Back in 2005, Professor RR Shah sent a team to Navsari Agricultural University's most parched and desolate strip of land, a farm in the Vyasa district of India's northern state of Gujarat. Their instructions: to set up a model farm for jatropha, the hardy shrub with oil-rich seeds that were then emerging as one of the most promising alternatives to crude oil.
At the time, jatropha's promise seemed boundless. APJ Abdul Kalam, the president, even used his presidential address that year to extol its virtues. Jatropha can survive in the most arid wastelands, the story went, so vast barren swathes of India could be put to productive use. It is inedible so it would not cause a backlash by competing with food crops. The government announced a scheme to plant 13 million hectares, enough to generate nearly 500,000 barrels of jatropha oil per day.
But as Prof Shah's project in Vyasa nears its end this month, the dean of agribusiness at Navsari is sceptical. "There is no yield," he says. "The literature said that with dry land, after four years' growth, you can get a yield of 1kg per plant. For us, it is hardly 200g per plant." Navsari is not alone. As the findings come in from pilot schemes at 22 different agricultural colleges across India, the central claim of jatropha's evangelists, that it thrives in barren land, is looking threadbare.
And that is even before you study the difficulties jatropha faces competing with crude oil at today's prices. According to Dharmendra Parekh, the managing director of Aditya Aromatics, a Jatropha pioneer in Gujarat, oil from the shrub now costs more than 100 rupees (Dh7.5) per litre to produce, compared with 34 rupees per litre for normal diesel. Suman Jha, a researcher on Prof Shah's team, shows me patches where he is growing the plant with fertiliser, intermingled with other crops and trees. Even here, it is a dull and unremarkable green shrub, but at least it is thriving, producing as much as 4kg per plant.
"This is not a wasteland crop," Dr Jha says. "It needs fertiliser, water and good management. Yes, it grows on wasteland, but it doesn't give you any yield." Dr Jha says companies such as D1 Oils, the London-listed biofuels company, which has planted about 257,000 hectares of jatropha, mainly in India, moved far too early. "What we did with this crop is that we distributed it everywhere without having any patience, before finding out which genotypes are high-yielding. If we want, we can get a good amount of profit out if it, but we need to have patience."
D1 is also having some nasty surprises on yield. It said in 2006 that it aimed to produce 2.7 tonnes of oil per hectare from areas planted with its new E1 variety, and 1.7 tonnes of oil from normal seed. That is equivalent to about 8 tonnes and 5 tonnes of seed per hectare respectively, or 3.5kg and and 2kg a plant. Pradip Bhar, who runs the company's D1 Williamson Magor Bio Fuel joint venture in India's north east, admits he has yet to achieve a fraction of that.
"Hitting 500g is the challenge," he says. "Mortality is quite high. But if we can reach 500g in two years' time, after that the bush will continue to grow. Our expectation is that after the fourth year we will hit 1kg. The 1.5kg mark we haven't touched as yet." Those are the results from the fertile state of Assam. The yields in other, dryer states such as Jharkand and Orissa, he says, are much worse.
But he still believes D1 was right to forge ahead with early planting because it will be at least an eight-year wait before varieties with good yields on wastelands are developed. Even D1's E1 variety is not yet available in sufficient quantities. Mr Bhar intends to hold the area under cultivation steady at about 132,000 hectares this year. As his plantations account for more than half of D1 Oils' Jatropha crop, the company's goal of planting 1 million hectares by 2011 looks like a tough one. He is concentrating instead on ensuring his small contract farmers continue tending it for the two or three years needed before it becomes profitable.
This challenge is one of the reasons why Prof Shah doubts the 500,000 hectares of jatropha the Indian government estimates has been planted so far. Only last month, he unsettled an annual meeting of the universities researching jatropha and India's National Oilseeds and Vegetable Oil Development Board by reporting that only 5,000 hectares was actually under plantation in Gujarat, half the official estimate.