Crestone Eagle, February 2005:
Biodiesel, Rapeseed and GMOs:
Is SLV canola the right way to go?
by Nick Chambers
It is undisputed that the world's supply of available petroleum
deposits is rapidly diminishing. There is a dangerous trend
of fewer and fewer corporations controlling more and more
of global economics and resources. The practices of industrial
agriculture and biotechnology are denuding the lands they
are supposed to cultivate, demanding a serious reinterpretation
of life-based industry. The time for renewable fuels, alternative
industry, and organic agriculture is now.
Biodiesel is a fuel made from a simple refining process of
any vegetable oil. It fits right in with established infrastructure,
and modern diesel engines need no modifications to use it.
It is non-toxic, biodegradable and has a positive energy-balance
ratio. The emissions from its combustion (depending on the
individual particulate) are 10-100% lower than those from
petrodiesel. Biodiesel is growing enormously fast, finding
its place in a mosaic of options of renewable fuels for the
Blue Sun Biodiesel, a company out of Ft. Collins is hoping
to have 25,000 acres of canola growing for oil in the San
Luis Valley to supply their planned crushing, refining, and
distribution terminal in Alamosa. From there they will ship
their fuel (primarily a 20% biodiesel / 80% petrodiesel blend
called B20) around the country.
Yes, Blue Sun is addressing the very imminent need to replace,
or at least wean ourselves off of our 60 million-gallons-per-year-diesel
appetite. But, this is a matter of feasible economics and
accessible quantity. The problem here is that Blue Sun is
trying to promote the growing of a relatively low-yielding
oil crop in the San Luis Valley in a very tenuous time of
agriculture. Unfortunately, the agronomic and industry fad
right now is to promote Genetically Engineered (GE) crops
and heavy agrochemical use to achieve "excellent weed control"
and thus higher yields. We have to address the presence of
GE in our valley in corn, potatoes, and alfalfa, and it would
behoove us to educate ourselves about the implications of
a potential 25,000 acres of our garden broccoli's Franken-cousin,
Is the growing of SLV canola really the approach to augment
the biodiesel industry? The National Renewable Energy Laboratories
(NREL) claims the total market capacity, with present practices
and available lands, for virgin crop biodiesel, is only 1.5
billion gallons-2.5% of our current use. There is more than
twice this amount in used, discarded cooking oil sitting in
alleyways all across America! Add to this the oil-yields of
non-canola, high yielding mustards and rapeseeds, algae cultivation,
and thermochemically-produced biodiesel, we can actually replace
our diesel use, not just blend it.
In the time it takes America to achieve NREL's estimate,
with the biotech industry unchecked, we will have lost countless
seed strains to GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) genetic
drift, sprayed enormous amounts of agrochemicals on our food-producing
lands, and deprived farmers even further of an adequate living
wage, autonomy on their lands, and sustainable soils.
Yields like a spewing oil well?
Out of the 10 oil-crop varieties that Blue Sun had the CSU
Cooperative Extension grow out last season, half of them were
GE. The other half was either a mustard variety or a canola
hybrid. Out of the top-yeilding four varieties, only one was
GE and the others were either canola hybrids or mustards.
Ironically, no pesticides were applied to any test plots because
"weeds were not a problem." Nonetheless, "excellent yields"
of 3658 to 2820 lbs per acre were attained with no pesticide
Croplan Genetics is the seed company out of North Dakota
that has dealt with much of the Valley's canola over the years.
They sell Monsanto's Round Up Ready® "905" canola at $42 per
acre, including a $15 fee per acre that goes straight to Monsanto
for their patent, a $7 charge for a flea beetle insecticide,
and an inclusive allocation of the herbicide Round Up®. When
a farmer enters into this contract, he can never collect any
of his harvest for seed the following year, a major breach
in 10,000 years of plant husbandry and seed saving.
Compare this to an older, open-pollinated, non-GMO canola
variety called "Oscar" at $5 per acre. Buy this seed once
and collect the harvest year after year. With proper crop
rotations, each generation can acquire better adaptations
to the uniqueness and microclimate of an individual farm.
