GOVERNMENT IS AGGRESSIVELY PUSHING FOR THE CULTIVATION OF Jatropha curcas (tuba-tuba) as a source of renewable fuel. Goldman Sachs recently cited jatropha as one of the best candidates for future biodiesel production. The plant, which produces golf-ball-size fruits that contain oil, can be grown in any kind of soil. And it doesn’t need much water and fertilizer.
Leading the campaign for the propagation of jatropha in the country is Philippine National Oil Co.-Alternative Fuels Corp. (PNOC-AFC).
The corporation has tied up with the military to set up a 500-hectare nursery in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija. In Mindanao, the corporation is looking at some 1.2 million hectares as its main hub for jatropha production.
Two weeks ago, Land Bank of the Philippines signed an agreement to provide PNOC-AFC with P5 billion to P10 billion to finance the jatropha development program. Part of the money will fund cooperatives developing jatropha plantations.
Among the benefits of jatropha cultivation that government is trumpeting are the reduction in air pollution and the country’s dependence on imported crude oil, creation of jobs, and construction of roads, bridges and a refinery.
A group of agriculturists is claiming that proponents of the massive cultivation of jatropha are peddling misleading information as facts. The group advises people to study the facts first before going into jatropha farming.
* * *
By Ted Mendoza, Oscar Zamora and Joven Lales
WILL PLANTING jatropha curcas L. or tuba-tuba provide the financial benefits a government agency is promising farmers?
In our study, published in the Philippine Journal of Crop Science Vol. 32 No. 1 on Jan. 17 and titled “Towards Making Jatropha curcas (tubang bakod) a Viable Source of Biodiesel in the Philippines,” we found that:
Jatropha becomes a viable source of biodiesel if diesel is retailed at P40 per liter; if the crop has a high fruit yield of 36,000 kilogram per hectare (ha); if it has a high rate of oil extraction (34 percent and 38 percent); and if byproducts are included and provide 50-percent additional income from the oil revenue.
The assumption is that the price of jatropha seeds corresponds to the price of diesel.
But would a high yield of 36,000 kg/ha and high oil content (34 percent and 38 percent) be achieved under Philippine conditions?
This question can only be definitively answered in some future time because we do not have a plantation already on the optimum fruiting age (five years after planting) and no jatropha variety is grown in the Philippines that yields 34 percent oil. The current laboratory oil extraction is in the range of 28 percent to 32 percent.
At a low-yield level (12,000 kg/ha), jatropha becomes profitable for farmers growing it if the diesel price increases to about P140 per liter at a 30-percent rate of oil extraction (revenue is from oil alone). This implies that the buying price of jatropha seeds at the farm level is P42/kg. The substrate cost shall be P42/.30 = P140/liter of biodiesel.
The estimates exclude processing and marketing costs. Current estimates put the processing cost at P12/liter. Then, the price of biodiesel from jatropha becomes P152/liter [P140 + P12]. What if the oil price increases to more than P152 per liter? If so, let’s be prepared to use caleza and bicycle, or simply walk.
Jatropha’s seed yield is inherently low, which explains partly the low revenue. This low-yield trait is suggestive that researches must be done to increase further its seed yield and to find ways to maximize total farm yield and byproducts. However, will the results of these experiments be realized soon?
For a perennial crop that gives optimum fruiting after five years, hybridization and selection would require a minimum of 35 years (7 cycles of selection x 5 years = 35 years ). Genetic improvements to enhance jatropha’s overall trait as an energy crop could have been done way ahead. But this is water under the bridge. We can not hurry up nature.
There are other information that the the public should know or understand. These include the following:
1. The long wait for the crop to reach optimum fruiting (five years after planting ) and its low-seed yield require a multiple-cropping scheme. Short-maturing crops and high-value fruit and wood trees should be planted along with jatropha to increase the total farm yield. The scheme is also a risk-minimizing strategy.
Are the public and the agency promoting the massive planting of jatropha putting equal emphasis on promoting multiple cropping? We support diverse cropping but we should point out that jatropha is a sun-loving crop. While it grows under the shade, photosynthesis (growth and yield) will be affected in proportion to the degree of shading.
