Written By Lila Taheraly

I have always thought that diversity is key.

My parents come from two different continents.

I grew up watching the French National soccer team winning the World Cup in 1998 and the European Cup in 2000 with the slogan “Black, Blanc, Beur” referring to the three different skin colors of the players.

Diversity is everywhere.

Try to find two identical papayas at the farmers market.

Try to handwrite the same word exactly the same way.

Even twins have different moles or different eyebrow lines.

Diversity is life.


King’s Village farmers market 7/20/15, papayas, dragon fruits, mango

So when I read this article published in Nature Plants in April 2015, I felt happy. Diversity could also be great in agriculture. It could be promising and profitable!

What did these researchers do?

For one year, they grew five different grassland species on 124 small plots, half of which were exposed to drought during six weeks. The plots received either monocultures or polycultures and displayed different degrees of genetic diversity. The configuration allowed them to study separately the influence of species diversity and the influence of genetic diversity on biomass production and on temporal stability of the production.

Researchers harvested six times during the year, weighed their harvest and compared the results.

Their results proved that polycultures produced more than monocultures, especially when subject to drought, regardless of the number of genotypes per species present. With irrigation, plots with several species presented a superior yield of 200g/m² than plots with one species, i.e. 0.8tonne/acre. For plots under drought conditions, the difference was 3.2tonnes/acre.

Conversely, the temporal stability of production increased only with the number of genotypes present under both drought and non drought conditions, and was unaffected by the number of species.

How do they explain these results? With diversity, plants are more likely to produce their peak biomass at different dates. This process is called growth asynchrony. They will use water and nutrients at different moments. They will share the available resources more easily.

The article shows that species diversity and genetic diversity can play different roles for livestock optimization: species diversity impacts biomass production especially under drought conditions and genetic diversity impacts production stability. Both could be considered in agronomic systems to increase the productivity and resilience, especially in a context of rising hazardous environmental events.

We can notice that this is not the main direction that global agriculture followed for the last fifty years. The great news is that the tools that have been developed to improve monocultures for decades could help today to define and improve species mix which would increase yields and better resist hazardous conditions.

Maybe diversity could also be agriculture’s opportunity.

Turning Air into Rocks?!

Mea Culpa, that was more click bait from this author; but as with my previous post, would you have clicked on a blog post with a title like “physicochemical conversion of heterogeneous gaseous mixture into stable crystalline formation”? Nuff said.

There are several components I consider crucial for a strong start to the day, two of which are a strong cup of coffee and a perusal of the newspaper so as to remain an informed citizen.

I’m naturally inclined toward curiosity in stories related to renewable energy and mitigation of the effects of climate change. As such, a recent post in the New York Times seized my consciousness.

The article, written by Henry Fountain and published by the Times on February 10, 2015, bears a headline that allows little ambiguity as to the direction of the narrative: “Panel Urges More Research on Geoengineering as a Tool Against Climate Change”.

This New York Times piece, and many others like it, are familiar to many, and the gist of these articles can be summarized as follows:

  • Climate change is happening
  • The eventual effects of climate change are going to be devastating
  • Current efforts are not going to be sufficient to address the effects of climate change
  • We need to take drastic action to avoid the worst possible outcomes
  • This drastic action may have negative unintended consequences, but the known negative consequences of climate change are far worse

Caveat: this article quotes US government officials who advocate for more research, I am not implying anything other than government advocacy for research into geoengineering.

Rather than foist my own opinion of this journalism on you, I bring this article to your attention for a much more important reason, summarized by this quote from the article advocating for the study of geoengineering.

In two widely anticipated reports, the [National Academy of Sciences] panel — which was supported by NASA and other federal agencies, including what the reports described as the “U.S. intelligence community” — noted that drastically reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases was by far the best way to mitigate the effects of a warming planet. But the panel, in making the case for more research into geoengineering, said, “It may be prudent to examine additional options for limiting the risks from climate change.

