In Brazil, Israeli-perfected castor used for biofuel

Genomics firm Evogene is set to help increase Brazilian alternative energy business with millions of acres of plants

Former president Shimon Peres examines experimental plants produced by the Israeli agritech firm Evogene, on a visit to the company's headquarters, July 15, 2013. (Courtesy)
Former president Shimon Peres examines experimental plants produced by the Israeli agritech firm Evogene, on a visit to the company's headquarters, July 15, 2013. (Courtesy)

In the biofuel business, the castor plant has become a sort of holy grail – much of that due to the efforts of Israel’s Evogene, which specializes in genetic modification of plants for industrial purposes. Brazil, South America’s largest country, could be next to benefit, as Evogene’s castor efforts are going commercial.

Evogene this week signed a deal with Brazil’s Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) to develop technologies for the advancement of castor cultivation there. The cooperation will focus primarily on technologies for controlling castor-specific diseases as well as practices for castor cultivation in rotation with soybeans.

Evogene has worked for years on developing strains of castor that would yield the highest amount of fuel while retaining high resistance to disease.

Castor is considered by many scientists to be the perfect crop for fuel production, because its oil is soluble in alcohol, and it does not require heat to be transformed into fuel. It’s easy to grow, thriving on marginal lands where raising food crops is difficult. Also, about half of the content of the castor plant consists of oil, making it one of the most “generous” crops for fuel production.

Biofuels are fuels produced either wholly or partially from plant sources. In the US, for example, ethanol made from corn is mixed in with oil-derived fuel in order to reduce the component cost of expensive oil in gasoline. That works for the US, where bumper crops of corn are common – but in many places, using corn and other food crops for biofuels is impossible, because those crops are needed for food.

That clears the way for castor, which is ordinarily not eaten. Although it can produce food-grade oil, the vast majority of castor is raised for non-food purposes. Brazil has adopted castor in a big way, and the crop is currently is cultivated there on about 100,000 hectares (approximately 250,000 acres), mostly on marginal lands in the country’s northeast. Demand has outstripped supply, and Brazil is seeking new ways to grow more and better strains of castor – hence its agreement with Evogene.

The project will be handled by Evogene subsidiary Evofuel, which specializes in biofuels. The agreement, said Evogene, “will bring Embrapa’s substantial experience in research and development of castor together with Evofuel’s proprietary castor varieties, which are adapted to mechanized harvest and modern agricultural protocols, to offer Brazilian growers a full-scale solution for an economically viable, sustainable, and large-scale cultivation of castor.”

In order not to “waste” land, Evogene is developing varieties of castor that can be grown as a second crop on lands where soybean has been harvested. Soybean is another tough crop, suitable for growing on less than ideal land. Under the plan, soybean will be grown for food in a first growing cycle, and a second growing cycle will yield castor. According to Embrapa, there are approximately five million hectares (over 12 million acres) in Brazil’s northeast and central regions suitable for this kind of rotation.

The collaboration with Embrapa follows three years of successful field trials of Evofuel’s castor varieties in Brazil. The trials demonstrated the suitability and economic benefits of growing Evofuel’s proprietary castor varieties as a second crop with soybean for production of oil feedstock for biofuels and other industrial uses, said Evogene. In March this year, Evofuel announced an agreement for the commercial production of castor in 2016 with SLC Agricola, one of Brazil’s largest landowners and agriculture businesses.

“We are very pleased to join forces with Embrapa, which has a tremendous track record in developing research-based technology solutions for Brazilian agriculture,” said Assaf Oron, general manager of Evofuel. “A key to the large-scale adoption of castor is the ability to cope with various stresses, such as diseases and weeds. We see in Embrapa’s extensive local knowledge and dedicated researchers a great asset that complements our proprietary know-how and expertise, and will assist us in optimizing and accelerating our solution for castor growers.”

Most Popular
read more: