The drawings on this page are by Kay Mirocha. Source: Jojoba: Guide to the Literature, Office of Arid Lands Studies, University of Arizona, Tucson. (c)Arizona Board of Regents, 1982.
A decade ago few could pronounce it, and today it still causes confusion, but jojoba (pronounced ho-ho-ba) is a name that is becoming increasingly common. At present, growers are attempting to produce this obscure desert shrub on about 40,000 acres (16,000 hectares) of semiarid land in the southwestern United States and in many other areas, including Mexico, parts of Latin America, Israel, South Africa, several other African nations, and Australia. Plantings in the United States alone increased 60 percent between 1982 and 1984 and represent about 32-48 million shrubs - an investment of perhaps $200 million.
For a slow-growing, perennial crop that was unknown to commercial agriculture as recently as 10 years ago, operations and investments of this magnitude are unusual and possibly unwise, but jojoba's seeds contain an oil, unique in the vegetable kingdom, that seems to have exceptional commercial promise.
Jojoba oil, which makes up about half the weight of the seeds, differs so fundamentally from common vegetable oils and animal fats that it has its own distinct characteristics. Its chemical structure is that of a long straight-chain ester, whereas the others are triglycerides - branched esters based on the molecule glycerol. Chemists call it a liquid wax.
If jojoba seed is mature and dry and the processing is done appropriately the extracted oil is remarkably clean. It has few impurities, a precise and narrow range of carbon chain lengths, and a uniform number of double bonds (one in each end of its molecule). It has a slightly yellowish color but is easily made water-white by heating or by a simple filtration through fuller's earth.
Jojoba oil's purity, lack of odor, and resistance to rancidity make it a natural base for creams and ointments, and its initial market has been in cosmetics. But it also shows promise as a new basic feedstock for the chemical industry. Researchers in more than a dozen laboratories are acetylating, alkoxylating, epoxidizing, halogenating, hydrogenating, hydrolyzing, isomerizing, ozonizing, sulfonating, sulfurizing, sulfur-halogenating, and sulfur-phosphonating it. These transformations, collectively, yield many new chemicals with broad industrial potential.
Properly formulated with additives, the oil (or its sulfurized or sulfurhalogenated derivatives) has excellent lubricity and a long performance life. Moreover, derivatives of jojoba oil are thought to have possible use in the preparation of antifoaming agents, detergents, disinfectants, driers, emulsifiers, fibers, plasticizers, protective coatings, resins, and surfactants.
The process of hydrogenation converts most vegetable oils into semi-solids (for example, shortening and margarine), but it transforms jojoba oil into a white, crystalline wax. This hard solid has potential as a candle wax; a polishing wax for cars, floors, furniture, and shoes; a coating for fruits and pills; an insulation for batteries and wires; and an ingredient in chalks, crayons, and soaps. In addition, if the hydrogenation process is taken only part way it leads to a range of soft amorphous waxes that melt at different-and predictable-temperatures.
The oil's double bonds are all in the cis-conformation. They can, however, be chemically isomerized into the more stable trans-form, thereby creating another range of soft waxes that seem to have considerable commercial potential of their own.
Only in the 1970s did jojoba's broad industrial and agronomic possibilities gain public attention. Before then, a handful of researchers had undertaken basic research on the crop, but it was in 1971 that the first significant harvests were reaped in the United States. At that time
Indians began collecting and processing seed and producing oil from their reservations in Arizona and California. The resulting evaluations stimulated many researchers and entrepreneurs to begin the arduous task of converting the plant from a wild shrub to a commercial crop. For instance, various universities, corporations, and private research laboratories in Australia, Israel, Mexico, the United States, and other countries began substantial research efforts aimed at determining jojoba's basic agronomic requirements. In a remarkably short time much was learned about the plant and its management. By 1978, several landowners were confident enough to attempt to cultivate the crop.
Today, it can be said that the plant's fundamental qualities and cultivation requirements are well on the way to being understood, and that jojoba can be successfully grown in plantations. Indeed, perhaps a hundred plantations are already beginning to yield on a commercial scale. Harvesting equipment designed for use on grapes, blueberries, and raspberries has been modified for use on the crop, and custom-designed harvesters are being developed. In addition, several small companies are commercially extracting and selling jojoba oil.
In the near future, the oil's availability is expected to increase significantly. Moreover, the costs of production will decrease as existing plantation mature , as extraction facilities become more efficient because of scale and as advances in agronomy (especially the selection of high-yielding cultivators) improve yields .