In case that wasn’t clear: groups within the federal government of the United States of America view our current societal trajectory as so calamitous that we should begin studying the potential effects of changing the climate of the entire planet, so as to lessen the catastrophic effects of climate change. This research could be quite necessary in case the work of folks attempting to address this conundrum through high tech, and high ambition plans such as turning atmospheric CO2 into rocks for sequestration doesn’t pan out.

I view the panel’s finding as significant because I plan on living many more decades on this particular planet. I also plan on having children who will hopefully, at the very least, have the option of living on earth for many decades to come.

I am greatly comforted by the knowledge that there are bright, well-intentioned people working to find very high-tech solutions to the problems that are the underlying cause of climate change.

I will also be completely candid with you: I have vacillated, but have not yet developed a strong opinion pro or con regarding geoengineering. If you feel strongly about this issue, please comment on this blog post.

I have the luxury of being able to punt on my opinion of geoengineering, because my day-to-day work chips away at an underlying cause of climate change (dependency on petroleum-based products) while being minimally risky: I plant trees for a living. While inspired and intelligent individuals the world over work through their own chosen potential solutions to climate change, I will continue planting orchards of pongamia trees with TerViva. These orchards will do more than address climate change, they also provide jobs, and return former agricultural land to productivity through new farming crops and techniques.

I sincerely hope we never need the geoengineers to execute their plans, but am glad that intelligent people are thinking through the implications. For the time being I take comfort knowing that TerViva is contributing in it’s own, silvicultural fashion, as indicated by our newest, recently planted acreage in Hawaii that is pictured below.

IMG_8864 - Version 2

Galls Gone Wild!

Galls Gone Wild!

Cue steel drums. Now get ready for a wild picture:


Cue grumbling. OK, cheap move, but really, would you have clicked on a blog post titled “Pongamia’s potential in Okinawa”?

PresentingI recently had the honor and privilege of being invited to speak at a conference on the Island of Kumejima, in Okinawa prefecture. It was a delight to be able to explore such a beautiful part of the world, especially an area with a strange dichotomy wherein some aspects of the landscape appeared analogous to my home state – Hawaii – while other aspects were utterly divergent and completely foreign.

One of the people I struck up a conversation with an emeritus professor from the University of Tokyo, and current President of the Deep Ocean Water Applications Society. As interested in pongamia as he was, I was equally intrigued by his Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) field, though that’s enough fodder for a whole separate blog post. After hearing my presentation on TerViva’s work to commercialize pongamia, this professor did a bit of research on his own and determined that in the Japanese language, pongamia is called “Kuroyona,” and that there are many Kuroyona trees to be found in Okinawa prefecture.

While the picture at the beginning of this blog post may have tipped you off, I can confirm that pongamia most certainly do exist on Okinawa Island. After a bit of exploring, I was able to locate several dozen Kuroyona trees, and observed them to be robust, with some displaying dense examples of early stage flowering, which could lead to a plentiful crop of oilseeds. In addition to these observations, I also recorded the presence of many leaf galls, which are structures built on the host pongamia’s leaf tissue by mites. In this context, there was no indication that the presence of leaf galls was having a negative impact on the trees in which I saw them; I determined there was no indication of ill effect due to the lack of superficially observable differences between trees with heavy gall outbreaks relative to trees with no visible galls. It should be mentioned here that the pongamia trees TerViva is growing in the United States have been verified to be gall-free by the USDA, and TerViva has not observed any galls on trees growing in the wild in the United States. Pongamia sign

The presence of pongamia in Okinawa is significant for a couple of reasons in particular:

  • Presents further indication of just how hardy Kuroyona is, given that Okinawa is impacted by typhoons an average of 7-8 times every year
  • As vividly depicted in the picture of galls going wild at the beginning of this post, the pongamia trees I observed appeared to be thriving in spite of what in some instances was high-density gall colonization
  • In spite of these environmental insults, and indication of minimal maintenance, the Kuroyona I observed were vigorous, and many trees displayed early indications of high density inflorescence, meaning the trees could be highly productive

flowersAs a result of my exploration and observations, I naturally wondered: what is the potential for pongamia cultivation in Okinawa Prefecture?

