Jatropha’s False Promise: A Miracle Crop Falls Short

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image by Carol Hunsberger

Widely hailed as a miracle crop, Jatropha curcas, native to Central America, held promise as a profitable source of green energy. The plant, which can thrive in arid conditions where farmers are most apt to be poverty stricken, produces oil-laden seeds that can be turned into biodiesel. In 2007 Scientific American called it “green gold in a shrub.”

After a rush to plant the crop, though, biofuel prices collapsed and jatropha’s vaunted status began to fade. Today in Kenya, Alternatives Journal (April 2009) reports, “sacks of seeds sit stacked one upon the other as farmers wait for the market to improve.” What’s more, the crop grew more slowly than expected and bumper yields failed to materialize as quickly as promised. A food-for-fuel controversy is also swirling around production of the plant.

There are now two competing suggestions of what to do with all the jatropha farms. Some believe Kenya must create large-scale plantations to compete in the global economy. Nonprofit organizations disagree, suggesting that Kenyans should scale down to small farms. If it’s not destined for export, the crop could be used locally to power homes, stoves, and diesel engines, providing some much-needed energy security to the region. “The story of jatropha in Kenya deserves attention,” Alternatives Journal writes, “because so much of the plot has yet to unfold.”

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