Crops such as jatropha have not delivered the hoped for biofuels. So funded by IFAD, the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) is researching alternatives. Cathy Watson met Professor Balakrishna Gowda, ICRAF’s star partner in the quest for renewable energy, and found that oil-seed bearing trees deliver not just fuel but soil nutrients and feed for livestock too.
You promote indigenous trees that provide oil which can be used directly on farm or refined into biodiesel. How did it start?
For 25 years medicinal plants were my passion. I developed a strategy that farmers should grow them. Unfortunately, government and industry prefer to take them from the wild so that their only cost is the harvest. But the beauty of it was that through this work, I identified over 100 native plants with seeds that contain 10-70% oil, and in 1997 the government of Karnataka asked me to develop biofuels.
Did that include working on Jatropha?
Yes, a top down project from government asked us to. But we found the potential was not great. Many senior agriculturalists were proponents because it immediately puts out flush and looks green. But it was promoted as a plant that can yield without water and planted on vast stretches in Tamil Nadu. Within one year, they realized it would not work. It was a major debacle.
Did that dash hopes about biofuels generally?
Well, yes, because there was another wrong calculation. People were converting agricultural land to grow Jatropha. Then you irrigate it with water for crops and transport it for thousands of kilometers, and all the energy saving is lost. Where and how you are growing biofuels is the negative, not the biofuels themselves.
How is your model different?
The species we work with are native to our land. Farmers know them. They grow them first to provide leaf litter to fields, then to get oil for lamps and meet firewood and minor timber needs. Traditionally, people had many uses for them, benefitting soil, water, agriculture, and for controlling pests and diseases. This was the empirical knowledge of farmers.
What is the science behind that?
When you apply the leaf litter of Pongamia pinnata to soil, it has an alkaloid that controls nematodes. Similarly, Neem seeds and seed cakes also have plant production and protection benefits. Finally, these trees give shelter to birds. Bird droppings compensate to an extent for shade. These trees are common and beneficial to agriculture and energy too.
Classic agroforestry! Why did it take so to be noticed?
It’s history. In 1964 India had severe famine, and the Green Revolution was introduced. High input, high output agriculture brought us self-sufficiency in food but cost us heavily. For one, we removed trees to get maximum yield. We went from a polyculture with seven or eight crops on one piece of land to a monoculture. By the late 1980s, the damage to agrobiodiversity was severe.
So your biofuel project helps heal the landscape?
Yes. In reaction to the Green Revolution damage, about a decade ago, we started trying to reintegrate trees into farming. Our biofuels work is part of rebuilding integrated agriculture. In addition, we see the potential of tree-borne oil to meet the needs of farmers for energy, not just to light their lamps but also to run their machines and possibly sell for conversion into diesel. India imports 80% of its fuel.
What was your intellectual trajectory as you developed the programme?
The first question was where to plant. We knew we should not compete with food production. So we chose bunds, borders and ravines. But we also knew that even if these trees grow on borders, they should not be trees that compete with crops. Agricultural crops have their root zone in the top 15-20 cm of soil. These trees’ roots go very deep. And they have very little shade or allopathic effect.
Many biofuel programmes fail for lack of feedstock. Did that worry you?
A lot! We asked, “Do the species that we have identified all flower and fruit at the same time?” And the answer was, “No, at different times”. With fruits spread out over the year, a biofuel programme can sustain itself. December –May is Amura, March-April is Pongamia, May-June is Simarouba, and so on.
What about productivity? Famers often say that trees take a long time.
We identified the elite trees with high seed yield and oil content. Then from these, we developed nurseries from seed and grafting. Normally these species take 4-5 years to flower and fruit. Grafted plants can yield after one year.
Are you optimistic about this new generation of biofuel species?
Yes, because they are productive. Pongamia can yield 60 kg of seed per tree. Very conservatively -- if a farmer has 15-20 trees, each yielding 20 kg, that is 400-500 kg/seed a year worth 5000-6000Rs. Biofuels can add 10% to a farmer’s income. And that does not count increased earnings from by-products and the beneficial impact of some of the trees on crop yields.
Which by-products are those?
Ultimately seed cake may be the most precious. Oil constitutes just 25% of the seed: seed cake is 65%. It contains rich nutrients -- 4-7% nitrogen, potash 1-1.5% and phosphorus 0.9-1.3%. We experimented with the seed cake on crops like arecanut, coconut, mango, chikku and sapota and got a 10-15% increase in yield.
Can animals fit inside this system?
Yes, the seedcake is also feed for livestock-- 30% starch and carbohydrates with some fiber and protein. We have a simple technology to remove the bitter taste from some seed cake to make it palatable. Finally, seed cake can be used to enhance biogas production; 1 kg of oil cake produces 300-400 litres of additional biogas.
What signs of success do you have so far?
We have worked with 5600 families. Because the farmers manage the seedlings, 67% of ours are surviving at year 5 compared with 10% planted by the Forest Department. And because all value addition must be at village level, and the resource processed within 10 km of the farm, we have put seed presses in villages. Farmer associations manage everything.
What is your ultimate vision?
Our vision is to build energy and food security with every household maintaining 15-20 of such trees in combinations. Ninety households can get 30 t of seeds a year by year 7-8, sufficient for electricity for six hours a day, 365 days a year. The oil can be filtered and used in low rpm machines like irrigation pumps.
India subsidizes fertilizers but there is a huge shortage. The oil cake is provides 4-7% of nitrogen. Farmers generally apply 40kg/ha. People are saying that fossil fuel will run out in 2040. We are developing future ready agriculture. We talk about “from soil to oil”. We are determined to make it viable.
Cathy Watson is Head of Programme Development at the World Agroforestry Centre. Botanist Balakrishna Gowda is Professor at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, India.