A "miracle" plant, once thought to be as the answer to producing renewable biofuels on a vast scale, is driving thousands of farmers in the developing world into food poverty, a damning report concludes today.
Five years ago jatropha was hailed by investors and scientists as a breakthrough in the battle to find a biofuel alternative to fossil fuels that would not further impoverish developing countries by diverting resources away from food production.
Jatropha was said to be resistant to drought and pests and able could grow on land that was unsuitable for food production. But researchers have found that it has increased poverty in countries including India and Tanzania.
Millions of the plants have been grown in anticipation of rich returns, only for growers to be hit by poor yields, conflict over land and a lack of infrastructure to process the oil-rich seeds.
Oil giant BP, which planned to spend almost £32m ($NZ72m)on a joint venture to set up jatropha plantations, has now pulled out and the charity ActionAid today warns that jatropha needs to be cultivated on prime food-growing land to produce significant yields.
Meredith Alexander, head of trade at Actionaid and co-author of its "Meals per Gallon" report, said: "Jatropha is a real gold-rush crop, and the same amount of common sense that applies in a gold rush has been applied to the jatropha rush.
"Jatropha was the subject of an explosion of fabulous propaganda. But this was an untried crop at commercial levels and the many thousands of marginal farmers who have gone into production have been experimented on with disastrous results. They are simply not getting the income they were promised and now cannot afford food for their families," she said.
A native of central America, Jatropha curcus was brought to Europe in the 16th century and subsequently spread across Africa and Asia. Until recently, its few uses included a malaria treatment and an indigestion remedy.
But despite jatropha's much-lauded ability to grow where food crops cannot flourish, campaigners say there is evidence that commercially viable yields can only be obtained in fertile soil.
In India, forecasted annual yields of three to five tonnes of seeds per hectare have been scaled back to 1.8 to two tonnes.