The oil crop jatropha (Jatropha curcas)
has suffered a spate of recent adverse reportage. First a research report
concluded that it utilized a rather large 20,000 liters of water to produce a liter of biodiesel. This compares unfavorably with 14,000 liters for the biodiesel crops rapeseed and soybean. However, jatropha produces about four times more biodiesel per hectare of land than soybean and does not hold food-fuel issues that soybean would. The report assailed the much-bandied ability of jatropha to thrive on marginal soils, one of two main planks (the other being its high oil yield) on which its allure for biodiesel production rests. Then the oil major BP reportedly opted out of its joint venture with D1 on biodiesel production with jatropha as feedstock.
Water is a major factor in large-scale agriculture so when questions arose about jatropha’s water utility, various investors such as BP began to reconsider their investment.
In a previous post
, l argued that when crops were grown in their natural environment, natural resources utility may be of little concern. For the palm oil plantations of the equatorial regions of West Africa and Southeast Asia for example, irrigation is of little concern as they have ample supply of water (rainfall) and sunshine. The same is applicable for jatropha. To argue then that these crops are “water hogs”, questioning their suitability for biodiesel production even when they are grown in their natural environment is misleading, if not untenable.
The quest to grow oil and other crops in their natural environment may have informed the spate of recent outsourcing contracts. An article in a recent issue of Economist
detailed the outsourcing of crops by countries with natural resources constraints. Saudi Arabia, for example having become self-sufficient in wheat, had to abandon the grain fields due to severe drawdown in the associated aquifer beneath the Arabian sands. The country resorted to outsourcing – growing the crops in other mainly developing countries and repatriating a greater portion of the harvest. Then came South Korea and the oil-thirsty China. The latter, prompted by dewatering of areas like the North China Plain, reportedly acquired African acreages for jatropha cultivation in addition to the world’s largest oil palm acreage, which it intends to use for biodiesel production. The alternative would be to develop seed varieties that would be viable in consumer countries.
The risk may not be much different from that associated with importation of oil and gas from politically unstable or volatile regions. In this regard, for example the United States is currently increasing
its supply of oil from Africa at the expense of the volatile Middle East suppliers. Some European Union countries are also evaluating supply prospects from the West African province to ameliorate the perennial problems with Russian gas supplies.
The success of these outsourcing contracts will depend more on political than agricultural considerations.