Looking for statistics on oil/diesel use in Okinawa Prefecture was difficult, and ultimately I was unsuccessful, which probably had something to do with the fact that I don’t speak Japanese, and so cannot search Japanese-language websites. Luckily, some friends from Kumejima Island (a larger island in Okinawa Prefecture) stepped in and graciously helped by providing me with the following information: As of 2004, ~300,000 gallons of oil per year were used for transport (both gas and diesel) on Kumejima Island.

Anyone who read my previous blog post will remember that I am prone to spontaneous bouts of case study formulation. Here’s a quick one: how much land would be required for a pongamia orchard large enough to supply all of the diesel needed for transportation on Kumejima Island? First, some assumptions:

  • Half of the transportation fuel used on Kumejima Island in 2004 was diesel, which can be replaced by biodiesel produced from pongamia oil
  • Kuroyona orchards on Kumejima Island still yield the 400 gallons of oil per acre that we expect them to yield in the United States

Given these assumptions, TerViva would need to plant an orchard ~375 acres in size to supply all the diesel used for transportation on Kumejima Island, ~150,000 gallons as of 2004. Since it is almost 2015, let’s assume diesel use has grown by 33% since 2004, to annual consumption of ~200,000 gallons. To produce 200,000 gallons of pongamia biodiesel, TerViva would need to plant a 500-acre orchard. As a point of reference, 500 acres represents less than 3.5% of the entire landmass of the island of Kumejima. Because I was not overly diligent in the research for this blog post, let’s say I was off, that it’ll take double the land I calculated would be needed; that is still less than 7% of the entire island’s land mass.

Allow me to summarize the above babble: using less than 7% of the land on Kumejima Island, TerViva could supply all of the diesel needed for transportation on the entire island. All of your diesel needs for less than 7% of your land? That’s a pretty good deal.

America will win the world cup, and sooner than you think.

I started writing this post full of optimism and gusto. Partway through, tragedy struck, and I hit a wall. After some painful reflection, and time to heal, I think I have found a way to cope, and even regain some sense of purpose. I will get to the source of my angst, as well as the mental salve, in a moment, but first a bit of background.

contrastReading the reports in May about the apparently irreversible melting of a large section of Antarctica, was distressing, but was not the tragedy I alluded to in the above paragraph. I had seen and read plenty of previous articles on the topic. Something that stood out in this round of media coverage was the fact that a government-funded, military advisory panel also went on record, stating that “The accelerating rate of climate change poses a severe risk to national security and acts as a catalyst for global political conflict.” At the time, I took comfort in the fact that the end result of our work at TerViva will address the underlying cause that has led to the effect highlighted in the first article linked to above: the melting of the polar ice caps.

Shortly after the news media forgot that ice caps were melting and that the military considers climate change to be a severe risk, a couple of relevant press releases surfaced. UOP is an organization that, in part, produces fuels from renewable feedstocks; they announced in July that their technology was selected for use in an $800 million dollar facility to produce renewable jet fuel and renewable diesel in the United Arab Emirates. Amyris is a company that produces hydrocarbon feedstocks from plant material that can be used in a variety of products typically produced from petroleum. In July, Amyris put out a press release stating that the hydrocarbons they produce from renewable sources will be blended with jet fuel, and used to power commercial flights by the Brazilian airline GOL. It was great to see these bits of PR in the context of the bad news regarding climate change; but the Amyris PR was special for another reason: it pertained to the World Cup.iu

Now to change gears, but first, a mea culpa: I am a partisan. I broke out my finest red white and blue apparel, and cheered the US side through every game of this World Cup, even when it meant arriving at a local bar in Waikiki at 6:00am because my lodging didn’t have a cable hook up to allow me to watch in my pajamas. This, of course, leads me to the tragedy I indicated in the opening paragraph. The US squad, as we are all now aware, was sent home after the Belgian side somehow managed to win the match against the supremely stellar squad from the US  (delusional thinking is part of my grieving process).

