Tree oils can fuel economic development by integrating different agricultural activities

January 13, 2014

Over the past few years, agriculture has been a hot center of attention and rightly so. In my line of work, I am always interested in finding new and innovative ways of growing production more efficiently, more sustainably and in a way that offers viable jobs and attractive livelihoods. Recently, I got acquainted with Mr. Sreenivas Ghatty, from India, and Dr. John Wightman, from Australia. They both are involved in the production of tree oils for the production of a renewable alternative to diesel oil. Mr. Ghatty founded Tree Oils India Ltd and owns a plantation of 3,000 oil trees. Dr. Wightman is actively promoting the development of similar projects in Australia, USA, Africa and South Asia. The story of the tree oil interested me right away for several reasons. First, it reminded me of the Sahara Forest Project that I had mentioned in Future Harvests, but with this difference that the tree oils projects are already there. Secondly, and more importantly, it is a great example of a project that can generate many economic activities, while filling an environmental and social function by calling upon a collaborative approach like what I discussed in We Will Reap What We Sow. As several projects have already reached the production stage, the gentlemen have the numbers to present a case to interested investors.

Seven year old Pongamia trees at the TOIL (Tree Oils India Ltd) R&D farm

Seven year old Pongamia trees at the TOIL (Tree Oils India Ltd) R&D farm

In India and Australia, the species farmed is Pongamia. It is an indigenous tree to India that used to provide oils for various applications, of which fuel. However, with the rise of cheap fossil fuels, its use regressed to some extent but in the second half of the 20th century, the Mumbai commodity market traded one million tonnes of Pongamia oil per year. The purpose of this production is to develop land that would otherwise have no agricultural use, because of the arid climate. Some of the current projects are aimed at using waste lands around former mines, as is already the case in some parts of Queensland in Australia. It is a way of regenerating a landscape and agricultural production by fixing carbon and producing a renewable fuel that emits less greenhouse gases than fossil fuel. Pongamia is a rustic species that is well-suited in such regions. To understand what this production can create, it is important to put it in a broader context than oil alone, and that is why I find it particularly interesting.

It takes the Pongamia tree four years to start producing its oil-rich seeds and once in production, it will keep producing at a steady level for a hundred years or more. To give an idea of the production potential, a conservative yield estimate that Mr. Ghatty and Dr. Wightman gave me was of 1,000 liters per acre of Pongamia plantation. Although the harvest is not all year-round, the seeds can easily be stored and the oil production capacity can be organized evenly all through the year to optimize the oil production capacity. The oil is suitable for diesel engines without any particular further refining. The oil provides a source of fuel to run the farms and when acreage is large enough, it could cover the needs of local communities, too. The by-products from the oil production, such as the seed cake that is of good agronomic value, can be used as a fertilizer or mulch to return to the land, and thus enrich it as production goes. They can also be used as fodder for cattle, as a complement for other feed sources.

Pigeonpea growing between rows of 3 yr old Pongamia trees on the TOIL farm

Pigeonpea growing between rows of 3 yr old Pongamia trees on the TOIL farm

Next to storing oil in its seed, Pongamia is a tree legume, and therefore it can fix nitrogen and help enrich the soil where it grows. It also has nematicide and fungicide qualities. Pongamia production can be the basis for a multi-level and complex agricultural activity. With its agronomic qualities, Pongamia is quite suitable for an agro-forestry production system. The combination of the shade provided by the trees with soil enrichment by nitrogen fixing and seed cake fertilizer and the moisture retention that results from these new local conditions creates a suitable environment for the production of vegetal crops for food production. For instance, on the Tree Oils India Ltd farm, they grow pigeonpea between the Pongamia rows. Further development of optimal combination and rotation of crops will be enhanced as the system will enrich itself over time. It is also possible to combine the tree plantation with extensive grazing cattle. The Pongamia plantation helps the production of grass and in return the cattle fertilize the soil with manure.

