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Jatropha curcas

Jatropha is a drought-resistant shrub with a set of unique properties.  It is a drought-resistant shrub that helps alleviate soil degradation and prevents wind and water soil erosion, allowing reforestation and restoration of degraded land.  Additionally, Jatropha sheds its leaves during the dry season, allowing for soil enrichment and long-term improved soil fertility.  It is often used as a living hedge or fence by farmers in the developing world.  The physic nut is a bush that can grow in most regions around the equator.  It has few requirements with respect to its environment.  Because of this, the physic nut can grow in areas that are unsuitable for other plants, because they are too dry or too arid, or because they have been left by humans because of soil depletion.

The need for energy crops in the developing world

Because of rising oil prices, for the first time, making energy from biomass seems increasingly economically sound.  Many developing countries have missed what is now known as the ‘green revolution’.  Today, we are on the verge of a new green revolution. Will these same countries be left behind again?

Developed nations are prepared to invest considerable resources into the development of energy crops for the production of biodiesel and bioethanol.  The urgency of this effort was reflected both in its recent mention by the President of the United States of America in his most recent State of the union address and in the fact that Chevron, one of the world’s leading oil companies, announced major investment for renewable energy such as ethanol and biodiesel.  Countries like Brazil have taken the lead in developing energy crops and the agro-industry that goes along with it.  In all of these countries, biofuels are now considered an important piece of national security efforts.  This international trend, driven both by the high prices of energy and the need for a more secure energy source, suggests that the demand for biofuels is set to increase dramatically.

There is a great risk that the developing world will fail to develop appropriate crops and an economically sustainable agro system in response to this need. Once again, the poorest countries would be out-competed by emerging or developed countries that are now starting to make the investments for tomorrow’s energy crops.  History, however, need not repeat itself.  The best place to produce biomass all year long is under the tropics.  The developing world is a natural home for this industry, and yet (with the noteworthy exception of sugarcane/ethanol in Brazil), there is no one developing the varieties for these latitudes!

The development of bio-energies would also be of great benefit to the domestic economy.  The enormous amounts of money used for the import of refined oil products could be diverted toward the farmers and a local biofuel agro industry (most under-developed countries do not import oil but refined oil products).  Even in the poorest third-world country, gas, diesel and fuel always represents a significant market and moreover a large share of these countries’ imports.  Most third world countries are heavily dependent on foreign fuel imports and the impact of this dependence on the national currency as well as the balance of payments is considerable.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti, The Dominican Republic and many other poor countries, farmland is rapidly becoming barren and incapable of sustaining an already-hungry population.  Farmlands are plagued by severe land degradation and erosion.  We need to find a way to make agricultural cultivation sustainable on the land again in tandem with the development of a local agro-industry in small towns.  These changes are necessary to end the tradition of migration to major urban centers of the country, where only miserable poverty and brutal crime await the migrants no matter how much they may hope for jobs.

Jatropha  is not only a potential new cash crop for farmers of the developing world; it is also an opportunity for developing new local agroindustries and is a tool for soil enrichment and, more generally, in the fight against soil degradation and depletion.  We will also add its positive role for the environment by allowing carbon sequestration and reforestation of degraded land.

Goals and projected outputs

The aim of this project is to evaluate the genetic resources of the tropical shrub Jatropha as an energy crop suitable for marginal and degraded lands of the tropics and to establish a corresponding breeding program along with the establishment of good agronomic practices for this new crop management.

• We aim at establishing an efficient Jatropha  germplasm repository (live collection) and the development and release of germplasm (new improved varieties) adapted to the new needs for oil and biodiesel production.
• We will systematically evaluate the germplasm and make the results readily available.  This germplasm will be evaluated for traits such as seed toxicity, oil content as percentage of dry matter, high oil oxidative stability, protein content, resistance to pest and diseases and traits enabling the mechanization of fruit harvesting.
• We will be releasing Jatropha varieties aimed at biofuel (biodiesel) production and adapted to the marginal areas and degraded land of tropical countries.  We will characterize Jatropha yield components and look for genes/alleles maximizing all desirable traits.  Through breeding and the use of all available techniques, we will pyramid these alleles into ever more productive Jatropha varieties.
• Development and evaluation of inexpensive mass propagation methodologies for clonal reproduction or improved hybrid seed production in order to cheaply mass produce plantlets for farmers.
• We will evaluate and establish the most appropriate agronomic practices under different scenarios (low input agriculture or maximization of production/cost ratio)

Why do we need to breed Jatropha? (Why can’t we just use available ecotypes and clones?)

Plant breeding is the most cost-effective way to achieve an increased and stable yield.  While native Jatropha or outstanding individuals that can readily be cloned offer an already-substantial yield and drought tolerance, plant breeding would allow for continuous increase and release of ever more productive varieties.  In industrial terms, this increase will translate to, for example, oil with increased oxidative stability and other properties that will lower the cost of making biodiesel and enhance its quality.  Varieties with higher oil content in percent of dry weight will also provide increased revenue per working-hour for the farmers.  The development of non-toxic varieties will allow farmers to have additional markets for their product (not just biodiesel).  The ‘green revolution’ for major cereals would not have been made possible without the release of outstanding varieties.  A new green revolution will require also new outstanding energy crop varieties.

A Jatropha breeding program in Haiti and the Dominican Republic,
breeding and releasing Jatropha varieties for the whole developing world

Our research program will be based in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which have a wide range of habitats and presents many environmental and economic problems that can be addressed by our research.

The island's climate is mainly tropical with some semiarid regions conditions where mountains, in the east, cut off the trade winds.  Haiti and the DR are located within the Jatropha’s natural range (Central America, South America, and the Caribbean).  Rainfall patterns range from as low as 400 mm of water per year to above 2000 mm, and altitudes range from sea level to above 2,500 meters covering the germplasm and breeding needs for most regions of sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, and India.

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