It should be expected that jatropha yield per plant will decrease under multiple-cropping conditions due to a reduction in space and sunlight. But it is logical for farmers to adopt multiple cropping. If something happens to jatropha and the price does not improve over time, farmers will have some crops to fall back on. But we do not know much about this age-old practice of multiple cropping.
Jatropha produces a toxin called curcin. Will this substance exert toxic effects on companion crops? Due to this toxin, planting of jatropha was banned in Northern Australia. The Australians are afraid that their cattle will forage on jatropha during the dry months. Besides, they are afraid that it will become weeds later on.
2. Many people are enticed to plant jatropha because of the massive government campaign to promote it. One million hectares are targeted. But construction of the processing plant has not started and it will take some time to set up the processing system.
It should be pointed out that three or five years after planting jatropha is too short a time. Are the processing plants ready by that time? Furthermore, it is necessary that the know-how to accelerate the optimization of processing raw oil into trans-esterified oil before it can be used as biodiesel oil, and processing of byproducts (press cake and/or glycerol) into high-priced products be acquired soon. Will these technological know-how be ready in three or five years?
This is one of the worries aired by those who were earlier enticed to plant jatropha. “Planting jatropha without knowing all the facts can be a very painful and costly experience. Knowing the pitfalls can help make planting more worthwhile and successful. While wealthy companies plant jatropha on a massive scale, small farm owners like many of us must be careful.
Wealthy companies know what they are doing. They plant in huge tracts of idle land that they do not own (leased to them cheaply by government or owned by others) and with very little or no expense (while we have to buy seeds and seedlings from suppliers who promise to buy our produce—assuming there will be some to buy.) Yes, these companies are speculating on a potentially valuable product that will produce biofuel in the future, but they are doing it using other people’s money, time and effort. Speculating is good but only if you know the odds.”
For those who are planning to plant jatropha, clearly there are still many unanswered questions.
3. Planting tuba-tuba is primarily aimed at making productive idle public and private lands, particularly denuded mountains and forests, unfit for food-crop cultivation, and at producing in commercial volume a renewable and environment-friendly biofuel (biodiesel), thus alleviating poverty in the countryside and addressing ecological concerns.
This is a very inviting statement among jatropha proponents. We should point out, however, the following facts:
First, jatropha can grow in marginal soils but growth and yield will also be slow and marginal or low. There is a saying “you cannot get something from nothing!”
Second, for us agriculturists, there is no land, which is unfit for food-crop cultivation. Where jatropha grows, mangoes, cashew, siniguelas, duhat, jackfruit, bignay and many other tropical fruits will grow. Moreover, cassava, sweet potato and many legumes will also grow.
Third, jatropha can survive dry weather but it will shed off leaves as an adaptive measure, to avoid dying due to excessive loss of water. But then, there is no growth and no fruit set. It will resume growth once the soil is moist again.
Fourth, jatropha grows well under a favorable environment (high soil fertility, adequate moisture and weed management during its early years of growth). But using these lands will compete with lands grown to food security crops, which the proponents try to avoid.
What are the latest observations? Fertilized jatropha plants grow well when irrigated but they become vegetative. This means that they do not yield the quantity of fruits that we expect.
4. There is a big push for growing jatropha using imported seeds as they are high yielding.
Importing the high-yielding varieties may also mean the importation of “unknown” bad traits like susceptibility to pests. Using imported seeds should be done with utmost care. It would be frustrating if the imported seeds were planted in large tracts of land and we later came to know that the plant was susceptible to viral or fungal diseases.
Moreover, it might just serve as a source of inoculum, thus infecting even the indigenized varieties in the country.
5. The main feature being claimed about Jatropha curcas or tubang bakod is that it could yield yearly as much as five to seven tons of seeds per hectare.
As pointed out earlier, there is no standing crop to validate this claim. We tried to validate this using known scientific procedures. This could be easily done by transforming the sugar equivalence of oil as illustrated below:
30 percent oil x 5 tons x 3.03-gram glucose equivalence of oil in seed (3.03 x 1.50) = 4.54 tons
2.42-gram glucose equivalence of seed coat and the press cake = 9.80 tons (2.8 x 3.5)
TOTAL = 14.34 tons/ha (4.54 + 9.80)
There’s a remote possibility that jatropha would give such seed yield as the sugar equivalence is so high, estimated at 14.34 MT/ha. Sugarcane, the highest-yielding energy crop, which produces sugar via the C4 pathway of photosynthesis could only give a maximum of 10 tons of sugar/ha in the Philippines.
