Pongamia oil may re­place Florida or­ange juice

Irish Examiner - Farming - - TECHNOLOGY FOCUS - Stephen Cado­gan

Green­ing dis­ease has dec­i­mated much of the cit­rus crop i n F l o r i d a s i nc e 2 0 0 5 , a n d some cit­rus grow­ers are switch­ing to the pongamia tree, a na­tive of Aus­tralia and In­dia which pro­duces an oilseed 10 times higher yield­ing than soy­beans.

They hope an eco­nom­i­cally v i a b l e ve g e t a b l e o i l a n d pro­tein in­dus­try can re­pair dam­age to the cit­rus in­dus­try. If it is suc­cess­ful, Ir­ish farm­ers may yet be feed­ing pongamia in­stead of soy­abean to their live­stock.

A com­pany called Ter­viva has raised more than $20m ( € 1 7 . 4 m) t o c o m m e r c i a l i s e re­new­able en­ergy and food pro­duc­tion, and Ter­viva has es­tab­lished 12 pilot groves of this long-liv­ing tree in Florida. Ac­cord­ing to Ter­viva, pongamia pro­duced three times more pro­tein-rich cake for an­i­mal feed than soy­beans. Its chief agri­cul­ture of­fi­cer, Peter Mcclure, used to man­age 12,000 acres of prime cit­rus land un­til the green­ing dis­ease set­back, and he was de­lighted to find that pongamia, like cit­rus, thrives in the poor soils of cen­tral Florida. Com­pared to cit­rus, pongamia is a legume, and there­fore re­quires much less ni­tro­gen fer­tiliser. Pongamia nuts typ­i­cally yield about 40% oil, which adds up to about 400 gal­lons per acre, com­pared to 40 gal­lons for soy­beans. Only palm oil out­yields pongamia on a per-acre ba­sis. Petroleum com­pa­nies have tested pongamia oil and found its com­po­si­tion suit­able for bio­fuel and bio jet fuel.

In full pro­duc­tion, a grove could gross about $2,000 per acre an­nu­ally, with net re­turns of about $1,000 per acre, ac­cord­ing to Peter Mcclure. He sees po­ten­tial for 100,000-200,000 acres of pongamia in Florida.

“We had 800,000 acres of cit­rus when green­ing came i n . Yo u c a n ’ t g r o w 8 0 0 , 0 0 0 acres of blue­ber­ries, peaches or pomegranates, be­cause the mar­ket isn’t big enough. With pongamia’s bi­o­log­i­cal fit in Florida, and the ex­ist­ing huge mar­kets for oil and pro­tein, you can scale up and grow 100,000 to 200,000 acres or more with­out break­ing the mar­ket.”

Florida has lost an es­ti­mated 500,000 acres plus (50% loss in 10 years) of cit­rus, mostly to green­ing dis­ease. Ter­viva also has a pongam­nia project in Hawaii, where it could re­place 200,000 acres of sug­ar­cane aban­doned due to com­pe­ti­tion.

The pongamia pin­nata tree nuts yield about 400 gal­lons per acre of oil, com­pared to 40 gal­lons for soy­beans, and three times more pro­tein for an­i­mal feed than soy­beans.

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