Oct 5, 2021
Our President and CEO Dr. Oliver Peoples sat down recently with Damian Mason, host of the Business of Agriculture podcast. Mason led a wide-ranging and entertaining discussion with Dr. Peoples that covered Camelina's many uses, its promising environmental potential, and the real-world impact of Camelina on professional farmers and others in the agricultural market overall.
What follows is a selection of the most salient points from this chat, which we’ve lightly edited for style. We also encourage you to check out the full interview over at The Business of Agriculture.
Damian Mason:The stuff that we generally think about as plastic is derived from petroleum products. And that's the stuff that stays around in landfills for thousands and thousands of years. We in agriculture talk a little bit about using soy products to make resin but it's never really caught on. Tell me a bit about this pioneering field of bioplastics that you've worked on.
Dr. Oliver Peoples: There's a number of these different types of bioplastic, and I think the type that some of your listeners may be familiar with is “NatureWorks,” which is the Cargill joint venture that produces the polylactic acid/PLA or Ingeo family of materials. They're essentially compostable in an industrial compost location. The plastics I work on are natural polyesters, and because they're polyesters chemically, even though they're produced using biology, using living systems, they can be processed in plastics equipment to make molded items like cups, spoons, and forks, as well as things like films and coatings, and many other plastic articles. The difference is that they're made from renewable resources, and they're 100% biodegradable, just like wood. If you put them in a fence post that's not treated in any way, you know you're going to have to replace it because it's going to degrade over time.
How did your work on bioplastics become an agriculture-related thing? Certainly “bioplastic” would mean that it comes from the Earth, but…bring me up to Camelina.
When you look at biology, and you ask the question biologically, what's the most cost-effective, scalable way of producing a lot of stuff—it's the corn harvest or the canola harvest, or the soybean harvest, where we produce maybe 90 million acres of corn and soy each. And you think of 200 billion pounds of vegetable oil per year globally. Obviously,very cost-effective and very scalable. So, we have this material—if you think about plastics, we're talking about an enormous market. We're talking about 700+ billion pounds of new production per year, growing at roughly 4%, so 700, 750…it just continues to grow. And you mention the landfilling is where we think this is going, unfortunately. And that's not the worst problem—the worst problem is this leakage into the environment, where you see plastic waste everywhere. As you mentioned, it doesn't go away. The scale is very large, and the cost-effectiveness of that technology is just terrific, which is why it's been so successful. So, what we're trying to do is marry this biological solution with a low-cost, large-scale production technology based on this oilseed Camelina.
So, we've got this demand or a need for bioplastics. You came across this thing—tell me about the usage of Camelina as opposed to soy or other crops.
Soy, canola, and corn—those are global export crops. They're all currently GMO in the US, but exporting to Europe, in particular, is really problematic because of market protections or regulations that are in place there. It's protectionism, pure and simple. And keep in mind, they need to buy a lot of feed protein, so they buy a lot of syrup, a lot of soybean protein from the US, and they buy that because they need it. But we were also looking for a crop we could completely segregate from the food space, a crop that would be really designed and built for this purpose—to produce sustainable, low-carbon new materials, and open up new market opportunities for farmers.
We reviewed 10 or so potential candidates for this, and we concluded 10 years ago that this oilseed Camelina had enormous promise. At that time, we weren't even aware of its potential as a cover crop (although that's becoming increasingly important now), so a decade ago we started working to transfer the biology that's needed to produce these bioplastics from microorganisms into Camelina seeds, to produce this bioplastic in the Camelina seeds themselves. We had some early success, but like anything that's quite revolutionary, we hit some big hurdles. But we kept working on it. And essentially, back in 2019, for the first time we provided some press releases around the idea we'd finally found the right way to do this. It's taken more than a decade, but fundamentally we feel we're now on the path to commercializing it.
Coinciding with all this is the whole “carbon economy” and nutrient pollution issue. With the drought in the Northwest, you're seeing algal blooms in many of the lakes and rivers. We need to address these problems in a much more holistic way, we need to look at both ends of the equation. Not just food production, which is of course necessary, but how we mitigate some of the impacts of that production.
I'm glad you said that about the necessity of food production. Because regardless of more environmentally-minded dietary choices etc., we still have to produce a tremendous amount of calories. Even if we stopped eating meat we still would have a big impact on the environment, we still have to use diesel, cultivate crops, etc. to feed the global population.
And they're all in favor of eating! So that's pretty clear, the point you're making about feeding the growing global population. It may be okay for folks in California to buy a little bit of lettuce for some exorbitant price, but the rest of us are trying to make it through the day, feed kids, grow our families, and go on with our business.
