When oil grows on trees

India’s new biofuel bonanza could revitalise its wastelands – or starve its poor. Terry Slavin assesses the perils and the promise of jatropha.

India’s dreams of weaning itself off expensive oil imports rest heavily on a single lowly bush, the jatropha.

Imports of oil, already a worrying 70%, are growing fast, and reliance on diesel fuel is growing at the fastest clip of all. India’s stated goal over the next five years is to replace a fifth of its entire diesel consumption with biodiesel derived from the seeds of the jatropha plant.

Several states have aggressive planting programmes and tens of thousands of small farmers have been given loans to grow it. UK biofuels company D1 Oil, which has planted 156,000 hectares of the stuff, last year went into a £160 million joint venture with BP to plant up one million hectares, most of it in India.

The success of all this activity will be known in another year, when the first substantial harvests are due. But can biofuels really be an answer for India, when alarm bells are ringing all over the globe about the critical shortages of food and water caused by land being turned over to grow them?

The Indian government thinks so, and for one simple reason: because it thrives in arid soil, jatropha need not compete with food. Research by TERI (The Energy Resource Institute) found that half the 60 million hectares of land now classed as wasteland in India would be suitable for jatropha cultivation.

But critics worry that even if jatropha can be grown on marginal land with little water, it does so best on soil also suitable for food crops. Instead of farmers growing it on small landholdings, as they have been encouraged to do until now, say the critics, the jatropha industry will evolve into enormous monoculture plantations, gobbling up vast amounts of arable land.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that some farmers given generous loans from the government to plant the bush on marginal land had already reported financial losses after poor yields. Jutta Kill, climate campaigner at Fern, a European NGO that monitors carbon trading, says: “If you want good fruits that are high in biofuel content then you need good land. If you were to grow jatropha on degraded land, you get lots of flowers but little fruit.”

Steve Douty, who is responsible for developing D1’s India operations, insists that jatropha need not hurt India’s food security. He concedes that the plant grows best when irrigated, but adds: “The message we put out is grow it as an additional crop, intercropped with food crops, so when you are irrigating your food you are irrigating jatropha as well.”

Mark Runacres, who is also a director of D1, points out that seeds are only part of the value of the jatropha to rural economies. He says the cuttings can be burned as biomass, and the cake by-product can make good quality soap. The seeds can even be burned in lamps as a clean substitute for kerosene, which the government spends billions of dollars subsidising because it is the only light source for millions of people.

But India’s 20% diesel target won’t just be met by small farmers. Jatropha will likely be part of the Green India initiative announced by the Council on Climate Change, under which six million hectares of state land is to be leased out to companies for afforestation.

Meanwhile, some of India’s biggest players are already investing in jatropha. Industrial giant Reliance has planted thousands of hectares, and its life sciences division is developing transgenic high-yielding varieties of the plant and looking at bioreactors to mass-produce jatropha oil. Reliance chairman Mukesh Ambani recently said a biofuels revolution could set India on a new development path, with agriculture at its heart. “It is possible to develop hybrid and transgenic technologies to use marginal land for the production of biofuels crops,” he said. “It is possible to create a whole value chain that links the marginal farmer with global energy markets.” And, with characteristic bullishness, he added: “In the process, we can put more wealth into the hands of Indian farmers, instead of wealthy sheiks in desert kingdoms.”

Terry Slavin is a freelance journalist based in London

This article appears in “Monsoons & miracles: India’s search for a sustainable future”, a special supplement produced by Green Futures magazine

Homepage photo by R. K. Henning