This is an important and far-reaching development. Deep-rooted, long-lived perennial plants such as jojoba offer promise for agriculture in harsh, arid environments where many conventional crops cannot survive. Such woody plants with their massive root systems can extract moisture from a large volume of desert soil and can thrive where herbaceous plants shrivel to dust.
Around the world are huge tracts of semiarid land where, in principle, jojoba might become an important cash crop. It is robust, drought tolerant, and withstands desert heat without requiring much water or shade. Moreover, its water requirements are timed to meet the availability of rainfall in many deserts. For instance, it needs little water during the dry months, when water is most scarce. (Cotton, sorghum, and other crops grown in arid regions usually require irrigation during the hot, dry summer to protect them from desiccation.) Further, some types are also adapted to salinity, which is often a problem in semiarid lands.
Jojoba cultivation around the world. In the last 10 years there has been a blossoming of interest in cultivating the crop, or at least in establishing a few plants as a trial.
For these reasons, jojoba cultivation and processing, the manufacture of jojoba products, and the use of by-products might help peoples in arid lands to become more self-supporting. For resource-deprived peoples - North American Indians, farmers in the Sahel zone of Africa, Bushmen in southern Africa, aborigines in Australia, peasants throughout the Middle East, Pakistan, and India, and inhabitants of arid areas in Central and South America - jojoba could become a valuable resource. It promises to be a high-value crop, and neither the seeds nor the oil are highly perishable, so that distance from the market should not seriously limit the plantation site.
But these are merely speculations. Past production around the world has been too small for any large-scale marketing of consumer goods containing jojoba oil. Until the last year or two, the supply has been limited to that available from hand-harvesting scattered native bushes in the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Production in recent years, therefore, has only been 100-300 tons per year, and because of the vagaries of the desert rainfall it has fluctuated widely from year to year. Most jojoba has been sold at relatively high prices (between $3,000 and $20,000 per ton) to research institutions, specialty lubricant manufacturers, and cosmetic companies in Europe, Japan, and the United States.
Nevertheless, in spite of the small and erratic availability of seed from wild plants and the consequent fluctuating prices of the oil, the jojoba industry has experienced increasing success. The oil, now available in barrel amounts, soon will be pouring out of plantations in tanker quantities. In the 1986 season, for example, North American jojoba oil production (from the plantations that will then be four years old or more) could be as much as one million pounds (450,000 kg). And, theoretically, production will double in 1987 and possibly double again two to three years later as the plants mature and as acreage comes into production. It is estimated that the amount of jojoba oil annually coming from those plantations that are now established will increase to 42 million pounds (21,000 tons) in the next eight years or so.
The small cosmetic companies that initially bought jojoba oil often added it to their products for its "fashionable" value more than anything else. However, with the development of commercial plantations and the availability of experienced oilseed processors, the larger cosmetic manufacturers are beginning to add jojoba oil to their products based on its functional value. Companies such as Alberto-Culver, Faberge, Plough-Coppertone, L'Oreal, Shiseido (Japan), and Crabtree and Evelyn are already using jojoba oil in sun-, skin-, and lip-care products, often without advertising the fact.
In research laboratories around the world, jojoba oil is being investigated for use as a treatment for burns, acne, and psoriasis. Some research is also being conducted to test its use in processed foods. Because of its unusual molecular structure, the oil is a possible low-calorie substitute for conventional food oils, as well as a possible cholesterol-reducing agent. These dermatological and food applications are interesting but highly conjectural possibilities that require much additional study (as well as eventual approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and similar agencies) before they can safely be applied.
The oil's use in lubricants and other industrial products, however, is much more certain. These applications have in the past been severely limited by the small quantity of oil available as well as by uncertainties in price. Nevertheless, two small California specialty-lubricant manufacturers, Wynn Oil and Key Oil, already use jojoba oil as lubricant additives. Among large corporations, Tenneco West has evaluated and formulated jojoba-based lubricants, and some well-known companies in the chemical, oil, and lubricants industries have tested the oil and have expressed an interest in incorporating it into various products when supplies increase and prices decrease.