Agro-forestry can be combined with extensive cattle grazing to restore soil and agriculture potential

Agro-forestry can be combined with extensive cattle grazing to restore soil and agriculture potential

The combination of the various possible productions also offers different possibilities of cooperation. Not all activities need to be done by the same farmer. There is always the possibility to offer land for use for vegetal crops or grazing. The partners can decide of which form the cooperation can work, between ownership, renting, sharing of land or of harvest or any other form that can create a harmonious cohabitation. Such different possibilities allow the integration of local rural communities to access production potential as the plantation creates the condition and the potential for both vegetal and animal productions such as meat, milk or wool. By generating different farming activities, the Pongamia production has the potential to create several agricultural value chains for all the productions involved as well as processing, storage and marketing. It can have a snowball effect beyond simply agriculture. When the local communities develop livelihoods, they also will need access to other products and services to function. The combination of all these activities allows creating sustainable production systems, as all the products and by-products can be used locally and thus, closing the loops. However, the system does not have to be a closed one. Productions can be used locally or sent to markets elsewhere, and the same is true for inputs, but integrating all the activities allows monitoring and managing the production systems in a sustainable manner. Closing loops is a key phrase in regard to such integrated production systems. In this case, the loops cover carbon, nutrients, moisture and organic matter.

Oil press used for Pongamia oil production in India (TOIL R&D project)

Oil press used for Pongamia oil production in India (TOIL R&D project)

Like many economic development projects, a leading project is necessary to create the necessary momentum upon which other activities can connect and grow along. Pongamia production has this potential but as always for such projects, the need for investment is critical in the early stages. It must start somewhere and the return is not immediate. There is always a chance to take. Because it takes several years for the Pongamia tree to enter production, the early years do not generate revenue from oil, and only the crops generate income. However after the trees start producing, income increases substantially. Over a period of ten year after planting the trees on the plantation, the return allows farmers to have a good income. Economic development requires long-term commitment from the shareholders. As many activities and also economic benefits are the objectives, all stakeholders that can benefit in the long term should also be shareholders. Success cannot be the responsibility of the plantation investor alone. When stakeholders are shareholders, they become owners of the project as well; and owners are more determined than spectators to turn a project into a success. Many jobs can be created in farming, in different activities of oil processing, logistics, trade, and in the different activities of the different value chains that can spin off from Pongamia. It is also not just a matter for businesses only, but governments also would benefit. More economic activity means more taxes down the road, as well as less need for financial support of rural communities once they can generate a solid local economy.Every project would have to adjust to the local conditions. If the projects in India and Australia are developed on mining grounds, other regions may offer different types of land for development. The available land might decide the size of the plantations and the production volumes. From there, each project will have to list the potential other activities that can be combined with the plantations, and how many jobs in which activities may be created. By reviewing the entire production potential with the socio-economic potential, it will give clarity to the different stakeholders of what their individual return would be. Then, they can determine how big a share of the project they want or how much they can contribute to the development of such integrated activities. If, for now, tree oil projects are more advanced in India and in particular in Australia, they certainly could be quite instrumental to help develop economic development in particular in arid parts of Africa. It is possible as a number of success stories with agro-forestry have already demonstrated there. This type of integrated agriculture has good potential to recreate productive vegetal landscape in former deforestation areas like for instance in Brazil.

If you wish to know more about Pongamia oil, feel free to contact Dr. John Wightman or Mr. Sreenivas Ghatty

(Photos: courtesy of Mr. Sreenivas Ghatty and Dr. John Wightman)

Future Harvests – A preview of the book

July 24, 2010

My book, Future Harvests, is expected to be published before the end of August.

Here is a preview to give you a flavor of the content.

For a full view, please click on the thumbnails.











Here is a sample containing the table of contents and the preface of the book:


For the video trailers, please visit my YouTube channel.

Future Harvests – The book is coming soon!

April 9, 2010


The editing of my book “Future Harvests – The next agricultural revolution” is about completed. All that is left to do is developing the cover and start the publishing.

I have already received orders, even before the book is out. That is quite a good sign. And a great surprise for me.