And as far as cross-pollinated contamination of a open-pollinated,
non-GMO seed by a GM variety, there is "certain potential,"
passively states Croplan. Unfortunately, if GM pollen contaminates
a farmer's non-GM field, that farmer is held liable for patent
infringement, as farmers across Canada and America are becoming
And yield? There is no real difference in yield between these
two different seed strains. The only variation would be because
the industry is simply "phasing away" from the older seed
lineages and focusing their development on their newer varieties.
In fact, the yields of Canadian GE canola are reportedly down
So, why would a farmer buy a GE seed despite it being eight
times more expensive, attaining no better yields, and producing
uncollectible seed? The most common response is convenience.
Convenience in being able to saturate fields in the seed's
related herbicide so that only this chosen crop will grow.
"This is the greatest biological experiment mankind has ever
undertaken, " says microbiologist Ignacio Chapela, who was
fired from the University of California at Berkley for revealing
GMO contamination in indigenous Mexican corn.
Quite frankly, Blue Sun is waging an uphill battle. Trying
to grow canola in the San Luis Valley for industrial fuel
purposes is like trying to extract useable petroleum from
tar sands-the energy and expense required to get the finished
product can be substantial. That's a large reason why they
are primarily promoting their B20. Any higher concentration
makes it much less cost competitive.
Fortunately, there are ways to produce oil for biodiesel
that don't sacrifice our food-producing systems and agrarian
ways of life. If growing crops is deemed necessary to augment
other, higher-yielding approaches, why not choose the highest
yielding and most economically feasible crops (see sidebar
It is possible to say yes to Blue Sun Biodiesel and the stepping
stone they are offering, while simultaneously denouncing Genetically
Modified Organisms, agrochemicals, and the few multi-national
corporations, such as Monsanto, that promote them. Let us
ask that we not have to choose between emissions from petroleum
exhaust and increased chemical biocides as prerequisites for
life-supporting food and fuel systems. With specific tweaking
in the distribution and allocation of big money and human
energy, we can achieve a society based on renewable energies
without compromise to ourselves and the Earth.
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GMO—a genetically modified organism.
GE—Genetic Engineering: taking genetic
material from one organism and inserting it into the permanent
genetic code of another organism. You can come up with such
novel creations as potatoes with bacteria genes, “super”
pigs with human growth genes, fish with cattle growth genes
or tomatoes with flounder genes. These creations are being
patented and released into the environment without any testing.
mechanism plants use to produce seed that will have traits
of both of the parent plants. Pollen from the male part of
one plant comes into contact with the female part of another
plant. For canola, bees are the primary transmitter of the
pollen. Canola can also self-pollinate, meaning one plant
has both male and female reproductive parts. “Partial
sexual compatibility exists with some related Brassica spp.
and other closely related species outside the genus.”
Genetically Modified Gene Flow—The pollen
of a GMO which comes into contact with a non-GMO plant will
yield seeds with the GMO traits. Cross-pollination of different
GMO crops has resulted in resistance to three different pesticides,
ie. "super weeds.”
Canola, its relatives,
and the SLV
San Luis Valley Canola Use District
Canola, or “Canadian Oil,” refers to various mustard
species of rapeseed (Brassica napus, B. campestris, and B. juncea)
that have had the “hot and spicy” mustard characteristics
(erucic acid in the oil and glucosinolates in the seed meal)
selected out of them. This produces a high-quality and nutritious
oil for human consumption, and a supplemental feed for animals
in the seed meal.
Over the last decade companies such as Frito-Lay recognized
that the San Luis Valley was an ideal growing climate for
cool-season canola. Through their lobbying, the Colorado Department
of Agriculture established a “Canola Production District”
in the five counties of the entire San Luis Valley, which
essentially banned any non food-quality varieties. Their aim
was to isolate canola seed stock from cross-pollinating with
other non-edible, high erucic acid rapeseed and mustard varieties.
Large corporations, seed producing companies and the Colorado
Department of Agriculture were taking absolute consideration
of the natural miracle of cross-pollination.
Now, Blue Sun Producers, the group of farmers growing oil
crops for Blue Sun Biodiesel, has industrial-oil crop intentions
in a valley that has legislation in effect limiting farmers
to growing only edible, canola-spec varieties. Canola is canola
because it is meant for human consumption. Rapeseed and other
mustards are typically the oil crops grown for industrial
purposes, including uses in lubricants, rubber additives,
commercial waxes, nylon, and, of course, diesel fuel.
