Getting real with a ‘miracle’ crop
Jatropha, once considered a miracle crop, could still become the world’s second-highest oil crop, Vincent Volckaert, business director of Quinvita NV, tells Chris Lyddon
Too many promises were made for Jatropha – the perennial plant that has been promoted as an oil producer throughout the developing world – but Vincent Volckaert, business director of Quinvita NV, believes he can now take a more balanced view of the crop.
Quinvita, formed six months ago as a management buyout of the research activities of D1 Oil, has probably done more work on making Jatropha into a real world success than anyone.
“It’s a crop that for many years was believed to be a miracle plant that would grow almost anywhere, needed no inputs and would give fantastic results,” he says. “I think miracles are no longer of this world.”
“This is an agricultural crop like any other crop. It has needs and requires practices like any other crop.”
That means starting with the right genetics, adapted for specific conditions.
“You also need to manage it properly, which means knowing how to plant it, when to plant it, how to fertilise it and how to protect it against pests and diseases.
“When you do all those things right it gives very impressive results, but if you violate these three elements: genetics, environment and management, you get lower results than you would expect,” Mr Volckaert warns.
“That’s something we’ve learned over the years, about what type of genetics do well where, about what sort of crop management is needed. And more specifically, what are the optimal conditions for growing jatropha. It’s typically not a desert type of crop.
“The thing with jatropha is that it’s a crop that survives very well a mismanagement and in harsh conditions,” he explains. “But there’s a difference between surviving and having a good yield, and a good economic return.”
Mr Volckaert believes jatropha could be the second-highest yielding oil crop. “We believe palm oil will still be the highest yielder of oil per hectare; more than 100 years of selection and breeding work has been done on oil palm,” he says. “There’s no way that jatropha is going to beat oil palm at this stage.”
Oil palm, however, is very much restricted as to where it can be grown. “It needs to be in a high rainfall area with a very continuous rain pattern over the year, so the areas where you could grow oil palm are quite limited,” Mr Volckaert points out.
“If anything, the two, although both grow in warmer climates, are almost mutually exclusive in terms of environment.
“That’s one of the advantages of jatropha – it has a much wider adaptation climatewise. It’s a perennial crop and one that can withstand several months of drought.”
There are large parts of the world where that happens. “In that respect it’s still a very interesting crop for those types of regions where the climate is a bit more variable and you could suddenly have a long drought period.
“The current genetics are achieving yields that are similar or better than most of the annual oil crops and by that I mean soybeans, sunflower and castor, and even compared with oilseed rape,” he says.
“With all the progress we’re achieving in genetics and agronomy, we believe this is going to improve even further in coming years.
“We have to be careful to stress that it’s not a crop that grows in what we call marginal land,” Mr Volckaert stresses.
“It still needs to be managed properly, which means it must be fertilised and weeded. It’s still not a crop to plant and forget about and then later on just pass by to collect tonnes of oil. But still, compared with other crops, it has quite an interesting potential.”
That interesting potential is exactly what Quinvita wants to achieve, as a technical partner for the Jatropha projects around the world.