मङ्गलबार, ०६ चैत २०७४, १३ : ३०

Jatropha(सज्जिवन): Future energy crop in Nepal needs more study

In the global scenario where the world is going through energy and climate crisis, use of biofuel as alternative source of energy is extremely significant. The demand of oil, key fossil fuel, is increasing continuously while its extraction and supply is declining. It is estimated that these crude oil reserves will be depleted within 50 years at the present level of consumption (80 million barrels/day). On the other hand, the increased greenhouse gas emission due to the intense use of fossil fuel is creating a serious alarm. Burning fossil fuel alone is responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. It is projected that the greenhouse gas emission from fossil fuel will increase by 50% by the end of 2030. All these conditions have enhanced the global interest in the use of bio-fuel for energy security and environmental benefit.

Bio-fuel is solid, liquid or gaseous fuel obtained from renewable sources especially from plant biomass, vegetables oils and treated municipal and industrial waste. Besides being the renewable source of energy, there is also lesser emission of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere by the use of bio-fuel. Biofuel is considered as carbon neutral. The amount of carbon dioxide released during combustion of biofuel is supposed to be balanced by the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the plants themselves during its growth period. Corn, sugarcane, soybean, oil palm and coconut are commonly used for biofuel production. But the use of these crops as biofuel is highly controversial because of the prevailing food security issues and environmental risks. Switching the cultivation of food crops to bio-fuel displaces food crops resulting in significant increase in food price. These biofuel crops compete with valuable and fertile land used for growing crops. The pressure on land for food and biofuel crops speed up deforestation and disturbance to the natural habitat which leads to higher emission of greenhouse gas. Hence, the assumed benefit of carbon balance by the use of these crops cannot be attained. These consequences developed a global interest in developing biofuel from non-food biomass. As a result, Jatropha curcas (सज्जिवन) emerged as a potential plant for biofuel which, besides being the non-edible, can also grow in the degraded and marginal land. This finding suddenly intensified the investment in on jatropa all over the world, especially in Asia and Africa (see box).

District with support for Jatro Plantation

Jatropa could be boon to our country as well. Being a landlocked country we are fully dependent on India for fuel. Any changes in price and fuel supply policy in India can have devastating effect in Nepal´s economy. Hence it is very important for Nepal to diversify the fuel sources so as to reduce vulnerability to external shock. Moreover, inaccessibility of road to the rural areas makes its almost impossible or very expensive to transport the imported fuel to those areas. Cultivation of Jatropha has now been encouraged by both government and non-government organization in Nepal for the production of biofuel in our country. Government of Nepal has been implementing National biofuel program since fiscal year 2008/09 by focusing particularly on the promotion of Jatropha cultivation.

Jatropa fruit

Scientific American in 2007 called jatropha as “green gold in shrub,” a plant that “seems to offer all the benefits of biofuels without the pit falls”. Jatropha produces seeds containing 27-40% oil which is easily convertible into biodiesel. The use of Jatropha as a biofuel offers additional advantage. For example, the plants can be used to increase the fertility status of soil due to the properties of seed cake to act as organic fertilizer. The seed cake can also be used as protein rich livestock feed. Jatropha can help in controlling the soil erosion and furthermore claimed to improve the soil quality in degraded land. The plant in general can be used as living fence to repel animals and insects from the field crops. The plant can also be used as feed for the silkworm, for medicinal properties, dyes preparation, soap production etc.

Home made biodisel processor in Nepal

FAO and UNEP have reported that use of Jatropha cultivation offers the opportunity for rural development. Cultivation of Jatropha is very labour intensive which creates various employment opportunities for the rural people. Development of processing plants and factories creates job opportunities for unemployed people. Jatropha, being a multipurpose tree, its cultivation helps to diversify the income sources. Various studies in Africa and India show that economic status of women has increased by selling soaps made from jatropha. It is said that Jatropha is a blessed plant in vary remote areas where the fuel supply is very expensive and still people have to depend on firewood for the main source of energy. Use of Jatropha oil also reduce the indoor air pollution and improves human health. The oil which can be extracted from very simple and cheap methods can be used to run stoves, lamps and even small machines like pumps, mills and generators.