This bit of historical reinterpretation leads me to the (rhetorical) strategy I have devised for the US to “win” the World Cup. I use quotations around the word “win” because, admittedly, this is a bit of a stretch, but bear with me. Earlier in this post, I mentioned the dire scenario facing us as a society: melting ice caps, societal disruption and environmental degradation. I also pointed to a pair of American companies that are at the forefront of renewable energy production. Let’s face it: the American soccer (OK, futbol) team may not win the cup anytime soon; until that happens, I would argue that it would be a major win for America, and the world as a whole, if we can follow the lead of groups like UOP & Amyris, and power the world cup using regenerative fuel and energy.

To that end, a thought experiment. TerViva, the company I work for, produces regenerative plant-based oil from orchards of pongamia that can be used for fuel production. The experiment:

How many acres of pongamia would TerViva have to plant in order to produce enough jet fuel to transport all of the national soccer/futbol teams from stadium to stadium during the 2014 World Cup?

First, some assumptions will be necessary. A caveat: I am making many of these assumptions very liberally, and do not intend the conclusion to be utilized for any purpose other than the readers’ (hopefully) mild amusement. These are my assumptions:

• 1 gallon of raw pongamia oil = 1 gallon of finished jet fuel
[Some impurities are removed, and some reagents are added stoichiometrically during the fuel production process; for simplicity I stick with a 1:1 ratio]

• 100% pongamia based fuel, 0% conventional jet fuel (I know, unrealistic at this point, but indulge me)

• I will assume 2,000-flight miles/team/game. This figure is tricky because the amount of flying each team does is wildly divergent. Example: US has to fly over 10,000 miles in only the group stage(!), while the Belgians only had to fly a little over 1,000 (Belgium! *author shakes fist*). I’m estimating conservatively, and again, this is just a thought experiment so bear with me.

0.66 miles per gallon for the average Boeing 737 in the GOL fleet. Again, this is a difficult number to pin down, but as I’ve said, this is a thought experiment

• 400 gallons of pongamia oil per acre in orchards of TerViva’s proprietary lines of pongamia

• 64 games in a World Cup tournament

• The calculations:

•64 games * 2 teams/game * 2,000 miles/team * 1.52 gallons/mile * 0.0025 acre/gallon = ~1,000 acres of TerViva pongamia orchards to supply all of the jet fuel required to transport national teams during 2014 World Cup

So, with a little less than 1,000 acres, TerViva could grow enough oil to fly every national team around the country of Brazil for the World Cup. I admit I was pretty cavalier with my assumptions, so I tell you what, multiply that figure ten-fold. Assume TerViva would need 10,000 acres to produce enough oil to fly all of the teams around the country for this soccer tournament. No problem.

Context is necessary here: the country of Brazil grew corn and soybeans on 88,500,000 acres in 2008-2009. The United States of America grew 84,800,000 acres of soybeans alone in 2014.

Given this knowledge, I would posit that there is easily enough land on which we could produce far greater supplies of fuel and energy feedstocks than is needed by the World Cup. In this way, I would argue that while it would be a small victory, and while we wouldn’t be able to hoist that hallowed golden cup above our collective heads, America could come away the victor of all subsequent World Cup tournaments. If we did so while guiding the world toward a renewable-based energy economy, that would be great, but the real victory will come whenever the Red White and Blue can finally bring home World Cup Glory… until then, TerViva will keep planting pongamia.Nigeria at United States, friendly

Reclaiming the Throne


If you had to guess, what would you say is the greatest threat to the economy of Hawaii? Go ahead, take a moment. Labor rates? Nope. Expensive petroleum imports? Try again. Or not, I don’t want you all to get bored and leave! You may be surprised to learn that, according to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, “invasive species are the single greatest threat to Hawaii’s economy and the state’s cultural resources, affecting agriculture, health and our island lifestyle.”


