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Oily plants: Jatropha as biofuel...

Act I: A farmer struggles to grow crops to feed his family and create a little income for other necessities. He notices that a common weed is untouched by grazing pests that plague his garden. He plants it around his garden to repel the animals that would eat his meager bounty.

Act II: The weeds need no extra care or attention and thrive--producing an effective deterrent to the grazers and thus protecting his crops, but also generating a glut of seedlings that would take over if left to their own devices. The fence is too valuable to be removed, so he begins to collect the seed before it can drop and germinate. He can't eat it. It's poisonous and would make his family sick. But it's really oily. He mashes masses of seed, creating an unrefined oil and leaving behind a nutrient rich seed cake that makes terrific fertilizer, enriching his poor cropland soil.

Act III: Someone notices. People begin to mess with the oil. It makes a nice fuel and can be used in its basic, unrefined state. Eyebrows are raised. Money is spent. A new biofuel, with many advantages over the others is touted. "Weeds" are planted. Timing is good. Web sites explode. The farmer is feeding his family...and mashing more seed--but the rest of the world has noticed.

Will it be another classic tale of discovery and exploitation? Is it a chance for all the principled pronouncements of the past 20 years to be put into practice--to level playing fields; trade fairly; apportion profits justly?

It's all about Jatropha curcus.

Many gardeners, especially lovers of succulents and the unusual, are familiar with Jatropha podagrica (Buddha Belly Plant, Bottle Plant, Gout Plant...), a swollen trunked pot plant with large, wonderful leaves and bright orange flowers that aren't difficult to coax from the plant.

Both plants are native to Central America. The genus as about 14 members and is in the Euphorbiaceae family.

I knew nothing about J. curcus until Sunday until an article in The New York Times. Even though the paper used the generic name "jatropha," it wasn't difficult to discover the plant that was being referenced. A simple Google search on "jatropha" and "biofuel" nets a swarm of web sites on J. curcus with information on the plant and its potential.

Although many plants are being used, or considered, for biofuel production, J. curcus has many advantages. It grows in poor, unproductive soil. It can be interplanted with food crops, providing some protection from grazing herbivores, helping to prevent erosion in the fields, and returning some nutrients to the soil when its leaves drop, and with the byproducts of the pressing process. It requires very little rain, little or no fertilizer, and has no pest problems (therefore, no pesticides required). To top it all off, yields are much higher than other plants being grown for fuel, and it continues to produce for as many as 50 years.

Many small farmers have already started growing the plant, raising their income substantially in some cases. Millions of acres are being planted--at what cost to the environment and the species that specialize in eking out their existence in marginal and poor habitats, no one knows.

No one knows yet whether commercial production of jatropha oil will be a viable, sustainable enterprise, but the future is certainly intriguing for this green fuel.




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