50 years. Jatropha has been grown in developing countries for many years. In fact, it was distributed by Portuguese sailors from Mexico and South America over a hundred years ago to places such as India, Africa, and South East Asia. It’s been used locally for production of oil that was used in local village based industries for soap production. Since the plants are toxic they have also been used to plant hedges and to keep animals out of areas of land.

How does Jatropha compare to other biofuels?
The oil that is produced in the nuts of Jatropha is essentially a vegetable oil that is quite similar in terms of fatty acid content such as rapeseed oil. It has quite a typical profile of fatty acids in the oil, and it’s essentially a very good source of biodiesel.

Countries like China and Brazil have become very keen on Jatropha. Would you say that Jatropha based biofuel could become a leader in the biofuel market?

I think it will certainly persist in that market. One of the main reasons why it will persist in the market is that all of the other so-called first generation biofuels currently rely on vegetable material that has been developed as a source of food or feed. If you look at current sources of biodiesel for example, soy bean oil, rapeseed oil, or palm oil, all of these crops have been developed over the years as a food or feed stock for animals. A similar situation exists with first generation sources of material for bioethanol production with sugar cane, sugar beet, or corn starch all having been developed for food and feed. Unlike these, Jatropha is not a food crop, and it’s not competing with existing food crops to produce biodiesel. Also, one of the really interesting things about it is that it grows quite well on marginal land. In India for example, this is the case, and the Indian government has identified millions of hectares of land, which is suitable for Jatropha plantations.

How far has India taken the production of Jatropha?

I don’t have the current details of hectares that are planted, but India has invested quite significantly in Jatropha development at the government level. There has also been investments from outside companies such as one of the leading companies D1 Oils from the UK, which has involved both in securing rights to plant Jatropha in India and also in several African countries.

Is it ready for wide scale production?

There is still a significant amount of research that needs to be done on Jatropha before it could become a dominant and sustainable source of biofuels. The actual breeding and development of the genetic resources of Jatropha are at quite an early stage. A lot of the plantations are being established with early stage varieties. My expectation is that with increased fast track breeding of Jatropha there will be plants that will give higher yields or be more resistant to drought and disease. We also need to know far more about the different genotypes and varieties of Jatropha around the world, and whether there is a large amount of genetic variation that can be used to develop Jatropha crops for different geographical locations.

Interview by: Christopher Le Coq

Ian Graham is professor at the University of York, in the UK, and the deputy director of the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products.