26.5 lb big head carp

The National Invasive Species Council defines exotic organisms as: “an alien (or non-native) species whose introduction does, or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” For those unfamiliar with the issues surrounding invasive species, or more simply, “invasives”, you may wonder, what harm could come from bringing some fish to the US from Asia to control populations of algae, weeds and snails in aquaculture ponds? While that may sound innocuous, some of these fish escaped, and established breeding populations in the Mississippi in the mid 1970’s. Of course, I’m writing about Asian carp, which are considered a noxious invasive species, and responsible for serious aquatic ecosystem disruption. These carp have pushed inexorably northward over the past couple of decades, displacing native species as they go. If the carp were to reach the Great Lakes, it would likely prove devastating to the $7 billion dollar fishing industry there. This is not to mention the serious injuries that boaters have sustained as a result of silver carp. These fish have a habit of leaping up to 10 feet out of the water when startled by passing boats; this presents a real threat as they can grow to weigh over 100 pounds.


Irregular airborne forces

Or consider the case of brown tree snakes on Guam. This invasive species is responsible for nine of the 12 species of native forest birds that have been drive extinct on the island. Economically speaking, several million dollars worth of damage occurs annually as a result of these snakes damaging electrical equipment, while they cause, on average, one power outage every three days. It is estimated that if brown tree snakes were to stow away on a boat or plane and colonize Hawaii, the economic damage “would range from $593 million to $2.14 billion annually.” The snake infestation on Guam is so bad that officials have resorted to dropping dead mice laced with snake poison from helicopters.

One of the reasons that invasive species are so successful, and also why they can be so hard to dislodge once a population has been established, is that they tend not to have any natural predators in their new surroundings. Enter the top predator: humans.


Lionfish sushi

While I’m not suggesting we hunt any additional species into extinction, we could use our status at the pinnacle of the food chain to reduce or eliminate invasives from areas where they are causing ecological and economic harm. This strategy for combating invasives has already proven successful in at least one case. Residents in Wisconsin have trapped and eaten enough of the invasive Rusty Crayfish in Sparkling Lake that over several years, the population of this environmentally destructive critter has dropped to 1% of its peak. Lionfish can reduce the population of native Caribbean reef fish by 95%. In response locals have developed incredibly tasty means of dealing with this swimming environmental calamity.

I believe it is time that we humans reassert our position as the dominant predator, and use that position to eat our way through the population of harmful invasive species, and achieve greater ecological and economic health for all.  

Farmland Investors Better Pay Attention to Farm Labor Trends

By Tom Schenk

If farmers and other agricultural operations from across the US thought it was hard finding farm labor, the task is about to get more difficult in the years ahead.  Harvesting crops like citrus, apples, pears, tomatoes, blueberries, vegetables, grapes, and other produce have always depended on a seemingly endless supply of labor from Mexico.  That has quietly been changing over the last several years and there are multiple forces aligning that may make this situation worse.

  • A new report by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center highlights a sharp drop in Mexico’s fertility rate further decreased the number of young men crossing into the U.S. to work in the fields.
  • Increased border security and drug cartel violence made crossings more dangerous and expensive, deterring workers.
  • A California Farm Bureau Federation member survey being conducted in 2013 has found about half of farmers are experiencing shortages.
  • The Labor Department’s H-2A visa program is a bureaucratic nightmare.  Typical of government bureaucracy, they are slow to process applications which results in harvest losses.