The major question in front of us is whether the acclaimed benefits of Jatropha is really attainable in Nepal and if the cultivation of jatropha is really ecological, economical and socially sustainable? The major debate of growing biofuel crops worldwide is food vsfuel issue which has led to decision of growing non-food source bio-energy crop in degraded land. Till date there is no any national biofuel policy in Nepal. So the first and foremost thing required is the biofuel policy that can provide the guidelines where the biofuel production can take place in Nepal. According to World Food Programme 3.7 million people are at risk of food insecurity in Nepal at present scenario. The major advantage offered by jatropha is that it can be grown in degraded land reducing the competition in crop land. However, the Nepal government has not identified the degraded land in Nepal. And the suitability of growing jatropha in those degraded lands in Nepal is still unknown. Jatropha is reported to be found in wild stage in more than 70 districts of Nepal. Being an undomesticated plant, scientists are also unaware of the optimum growth conditions, various management practices and the potential yield of the jatropha at local condition. Within these uncertainties people are already encouraged for the cultivation of jatropha in many places which can not only cause the financial loss to the investor but also have the huge impacts on the local communities who are in hope of the improved living conditions.

Moreover, the consequences of growing jatropha in degraded land are also unidentified. Achievement of higher yield in degraded land also demands maximum use of chemicals which create negative impacts in ecosystem functioning. Reports have also concluded that the plants show invasive properties. More than that, some reports claim toxicity of seed cake used as fertilizer might have negative impact on microbial community and various bio-geo-chemical cycles. Also, these toxins may cause phyto-toxicity effect reducing germination of local species. Research also shows that jatropha cultivation has negative impacts on crops like pigeon pea in India. Toxicity of jatropha seeds, oil and seed cake can also cause human health problems. Many fatal cases of accidental jatropha seed feeding have been reported from India. Another important problem is that Jatropha starts to bear fruits only after 5 years. Thus, multiple cropping is necessary to ease farmer during the establishment period. But it seems that there is less chance of successful multiple cropping in jatropha field because it is releases toxin called ‘curcin’.

Due to lack of biofuel policy in Nepal, it is also difficult to restrict the growth of Jatropha only in the degraded land risking more competition with food crops. Indian policy of massive cultivation of Jatropha will have major influence in Nepalese agriculture. Farmers will be interested in growing jatropha if they can get higher prices in Jatropha than food crops. Though jatropa is well known for its production in dry and degraded land, research now shows that jatropha can obtain better yield when grown infertile soil. This will drive investors in jatropha slowly from marginal and degraded land to fertile agricultural land competing with the food crops. Consequently, the acclaimed sustainability of jatropha will be a myth.

All the above contrasting views and results, innovative ideas and consequences, facts and figures has heated high level debate on future of jatropha as a biofuel. The importance of biofuel in Nepal cannot be neglected where jatropha appears as a promising biofuel plant. Though, jatropa can be proved as an innovative developmental tool to eliminate poverty in the rural areas it may not necessarily address present issues of food crisis and environmental problems. With the present knowledge about jatropha it is very difficult to say whether cultivation of jatropha is sustainable in the long-run. The uncertainties of the yield potential, optimum growing conditions and its possible impacts on bio diversity, soil and water quality, it is not wise enough to invest a huge amount in jatropha cultivation. Lots of experiment and research are needed to be carried to explore the potential of jatropha plant before any negative impacts outweigh the benefit of jatropha. All the investors in Jatropha cultivation must think once again before the expansion of jatropha cultivation before it becomes quite difficult to reclaim possible social, economic and ecological harm.

Sandhya Karki
PhD fellow at Aarhus Univesity,

(The facts and figure are internet based. You are welcome to comment and argue.)


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