Tell my listeners what Camelina is! You're talking about a crop that can be a cover crop that has carbon sequestration. It also has a biomaterial benefit, and as you said, it's not going to be in the same realm as corn and soybeans. I want you to tell me about that.
Camelina is very similar to canola, and canola actually historically was something called rapeseed. It's been around forever, and it was primarily a Northern European crop. Well, another Northern European oilseed crop is this plant called Camelina, also an oilseed. What happened, starting about 40 years ago with plant breeders in Canada, they wanted to develop a source of edible oil for Canadian production.They started working to breed better nutrition into the canola crop, and that's when canola really became a brand back in the early 1980s.Then along came the advanced gene technologies, herbicide tolerance, and hybrids, and based on that you saw canola grow from a pretty small acreage to something like 20 million acres located mainly in Canada and North Dakota. The oil is very healthy nutritionally, and the protein meal is especially good to extract for dairy feed.
You mention canola, which is rapeseed and has been around forever. The problem was that it was highly acidic. So two university professors started pioneering usage of it, getting the acid out of it, and it resulted in a good oil crop for northern climates, and gave this new version the name “Canola:” Canadian Oil Low Acid [Can-O-L-A]. So, is Camelina the real name?
It's “Camelina Sativa,” also known as false flax. We're very aware of flax and all the health benefits of flax these days. It's very similar in terms of oil, and that acid you mention in the oil. Camelina naturally has a lower level of that acid, but that's not really what's exciting about it. What's exciting today is that it won't take 40 years to get to the same place. We now have this powerful genetic information—the databases of sequence information—so we know exactly what the genetic core of this plant is. And we have tools for changing it.Knocking out that acid has already been done. It didn't take decades,it was done in the space of a year. Accelerating the development using advanced tools and taking advantage of the much more positive regulatory framework in North America for crops using herbicide genetics that have been approved before in other crops, is something that we really believe can accelerate the development and industrialization of this crop.
“Falseflax” or Camelina: it's an annual, it's an oilseed—what does it look like?
It looks like a poor flowering canola, the flowers don't open as broadly and aren't as bright yellow. But it basically looks like an oilseed, it looks like a canola field with a much paler flower. The seeds are in the head pod, it's structurally like a version of canola.
So, you've got this plant and it solves all these issues but it's not being used for human consumption right now?
Yes, and what's attractive about making a new product is that we have no interest in exporting this abroad unprocessed. We can just ignore Europe. I think what's exciting about it is when you look at making something that's bioplastic, and you look at using Camelina as a cover crop, here's what happens: there's definitely going to be a concern in the community about being prevented from using their current practices,or having to pay for the use of those current practices in the form of some sort of carbon tax. The reality is that this land is the most precious resource we have, and we should not forget that. The second is water, and the third is farmers. They're really important in our society as a whole. We need to eat, it's not complicated.
When you look at these evolving practices, adding in technologies, you need to check a few boxes. One is it shouldn't detract from producing these commodity crops. They're so important for the economics of agriculture here, important for a robust food supply. The second thing is that it should preferably mitigate some of the negative impacts of commodity agriculture. It should reduce runoff, and it should increase soil carbon. And number three, you should do that in a way that rewards the farmer for doing this. In other words, there should be are venue-generating harvested seed product for this that opens up new markets for agriculture. That's what this bioplastic produced in Camelina is targeted to.
We still have work to do to make this happen, but, generally speaking, we're already doing winter trials of this as far North as Saskatchewan. Not too many things can survive in Northern Saskatchewan over winter, but this plant does. It's quite a remarkable little plant. We see the potential for that in Canada all the way down through the corn and soy belt in the Midwest, places like Kansas where you've got winter wheat, and they're looking for crops to cycle with that. And even as a spring crop in the Pacific Northwest.
Your bigger point here is that we've got a plant that you believe we can get behind for the bioplastic, meaning materials, which we use a boatload of. It's got a great deal of adaptability in its cropping system, it can grow in Saskatchewan or Kansas. You think that it's something that can fit into our current rotation and we don't have to change a bunch of our stuff? I can just plant Camelina in these acres behind my house here in Indiana and it'll grow, right?
That's exactly what we're working on, something that would allow you to continue the same robust farming practices that have been so successful based on the GMO technology that's been tremendously enabling for growers. With that same type of technology, it'll be able to almost be planted counter-season, so you're going to get more productive use out of equipment, you get more productive use out of your storage bins, it's really designed to fill that interim between harvest and processing.
For the rest of Dr. Peoples' interview—which includes even more discussion of Camelina's positive impact on farmers and the crop cycle—head over to the Business of Agriculture Sound cloud or another podcast platform of your choice.
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