Seeds of discontent: the 'miracle' crop that has failed to deliver

A new 'ethical' biofuel is damaging the impoverished people it was supposed to help

A A A

A "miracle" plant, once thought to be as the answer to producing renewable biofuels on a vast scale, is driving thousands of farmers in the developing world into food poverty, a damning report concludes today.

Five years ago jatropha was hailed by investors and scientists as a breakthrough in the battle to find a biofuel alternative to fossil fuels that would not further impoverish developing countries by diverting resources away from food production.

Jatropha was said to be resistant to drought and pests and able could grow on land that was unsuitable for food production. But researchers have found that it has increased poverty in countries including India and Tanzania.

Millions of the plants have been grown in anticipation of rich returns, only for growers to be hit by poor yields, conflict over land and a lack of infrastructure to process the oil-rich seeds.

Oil giant BP, which planned to spend almost £32m on a joint venture to set up jatropha plantations, has now pulled out and the charity ActionAid today warns that jatropha needs to be cultivated on prime food-growing land to produce significant yields.

According to one estimate, up to one million hectares of jatropha – an area equivalent to Devon and Cornwall combined – are being cultivated around the globe, despite little evidence that it can produce enough oil to make the crop commercially sustainable.

Meredith Alexander, head of trade at Actionaid and co-author of its "Meals per Gallon" report, said: "Jatropha is a real gold-rush crop, and the same amount of common sense that applies in a gold rush has been applied to the jatropha rush.

"Jatropha was the subject of an explosion of fabulous propaganda. But this was an untried crop at commercial levels and the many thousands of marginal farmers who have gone into production have been experimented on with disastrous results. They are simply not getting the income they were promised and now cannot afford food for their families," she said.

A native of central America, Jatropha curcus was brought to Europe in the 16th century and subsequently spread across Africa and Asia. Until recently, its few uses included a malaria treatment and an indigestion remedy.

But despite jatropha's much-lauded ability to grow where food crops cannot flourish, campaigners say there is evidence that commercially viable yields can only be obtained in fertile soil.

In India, forecasted annual yields of three to five tonnes of seeds per hectare have been scaled back to 1.8 to two tonnes. The Overseas Development Institute, a leading international development think-tank, has stated that "as the mainstay of people's livelihoods, jatropha looks distinctly marginal".

ActionAid said its researchers found repeated cases of farmers being left with jatropha crops they could not sell and land previously used to grow food crops being taken over by sub-contractors who then employed locals on wages that could not compete with rises in the price of foodstuffs partially caused by biofuel production.

Raju Sona, a farmer in north-east India who gave up land that usually produces vegetables to grow jatropha, said: "No one will buy jatropha. People said if you have a plantation then surely you have a good market. But we didn't see such a market. I threw the seeds away."

A number of British companies are continuing to market jatropha as a "highly ethical and green" investment. One fund offers investors three packages for prices ranging from £7,500 to £15,600 in a brochure entitled "Money really does grow on trees". That company says it has funded the planting of 32 million jatropha shrubs worldwide through a London-based provider called Carbon Credited Farming (CCF) Plc.

Jeff Reeves, head of global operations for CCF, which estimates it will have 300 million jatropha shrubs planted on 120,000 acres worldwide by the end of 2010, admitted that there had been problems establishing the crop.

He told The Ecologist magazine: "In many cases it is government policy and people that are to blame, rather than jatropha itself. Well-managed, jatropha ... can work. But there have been countries where poor management has meant this is not the case."

D1 Oils, a London-based biofuels company which has invested heavily in jatropha, said insisted it was too early to write off the crop as a long-term biofuel source. But its former co-investor, BP, disagreed. A spokesman said: "As other [renewable fuel] technologies came up, we looked again at whether jatropha was going to be the best biofuel source that could be scaled up. There were problems with it. We have decided to look elsewhere."

* Some of this research appeared in the Ecologist

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
football
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Infrastructure Lead, (Trading, VCE, Converged, Hyper V)

£600 - £900 per day: Harrington Starr: Infrastructure Lead, (Trading infrastru...

Software Solution Technician - Peterborough - up to £21,000

£20000 - £21000 per annum + Training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Software Solutio...

Supply teachers needed- Worthing!

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: Supply teachers needed for va...

Year 4 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 4 Primary Teachers needed Rand...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering