Energy Farming Methods Mature, Improve
As the demand for nonfood-based biofuel feedstocks is rapidly growing, so is the sophistication of the commercial agricultural methods used for these types of plants. Jatropha farming is still in its infancy as genetics, agronomics and horticulture sciences are beginning to drive new varieties, more knowledge around the plant’s nutritional requirements and more science-based processes for the care and custody of the plant. This is beginning to drive reliable and scalable results in jatropha farming. Early, less knowledgeable entrants are fading into the background and are being supplanted with a breed of experienced investors and operators keenly focused on building a solid foundation for industrial scale production.
So while Jatropha agriculture continues to be a new and exciting alternative energy source, and the world continues to watch its development closely, there are still many misnomers about where it should be grown, how to grow it and what resources the plant needs to achieve commercially productive yields. Unfortunately, “sound bites” still get circulated with very little credibility or scientific basis—such as recent unsupported statements about jatropha generating more greenhouse gases than it saves, or renewable energy projects that are based on deforestation.
The Center for Sustainable Energy Farming (www.cfsef.org) was created by Global Clean Energy Holdings Inc., one of the largest commercial jatropha farmers in the Americas, as a platform for multidisciplinary research into all aspects of energy farming. The center allows for collaborative research with other researchers and industry partners. The same collaborative research approach is common with other groups of perennial [tree] farmers, who have combined their efforts and resources to improve their product. The center’s mission is to perform cutting-edge plant science research in genetics, breeding and horticulture, and further develop technologies to allow for the economic commercialization and sustainability of energy farms globally. In essence, the ability for countries to access a home-grown energy solution that does not drain limited resources in the process. The center has a Master Research Agreement with Penn State University, funded by industry partners, and is developing other technical collaborations and financial partnerships.
Anyone with a background in plant science or agriculture knows that plants do not grow effectively without proper resources. Balancing resources to end up with a sustainable long-term solution without harming the environment is the challenge. The focus must remain on balancing the three major areas—genetics, agronomics and horticulture practices—so the plant will grow with optimal productivity.
The direct correlation between improvements in sustainable farming, corporate social responsibility and the resulting social improvements to the community is being proven on commercial jatropha farms in Mexico today. Innovations made on operating farms have resulted in time and cost efficiencies, which, in turn, provides funds that can be allocated to social improvements, health care and immunizations for the farm workers and their families, breakfast programs for students, skilled labor training and education. In order to enhance these benefits, improvements in productivity and sustainability are essential. The center’s goal is to triple jatropha yields within 10 years, increase the oil content from 33 to 45 percent, and increase the quality of the oils and other products produced—while minimizing inputs including pesticides and fertilizers.
We do not believe this is a genetic race to produce the “super variety,” but it is a race towards commercialization that will lend credibility, reliability and scalability to a plant variety that is working towards mass propagation. Even a super variety planted in inadequate soil and improperly cared for, will be unable to reach its potential and will create dissatisfied stakeholders. If the development focus is properly balanced, the species will go through a series of improvements to continually enhance the characteristics. History has shown this trend with every plant that has been commercialized, including corn. If you look at other commercial crops as a proxy for the possibility for [yield] improvement, not to mention reduction in inputs or resistance to pests and diseases, you will see improvements of 300 to 700 percent over the past 75 years. Jatropha is expected to be the first plant commercialized utilizing modern genomics. The improvements with applied science will accelerate its rapid improvement.
Author: Richard Palmer
CEO, Global Clean Energy Holdings