High-Yielding Mustards and Rapeseeds
The advantages for growing some of the rapeseeds and mustards
for oil for biodiesel production are primarily their higher
yield than canola, but also in the valuable by-product seed
meal. Studies conducted by researchers at the University of
Idaho have shown that the high glucosinolates in the mustard
meal have effective pesticidal and insecticidal properties,
with different mustards affecting different pests and weeds.
This effect has been confirmed here at home by the CSU cooperative
extension office in Center. They have noticed mustards forming
good, dense stands without weed management issues and even
serving as a biofumigant in the soil the following year, helping
to prevent the development of weed or pest issues. In other
words, growing “spicy’ mustards might alleviate
the need for pesticides and herbicides in some applications.
Subsequently, the bio-pesticidal properties of these mustards
make its meal much more valuable as an agricultural amendment
than as an animal feed, which is where canola meal typically
goes. For biodiesel production, this means mustard oil could
be abundantly produced for potentially $ 0.10 per pound less
than other oils, ultimately reducing biodiesel production
costs quite considerably.
The mustards are also effective in rotation with other crops,
such as in potato nematode management, and they require less
water and other energy inputs than other oil crop choices.
“Additionally, mustard biodiesel has excellent cold
weather characteristics and low Nitrous Oxide emissions,”
says University of New Hampshire biodiesel researcher Michael
Some other “canola-quality” mustards that have
proved extra-ordinary yields in parts of Canada include varieties
of Brassica juncea selected for hot and dry conditions named
“Arid” and “Amulet” achieving yields
of 4200 lbs per acre and 7000 lbs per acre, respectively.
“Typical” yields from rapeseed proper are 15,000
lbs per acre with a 37-50% oil content-a fourfold increase
over Blue Sun’s top yielder. Why is Blue Sun presently
focusing on the San Luis Valley for industrial oil yields
when present law limits the growing of a relatively low yielding,
for-human-consumption canola crop when there are less expensive
options for doubling or quadrupling yields with other crops.
“We can grow as good a canola (or mustard) as anywhere,”
says the CSU extension office on Center.
Other sources for
High oil micro-algae
Algae represent one of the most efficient options for converting
solar energy into chemical energy for fuel because of their
simple cell structure and high photosynthetic efficiency.
They also grow in water where hydrogen is plentiful and reproduce
abundantly through cellular division. Diatom algae are 50%
oil by weight.
Some of the prospects for algae cultivation include growing
them in waste streams, on animal waste lagoons, and symbiotically
in food-producing fish ponds. The Department of Energy estimates
the potential yield from algae could reach over 15,000 gallons
per acre per year, compared to a mustard yield of 420 to 700
gallons per acre/year, or an average canola yield of 300 gallons
per acre/year. Algae cultivation could not only replace petrodiesel
use in the U.S., but in the world.
Any cheap and abundant bio-mass such as agricultural residue,
wood chippings, or organic refuse can be gasified followed
by a Fischer Tropsch (FT) synthesis to yield a liquid diesel
fuel. This FT synthesis is the same process Shell is using
to make diesel fuel from natural gas. A partnership between
Shell and Volkswagon is looking into the future potential
of making a biodiesel through this process.
Since this process utilizes waste bio-mass, it can be considered
a kind of biodiesel, although it is very different from the
normal transesterification of vegetable oil. One positive
difference is that this bio-mass biodiesel has far greater
cold flow properties than vegetable oil biodiesel making it
an ideal blending companion.
Used Cooking Oil
Roughly 3.5 billion gallons of used cooking oil is produced
every year in America. While Blue Sun rejects this as a feasible
resource because “inconsistent input equals inconsistent
output,” personal experience from thousands of do-it-yourselfers
shows used oil makes an adequate fuel source. Because it is
a by-product, used oil biodiesel is also much cheaper and
embodies less production energy than virgin oil biodiesel.
Also note that any diesel engine (older indirect injections
are reportedly better) can run on straight (non-reacted) used
or new vegetable oil with a minor alteration in the fuel system.
This alteration is one of those systems that engine manufacturers
would install at the factory if they really wanted us to have
optimal efficiency in fuel combustion, mileage, and fuel options.