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Global Ideas

Dreaming of the next 'miracle' plant

Neem is often called the “miracle” tree because of its vast medicinal and healing properties. It’s not the only plant to earn that distinction. But not all have managed to live up to the hype.

Jatropha plants (Foto: Live Energies GmbH/George Francis) ------------------------------------------------ Live Energies GmbH Geschäftsführer/Managing Director: Dr. George Francis

Jatropha angepflanzt

The hype surrounding the robust Jatropha tree was massive. Various companies invested tens of millions in cultivating the miracle plant.

Its seeds were believed to provide a plentiful source of high-grade oil that can be converted into diesel - and in the food vs. fuel debate, the Jatropha tree seemed to come out on the winning side. Because the resilient plant can grow where most others can’t, it doesn’t rob farmers of important agricultural land.

But in recent years, there have been several cases in Africa and India proving that precious farmland was also used for Jatropha cultivation. And what’s more, studies showed that it wasn’t the “cinderella plant” many believed it to be - in poor soil, Jatropha trees often didn’t produce enough seeds.

Palm oil also became wildly popular in the biomass debate because it can be converted into biofuel as well as various other products. But there, too, studies have shown that harvesting palm oil emits more CO2 than fossil fuels, often because large swathes of forest land are cleared for its cultivation.

It’s often forgotten that a true wonder plant does indeed exist - the castor oil plant, or ricinus communis. It generates oil that can be converted to biofuel, but it has never seen the hype that other plants have.