WASHINGTON—A plant that flourished in Europe roughly 3,500 years ago could become a major source of biofuel.
Researchers say that camelina, planted on millions of acres of marginal farmland from eastern Washington state to North Dakota, could help power the nation's drive for cleaner energy.
"This is the most exciting crop I have seen in my 30 some years in this field," said Steven Guy, a professor at the University of Idaho and a crop-management specialist.
Researchers in Washington state, Oregon and Idaho say the results from test plantings of camelina are encouraging. So far, the only farmers who are interested are in Montana, where more than 50,000 acres of camelina were planted this season. But a buzz is spreading slowly.
The story of camelina, though, is about more than just marketing an ancient crop to solve some of today's problems. It stretches from a Puget Sound biotech firm that's working to increase camelina yields by up to 50 percent to Capitol Hill, where lobbyists hope to convince Congress to cover camelina under the federal crop-insurance program to reassure skittish farmers.
Camelina supporters say the plant can grow in more arid conditions, doesn't require extensive use of expensive fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and can produce more oil from its seeds than other crops such as canola, by some estimates, for half the price.
"We actually think it might be the next wonder crop," said Tom Todaro, the chief executive of Targeted Growth, a Seattle biotech firm that's working to increase camelina yields "radically." The company hopes to produce enough seed to plant 1 million acres of camelina by 2009.
About 85 percent of the feedstock used in biodiesel in the United States comes from soybeans. But they're grown largely in the Midwest, and growers in the inland Northwest and the high plains areas of Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado have been searching for their own biodiesel crop. Much of the attention has focused on canola. But some researchers say camelina might be an even better bet.
"I am really excited about it," said An Hang, a Washington State University research agronomist.
Hang said camelina seeds were about a third the size of sesame seeds and contained high levels of omega 3, which is thought to reduce heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol. After the seeds are crushed, the leftover meal can be used in feed for cattle, chickens and even fish.
Known as Gold of Pleasure, Wildfox, German sesame and Siberian oilseed, camelina seeds were crushed to produce lamp oil as far back as Neolithic times. Direct cultivation declined in medieval times for unknown reasons. In recent years, small amounts were grown for use mostly in organic health products.
Concerns about global warming and the nation's dependence on foreign oil, however, have rekindled interest in camelina.
Don Wysocki, an Oregon State University associate professor who's based in Pendleton, Ore., said camelina could grow in drier conditions than canola and other potential biodiesel feedstocks, was easier to grow than canola and could be used in rotation with cereal crops such as wheat.
"There are challenges, but of all the crops I have worked with over the years this has the most promise," Wysocki said. "If we have an operating biofuel industry in the Northwest, this could be the feedstock."
Targeted Growth was founded eight years ago after a lunch Todaro had with a friend who worked at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The two discussed whether the drugs the center had developed to slow the reproduction of cancer cells could be reversed and used to speed up the growth of cells in plants. The answer was yes, and Todaro's company has been able to increase yields by 20 percent to 30 percent in canola and soybeans.
The company also was looking for a plant that grew in marginal, arid lands that could be used for biodiesel feedstock. It settled on camelina, and is using a "hyper-accelerated breeding" program to increase yields. Todaro stresses that the program doesn't involve genetically modifying camelina cells and won't require Food and Drug Administration approval.
The National Biodiesel Board, a trade group that represents the biodiesel industry, has taken no stand on camelina.
"It is one of the newer feedstocks being examined," said Amber Thurlo Pearson, a board spokeswoman. "We are a feedstock-neutral organization."
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has introduced legislation to cover camelina under the federal crop-insurance program. Montana's other senator, Democrat Max Baucus, is preparing legislation that would allow loan deficiency payments to camelina growers, which provide a safety net for farmers if prices fall below a set level.
Todaro said anything that would make farmers more comfortable about growing camelina would be helpful.
"I'm less concerned about the technology than about convincing farmers to grow it," he said.