Although there are economic risks involved in farming any crop, they increase considerably when it has not been cultivated before. Jojoba, therefore, is not for amateurs or disinterested investors. To pioneer the production of such an untested plant takes dedication, commitment, hard work, and financial reserves. There have already been some financial failures. However, no crop is immune from that, and analysis shows that the failures were caused by inept management, undercapitalization, or poor choice of site, not by any major problem inherent in the plant itself.
Nonetheless, jojoba is a crop for which time-tested advice cannot be given. To manage it in plantations does not require new agricultural techniques or specialized equipment, but it is expensive, and on many sites some irrigation is required to make it profitable. So far, no significant diseases or pests have seriously affected the plant, but growers find themselves constantly battling weeds, and it seems probable that other pests and diseases will soon appear.
Also, although the main factors affecting plant production are fairly well established, many subtle factors result in economic uncertainties. For instance, the genetic improvement is in its early stages and there are essentially no named varieties or cultivars of jojoba. Thus the performance of any plant cannot be predicted or relied upon. Today's specimens (notably those established from seed) vary enormously in size, shape, precocity, yield, and oil content.
Further, jojoba is too new a crop for reliable yield predictions. Because there are no mature commercial plantations, all yield estimates are based on small experimental plots or, more recently, on young commercial plantations in Arizona, California, Israel, and Mexico. Such projections can be wildly inappropriate for other sites and they change yearly as more is learned about the crop and its requirements.
Productivity obviously depends on plant selection, suitability to local conditions, planting densities, and management practices. And these features are only just now being clarified. Different researchers and growers have differing opinions.
From present experience, it appears that on suitable sites jojoba plants grown from seedlings will produce a scattering of seed when three years old, a modest harvest worth picking at four years, and true on-line production from five years onward. This is a long delay for any investor to endure without a financial return. However, it is thought that in the eighth to tenth year the plants will reach essentially full maturity and maximum production, and from then on they should bear fruitfully with minimal attention for decades.
Significant laboratory research on the basic chemistry of jojoba oil and its derivatives has been completed. However, more product formulation and testing are required before large amounts of jojoba oil can be absorbed by industry. The crop is so new and the production so small that, as of 1985, its profitability and the eventual size and identity of its markets can only be surmised.
Supplies of jojoba oil will still be limited for the next few years, which will cause continued uncertainty over the size and value of markets. Industrial users need stable supplies and prices before they will even consider reformulating products.
The jojoba industry is fast moving into the production stage, and it will have to resolve these uncertainties soon. In a year or two, yields will surpass the needs of the present cosmetics markets, and jojoba producers will have to move from providing a high-priced speciality product to providing a lower-priced industrial commodity.
Because of this transition, any recently quoted prices for jojoba oil ($40-$55 per gallon in mid-1985, the equivalent of $10-$14 per liter) are misleading for the long term. In coming years the price will fall substantially, and many early investors, whose financial projections were based on the high prices, may have difficulty surviving. Eventually, to penetrate large markets such as that for lubricants, the oil's price will have to be comparable to that of competing high-quality synthetic or petroleum-based products.
Jojoba is graduating from the wild to the domestic, and its agronomic future looks more and more promising as experience is accumulated with each passing year. For example, plants with superior characteristics in plantations are being identified. This will allow future plantations to be established with specimens selected for high performance and cloned by rooted cuttings or tissue-cultured plantlets. Such vegetative propagation results in substantial gains in yields and harvestable production in three to four years, a year or two earlier than today.
With success in the plantations, the uncertainty of jojoba development has moved forward into the world of industrial chemistry and of product formulation and marketing. In many ways' the crop's future rests on the creativity of the chemical industry - on its ability to devise out of this unique natural product, never before available, new products and materials that will benefit both the crop, the chemical industry, and the consumer.
Jojoba has a good chance of being very profitable in the long run. It produces a premium oil. It grows in soils of marginal fertility, needs less water than most crops, withstands salinity, and apparently has a low fertilizer requirement. It has been unaffected by catastrophic diseases or insect pests - at least so far. It requires no specialized cultivation equipment and its oil can be extracted inexpensively with conventional machinery used for vegetable oils.
Jojoba growing is a challenging activity that carries risk, but it also carries the promise of excitement and personal satisfaction for the pioneers who are successful. Investment, therefore, should be made with extreme caution, but the indications are that this crop's longterm future could indeed be bright. It is not the miracle plant some have claimed, but neither is it a mirage. Many challenges are ahead, but none seems insurmountable, and success will provide the world with a new, renewable, natural resource that can fill many industry needs.