Friday, March 7, 2008

Jatropha: Kick Starting Terraforming Technology?

With Jatropha’s ability to thrive in arid regions and it’s ability to stabilize and even reverse the effects of desertification. Will Jatropha cultivation be a baby – step towards the development of knowledge to be used in terraforming technology?

By: Vanessa Uy

With global warming now increasing the rate of desertification that’s poised to ruin the croplands of relatively arid developing nations. Even a “recently developed” country like China is loosing 54 billion yuan annually to desertification. In short, do we have to resort to a technology that only exists in science fiction literature in order to save humanity and our environment? But before delving any deeper, let us examine existing ideas in current use or will be used in making a certain piece of land suitable for farming and or returning it to its more naturally bio diverse state.

The concept of land reclamation is broadly defined by two distinct practices. One of which involves creating new land from the sea or riverbeds. Recently the most famous example is the one’s being demonstrated in the coastal region of Dubai, UAE – namely Palm Jumeirah or “The Palm Island” as the project is widely known in the West. The other practice of land reclamation involves restoring an area to a more natural state usually when an open pit mine is resealed, the topsoil returned so that the area can either be farmed or turned into an arboretum. Or recovering the chemical pollutants / contaminants from the topsoil and groundwater. Or reversing the effects of salination to make the land useable again. The last two are currently used to rehabilitate agricultural lands in the Aral Sea region, which was rendered useless due to irrigation and agricultural mismanagement that resulted in desertification compounded by salination and excessive amounts of pesticide contamination.

Did you know that even in dry climates, a typical virgin / undisturbed land is able to support considerable vegetation if not disturbed (the woodlands found in the Israel – Lebanon border for example). The roots of trees and plants secure the soil and hold water, thus preserving the area from erosion. But poorly managed cultivation / farming practices of the plains and timber cutting on the slopes removes roots and expose the land to wind and water erosion, which flushes away deposits of gravel from the lower slopes down to the plain. Further overcultivation destroys the productivity of the plains. Which is now set aside for grazing by herds of cattle. Agricultural activities of the area are forced to move up to the low slopes, where the hazard of rapid soil erosion of the topsoil is much greater. The ensuing loss of fertility of the steeper hillsides caused by topsoil runoff renders the area useless for further cultivation, and cattle grazing move up to the slopes, accelerating the process of erosion by constant grazing. If further “destruction” of the already barren landscape is left unchecked especially when there is no longer enough to browse for cattle. The area is then turned over to sheep and goats to be stripped clean. This results in the total desolation of a once fertile landscape and this stage is marked by the disappearance of all the topsoil and large sections of bedrock are exposed on the hill and plain. The resulting dusty land can no longer support life and could enlarge in area during times of scant or nonexistent rainfall. Thus accelerating the spread of desertification, like the one currently happening in China that’s costing the Beijing Government 54 billion yuan annually from farming revenue losses.

The man-made desertification described previously is now threatening to affect small villages in the South Sumatra region of Indonesia were the Palm Oil industry, driven by the bio-fuel boom, resorted to slash and burn methods of agriculture. Even ancestral lands of marginal economic value in the South Sumatra region are now starting to be affected by the hastily planned Palm Oil plantation expansion whose “green credentials” have recently been found of dubious value to say the least.

In evaluating the available solutions to halt the spread of desertification, Large scale Jatropha cultivation is probably one of the best – if not the best – way of stabilizing and even stopping the spread of desertification because Jatropha is not a genetically modified organism. Remember our bad experiences with genetically modified organisms back in the late 1990’s when Monsanto made a large scale trial cultivation of their genetically modified soybean crop. The genetically modified soybean was said to be pest and weed resistant, but quite a large number of people developed allergies when they consumed Monsanto’s genetically modified soybean.

Using Jatropha to make desertificated land arable can be compared that to the concept of terraforming. Terraforming as a concept is a staple in science fiction stories where an alien planet’s environment is made to be more hospitable to humans by using technology like large bio - reactors filled with genetically engineered blue-green algae to make the atmosphere breathable to humans. By turning excess atmospheric carbon dioxide into oxygen like the oft shown planned terraforming of the planet Venus and Mars. Desert environments are somewhat hostile to us humans especially if you take into account that you can’t grow any food crops there. As large scale Jatropha cultivation continues as a pioneering species, the leaves being shed as the plants continue to grow plus the waste pulp from bio-fuel production can be used as an organic fertilizer thus steadily increasing the fertility of the arid lands in which the Jatropha are planted. When it comes to the growing concern about increasing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere threatening the stability of our climate, large scale Jatropha plantations can also serve as a “carbon sink”. Jatropha can do this by absorbing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and depositing it into the plant’s own cellular structure as carbohydrates, sugars, and cellulose where it no longer contributes to the increased greenhouse effect. This is like hitting to birds with one stone since the increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is primarily responsible for the increased trend in desertification. This project could be the first step in making terraforming a practical environmental engineering reality, not just an esoteric / recondite intellectual exercise in science fiction novels.


Nancy said...

Did you know that Goldman Sachs - one of the world's largest global investment banks - recently cited Jatropha curcas as one of the best candidates for future large-scale bio-diesel production. However, despite the plant's relative abundance, current use in Ayurvedic medicine, and reclaimation ability - not one of the Jatropha species has been properly "domesticated" yet. This results in the questionable yield security of existing pilot schemes of Jatropha cultivation. Also, the long-term impact of large-scale Jatropha cultivation on soil quality and the immediate environment is still unknown. However, because Jatropha is not currently being grown for human dietary consumption / as a food crop and given the plants ability to grow in harsh arid conditions (minimal water, fertilizer and pesticide needs), it does make a very environmentally friendly source of bio-diesel. In short, Jatropha plantations won't be depriving the world's poor of their food unlike America's corn derived ethanol.

Geraldine said...

Using jatropha as a gigantic carbon dioxide sink in geo-engineering (since this is still on Earth, terraforming only applies farming on extraterrestrial places) applications is very promising. Citing your examples as the plants ability to survive in arid conditions. So no additional pressure on our ever-dwindling supplies of fresh water. But as a biofuel source, jatropha faces stiff competition from chlorella and spirulina algae farms, which are now used on a wide scale to produce biodiesel.

Sisto said...

No studies yet exists pertaining to the pest-resistance of a large-scale jatropha plantation. Given that our present agricultural practices are geared towards food production - not energy production. As a viable geo-engineering tool as a carbon sink - i.e. removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to mitigate the harmful effects of global warming - jatropha faces stiff competition with more photosynthethically-efficient "plants" like spirulina and chlorella algae. Which both happens to be a better source of biodiesel when compared to jatropha.