The 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.

Plant power

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 coming years.

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, GE canola.

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 application.

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 aware.

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 6%.

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.

Industrial canola?

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 below)?

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.

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.

Cross-Pollination—The fertilizing 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.” (USDA)

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 Briggs.

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 biodiesel production

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.

Thermochemical Processes

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.