If you wish to be updated automatically when the book is published, just subscribe in the sidebar window on the right.

To describe the topics addressed, I have posted three short promotional videos on YouTube. In previous articles (The fun of writing this book and The next agricultural revolution), I had already given an idea about the content of the book.

Video #1: The Fundamentals (duration 2:37) – Introduction to the background and fundamental principles mentioned in the book “Future Harvests – The next agricultural revolution” to achieve food security for 9 billion people in 2050. Topics such as demographics, the shift in economic power, the control of food  and food security strategies are reviewed. Sustainability, innovation, efficient market driven food production and strong leadership are required.

or click here if video does not appear

Video #2: The Actions (duration 2:12) – A short review of some of the actions mentioned in the book to achieve the objectives. Solving the water challenge, finding new land for production, urban farming, hydroponics, farming the desert, rebuilding fisheries and developing aquaculture further are all possibilities.

or click here if video does not appear

Video #3: The Questions (duration 3:08) – A sample of some of the questions raised in the book. They cover technology, land deals in Africa, improving yields, restoring soil fertility, change in consumer needs, organic farming, risks of conflicts, biofuels or meat are some of the topics presented.

or click here if video does not appear

If you know someone who could be interested by the topics on this page, please pass it on!

German agriculture Minister says “Eat less meat!”

January 7, 2010

Ilse Aigner made that statement during the “Green Week” held in Berlin early January, one of the largest shows about food and agriculture in the world.

This is quite remarkable to hear a Minister of Agriculture making such a statement, based on the recommendation of the German Nutrition Society that indicates that 300 to 600 grams (that is about 11 to 22 ounces for our American friends, who usually consume this amount in less than two meals…) of meat per capita per week is enough for a person to cover their nutritional needs. Yet, her statement was linked to environmental concerns, since it is fashionable to blame meat production for climate change issues.

From a nutritional point of view, this recommendation is correct. That is all we need. That is less than most of us want, but that is a very different topic. I had addressed this, mentioning that 30 kg per capita per year (equals 600 g per week) was plenty,  in my earlier posting “The future price of meat and fish: up” a few months ago,. I also mentioned that if we ate only what we need, the West would free a quantity of meat large enough to feed a population as large as China’s.

It is unlikely that the Minister’s statement will change consumption patterns any time soon, but the future price of animal protein will. Considering the feed conversion ratio of farm animals and the increased competition between human consumption, animal feed industry needs and biofuels, the production cost of meat will increase. Feed is the main cost in those productions. Further, the amount of water required by farm animals and the manure issues that still linger with intensive animal husbandry, will add to the price pressure.

There is no need to become vegetarians, but the days of gluttony are numbered.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The future price of meat and fish: up

July 17, 2009

With a world population increasing strongly and an agricultural area that will not grow accordingly, the law of offer and demand clearly indicates that agricultural prices will increase in the future. This is true for agricultural commodities such as grains, but the increase will be even stronger for animal products, such as meat, poultry, dairy and fish.
This will be the result of an increasing and very likely quite aggressive competition between the need to feed people with the basic commodities, the need to feed farmed animals and possibly for some time the need to produce biofuels.
Since it takes more than one and even several kilograms of animal feed to produce one kilogram of meat, the feed conversion ratio (FCR) will affect by which factor the price of the various animal products will increase.
Efficient productions like chicken will be successful and will remain quite competitive pricewise against other sources of animal proteins, thanks to its low FCR, to its low water use and to the good agricultural value of its manure. In the aquaculture sector, efficient productions such us tilapia and pangasius have a bright future ahead, as they can help feed a large population for an affordable price. In general, aquaculture has the opportunity to fill the huge gap left by depleted wild fish stocks, although it will have to solve some issues in order to be successful (see my article titled “The lessons of intensive animal husbandry to aquaculture“). In terms of price, the scarcity of wild fish will make these quite expensive for the future.
Less efficient species such as pigs and beef cattle will see the price of their products increase relatively much more. Pigs also have the disadvantage of producing low quality manure, which will limit the level of intensification. However, pork plays an important role in some cultures, and therefore, it will still show a reasonable volume growth, with geographical variations.
A high FCR species such as beef cattle will probably undergo the most dramatic change. Higher feed costs, linked to a relatively high capital need will probably push a number of farmers to shift to other more efficient productions. Highly intensive systems such the feedlots will also undergo major changes, as regulations on the use of antibiotics and hormones will make them financially inefficient. Further, their high impact on the environment because of the manure will also work against them. I do not expect the 99-cent beef burger to be here for all that much longer, burgers will continue to exist, but just quite a bit more expensive. On the other hand, I can see good possibilities for specialty beef products, such as grass-fed beef, but customers will have to pay the right price for it. Grass is the animal feed that we all seem to underestimate, yet it covers vast areas of very often fragile soil, and cattle is one of the few species that can transform it into high value protein.
In the aquaculture sector, a carnivore species such as salmon will also meet its own limitations. Although, salmon feed has shifted from mostly fish oil and fishmeal to a much more complex mix of vegetal oils, this production will see its production costs rise strongly. I expect salmon to become a luxury product again.