Jatropha fixes carbon dioxide via the C3 path way. It lacks nature’s gift to photosynthesize the way the jatropha proponents want it to be. Besides, it is supposed to be planted in marginal soils to avoid the concern that it will compete with food crop production. Simple logic: marginal soils—marginal yield as pointed out earlier.
6. A private company is buying jatropha seeds at P4 per kilo. “Is this the right buying price?” one jatropha-planter enthusiast asks.
Before answering the question, it is important to quote the pricing scheme being spread around (“Tuba-Tuba for oil,” Ed Velasco, Oct. 9, 2006, Philippine Graphic Magazine). The article says that PhilForest buys 1 kg of dried tuba-tuba seeds at 15 percent of the prevailing diesel pump prices (0.15 x P34/liter = P5.10/kg, P34 is the price per liter, then, of diesel).
Before buying the produce, the dried tuba-tuba seeds should contain less than 10 percent of the moisture level set by the Department of Science and Technology. If seeds containing more than 10 percent of the moisture level are processed, the diesel will be less effective and might cause engine problems.
Jatropha seed at P4/kg? What does this price mean? Consider the following simple estimates:
1 kg seed = 5.1 kg dried fruit or 9.7 kg fresh (yellow fruit) = 7.41/kg average weight of fruits.
On the average, 1 kg seed at P4 kg = P 0.54/kg fruit.
What does this figure imply? Harvesting the fruits in the field, hauling and initially drying them, and then dehulling the fruits to get the seeds will only fetch a price of P0.54/kg fruit.
Will there be people in the rural areas who would be willing to harvest and extract the seeds and be paid a measly P0.54/kg fruit? This is a further insult to injury. It is shamefully making the poor poorer in the guise of energy security.
7. To entice people to plant jatropha, an income of P50,000/ha is being promised. A promised financial bounty or simple deceit?
Our estimates reveal the following: If the crop would yield, say, 1,500 kg-seeds/ha/year at P4-P5/kg = P6,000/ha to P7,500/ha.
Or, if the seed price is P33.33 /kg. Granting without accepting that the yield would be 5t/ha, then the gross income will be P4/kg x 5,000 = P20,000/ha or 5/kg x 5,000 = P25,000/ha.
They [Philippine National Oil Co.-Alternative Fuels Corp.] reported that it costs about P50,000 to establish and maintain the crop in two years. The figures they are citing do not match.
It was claimed that P50,000/ha was needed to establish and maintain the crop in two years. The seedling cost alone is already P37,500 at P15/pc x 2,500 plants per ha. Or seed yield should already be 5-7.5 tons/ha.
We pointed out earlier that 5 tons/ha is not a realizable yield. It is difficult now to imagine how to realize an income of P50,000/ha.
We are reminded of the pyramiding scam! There are groups which are thinking about multi-level marketing.
‘‘Can we make use of Jatropha curcas as a product for multilevel marketing para bumilis ang pagtatanim at benta (to expedite planting and selling )?” one asked.
‘‘I am researching a company in the Philippines [engaged] in multilevel marketing (MLM) of agricultural products. Good Harvest in Bataan sells stocks for grafted mango tree for a P30,000 investment. All we need is a manufacturer of Jatropha Methyl Esther (JME) to sell the seeds. So it’s like a big MLM cooperative. If we hit the right system for this, I think this will be successful. This is a crazy idea, but this will be good for the growers who already have planted Jatropha curcas plants and are now fruiting…”
What does this thinking reveal? Friends, our answer is as good as yours!
8. Jatropha oil has high saponification value, making it an excellent substrate for soap-making. Two products may then be obtained from jatropha: soap and biodiesel.
This could be a positive attribute of jatropha. Could we teach farmers how to produce soap from jatropha in case its buying price will not be profitable for them?
These are but few of the truths about jatropha that we think the public should know.
* * *
(Professors Ted Mendoza, Oscar Zamora and Joven Lales are on the Faculty of Crop Science, College of Agriculture, University of the Philippines in Los Baños, Laguna.)