DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This summer, as drought has been shriveling corn across the Midwest, there's been a renewed debate over whether it's really a good idea to convert some corn into fuel for cars. It's a conversation that goes beyond the United States. Around the world, inventors and entrepreneurs are searching for biofuels that won't compete with food production. A few years ago they thought they had found one - a miracle tree called Jatropha. Unfortunately, the miracle turned out to be a mirage. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: At first glance, there's nothing too enticing about the Jatropha plant. It's a big bush that can grow into a small tree. Its leaves are poisonous. So are the little football-shaped fruit pods. But inside those pods are black seeds about twice the size of coffee bean. Crush those seeds and you get oil. The oil is good for making soap, or burning in lamps, or converting into diesel fuel. Ywe Jan Franken, an expert on biofuels for the FACT Foundation, a research organization in the Netherlands, says this plant grows all over the tropics.
YWE JAN FRANKEN: Indonesia, Philippines. I've seen it in Cambodia. It grows in India, Latin America.
CHARLES: Also, Jatropha grows where most plants die.
FRANKEN: If you grow it on sandy soil, so with not too many nutrients, and with occurrence of dry periods, the plant miraculously survives.
CHARLES: And that's what really caught people's attention about a decade ago. Oil prices were high. People were really worried about global warming. Some people said part of the answer could be biofuels like corn or palm trees. These little fuel factories take carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow, so less global warming. But here's the problem. More fertile land for biofuels means less food or forests. And then people said what about Jatropha.
FRANKEN: This plant that could grow in, yeah, in unused lands, barren lands, degraded lands, and could produce a lot of oil.
CHARLES: It Jatropha could grow on that land, you could have your fuel without cutting into food production. Investors loved the idea. Around 2007, 2008, they threw money at Jatropha projects. Big plantations all over the tropics. One of the companies that got involved was Bio Engeria in the African country of Mozambique. Silvester Boan is one of the company's executives.
SILVESTER BOAN: (Speaking foreign language)
CHARLES: We heard about Jatropha projects in India and Ghana and Egypt, Boan says. It sounded so good, Bio Engeria made plans to grow Jatropha on 25,000 acres. Meanwhile, the president of Mozambique himself was going from village to village, telling people to plant a few Jatropha trees. Home-grown fuel, he said, could turn life around for small villages. Journalist Belchion Lucas saw one of those presidential visits.
BELCHION LUCAS: He used to say that even they can produce the fuel even at home, without like a factory.
CHARLES: Within a few years, though, the dream of the perfect biofuel collapsed. Part of the problem was the financial crisis which hit late in 2008. The easy money dried up. Silvester Boan's Italian partner dropped out, which put all their plans on hold. But the bigger problem was the miracle plant turned out not to be so miraculous after all. Ywe Jan Franken says yes, Jatropha can survive in poor soil and without much rain, but it won't produce many seeds. If you actually want a good harvest of oil...
FRANKEN: It needs nutrients and water, just like any other crop.
CHARLES: Which means Jatropha plantations are going to be looking for the same fertile land as food crops. Many of the companies that jumped into the Jatropha business have now climbed back out again. Others are cutting back their operations. Franken says the collapse of the Jatropha boom is really disappointing, especially for the small farmers who bought into the dream.
FRANKEN: The larger projects, they - yeah, they promised the farmers high returns, as has been done so many times with new ideas, or crops, et cetera. And in this case, yeah, they thought, wow, we can make some money here, because there is such a high demand for bioenergy and biofuels, and they lost actually money because they could have done something else.
CHARLES: But Franken also says this isn't quite the end of the Jatropha story. Two things are happening. In some African villages there's now some low-tech, small-scale production of Jatropha oil. Farmers can grow Jatropha trees as hedges or on poor land, and it costs them very little time or money. Meanwhile, on the high-tech side, scientists are studying this tree for the first time. They're selecting plants that produce more seeds, breeding high-yielding varieties, turning it from a semi-wild plant into a real crop.
Maybe it will become as productive as corn or palm trees. But it still will do best on fertile land, with plenty of water, just like any crop, whether for food or fuel. Dan Charles, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.