Consumption per capita will decreaseWhat will a higher price mean?
There again, simple economics tell us that this will influence the level of consumption per capita. The price increase will moderate the level of consumption and the price differential between the type of protein, as well as health concerns, will cause a shift between the respective consumption of the different products. In Western countries, people consume quantities of animal products that are substantially higher than what they actually need, and this has led to many health issues. The decrease in consumption will help make people healthier, and reduce the burden of health costs in that part of the world.
In developing countries, the situation is different, as consumption trends show an increase of consumption of animal products, from rather low levels, though. In these countries, consumption per capita will increase, but will not reach the levels that Western countries have shown, simply because prices will be too high to get to such levels.
The decrease of consumption per capita that we will see in developed countries does not mean that the meat industry will get into trouble.  Less average consumption per capita in the West will be more than compensated by the growth in emerging countries, where population numbers are significantly higher, and this will lead to a higher global demand of animal products. The main change is that the consumers will be distributed geographically rather differently than they are today. This also means that production will be located in different areas than today.

Just as a teaser: if Western countries consumers were to reduce their meat consumption to just the necessary maintenance needs, it would free volumes enough to cover the maintenance needs of meat for the whole population of China!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Biofuels may be a non issue

May 23, 2009

Biofuels is a topic that divides many people. To some, it is a solution to reduce dependence on oil, and to others it is an insane idea.
I do not think that biofuels will be a discussion topics for very long, and here is why.
Very likely, the future of cars will be electricity. Inevitably, at some point oil prices will rise again to very painful levels and stay there. This is what will make alternative energy sources economically interesting, even without government subsidies.
One of the major opposition to the electric car is being handled in a very smooth way by the Obama administration. General Motors and Chrysler were strong opponents of the electric car, and helped send it to the landfill for a while, but neither company is around anymore. The Obama administration just put an end to the outdated automobile gas guzzler model once and for all, with the new regulations on gas mileage and car emissions. Fact is that an important page has been turned for good.
Just realize that if all US cars have a similar mileage as their Europeans counterparts, the gasoline use would reduce to substantial amounts, in the vicinity of an equivalent of 80-100 million cars less (old US mileage standards). Normally, this should make the price of oil drop, therefore reducing the need for biofuels. And when oil prices increase again, then electricity will take over.
Other signs that biofuels do not have that much of a future is the lack of excitement from the investment community for it. Wind energy attracts investors (for instance think of Boone Pickens’s energy plan). Solar energy attracts investors. But biofuels? The main party that seems to be pushing for it is Brazil, for internal reasons mostly.
The fundamentals do not look good for biofuels, either. They score negatively on all three bottom line criteria.
As such, this is good news for food supplies. If biofuels made out of edible grains do not have much of a future, the situation is different when it comes to biofuels made out of cellulose. These probably have a decent future, as they do not compete with human consumption, and can be a good way of using and recycling materials that further would be of little interest.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.