And perhaps one of the largest reasons for the shortages of immigrant workers from Mexico is free market capitalism.  For much of the last decade Brazil has been in the news as an economic juggernaut in stark contrast to Mexico who appeared bogged down in cartel drug violence.  ImageHowever, in the past two years, Mexico’s president Enrique Pena Nieto has turned that country’s economy around to the point where per capita GDP income now exceeds Brazil, according to the IMF.  Mexican stock market returns have had almost three times the returns of Brazil’s market over the past five years. Since 2010, Mexico has created over 2,000,000 jobs!  Laws were passed to allow new entrants to Mexico’s closely held telecom industry. The Nieto administration introduced strong structural reforms in the education system that was bogged down by the teachers union, as well as other antitrust laws.    Mexico’s greatest progress, however, will be from the ongoing reform in the country’s state-owned oil industry that was nationalized 75 years ago.  They have begun to actively encourage outside capital and technology to enter the country to exploit its vast shale, and deep-water oil and natural gas industry.  Mexico now has lower labor costs than China. This is attracting more manufacturing jobs.  Along with ample, low cost energy supplies, t is expected to accelerate the growth of a new middle class.   The implications of all of the above suggest a tougher time ahead for US agricultural operations that depend on a once generous supply of migrant labor to harvest fruit and vegetable crops from Washington State to Florida.  A study conducted by the American Farm Bureau could theoretically have to raise $14.04 to $18.25 an hour to fill the labor shortage with domestic workers.  This would cause a 7%-14% drop in farm income and lead to a 2%-3% rise in food prices.  In the case of California where growers are already fighting years of drought and irrigation cutbacks, or in Florida where growers are fighting citrus greening and other diseases, the times ahead may become more difficult.   My crystal ball says smart ag investors should focus on farmland investments where the crops can be mechanically harvested and irrigation and or rainfall is plentiful.

Ending World Hunger, The 3rd Way: Listening

Humanity has a hunger problem. We grow crops to produce food, animal feed, fiber, and increasingly, fuel, but have a current crop deficit, as evidenced by the fact that every day millions of people around the world experience food insecurity. Couple this with the fact that the global population is growing to a projected 9-10 billion people by 2050 –with the fastest growth rates often occurring in the areas already afflicted by food deficits – and the obstacles facing civilization rapidly come into stark contrast.Image

Three prime strategies address these problems:

  1. Improve the productivity of existing crops via genetic modification
  2. Improve the conditions conventional crops are cultivated in so as to increase productivity
  3. Identify new crops that can utilize underproductive land

TerViva, the company I work for, is pursuing the 2nd (indirectly) and 3rd strategies as we work to domesticate the tree species Pongamia pinnata by selection and breeding, as opposed to genetic modification. I will dedicate a subsequent blog post to delve into pongamia as a 2nd strategy option, while focusing this post on the intricacies of introducing a new crop.

The process of adding a new crop to society’s agriculture is arduously difficult from a technical perspective. The outstanding team of scientists at TerViva has made unprecedented progress on the technical front, and has enabled TerViva to reach the point where we are currently transitioning from pilot plantings to commercial scale acreage of our proprietary lines of high-yielding pongamia trees.

Also challenging, and of crucial importance when expanding with unconventional crops into new geographies, getting buy in from the local community can be crucial.

As a case study to caution against charging ahead without learning about local customs and cultural norms, one can consider seed corn companies. A quick internet search reveals abundant examples where these companies have been demonized as a result of cultivating genetically modified crops (GMO’s) in communities where these crops were not welcome. Relatively straightforward community outreach would have revealed local antipathy toward GMO’s, allowing the seed companies to employ mitigating strategies, or select alternate geographies to avoid damage to their reputation.Image

Outreach to understand local conventions and cultural norms need not be carried out solely to avoid negative outcomes such as community aversion to particular types of crops or cultivation techniques. A key part of TerViva’s business strategy lies in communication and collaboration with local farmers wherever we work. This strategy is prudent as it is one of the most effective methods of leveraging local knowledge. Expertise derived from experience cultivating land in unique geographies can bring more utility to an agricultural endeavor than an entire textbook full of generic best practices for farming.

The two reasons above should be sufficient to make community outreach compelling. From TerViva’s point of view there is another purpose: introducing yourself, learning about the local culture, and asking for feedback is an indicator of a certain type of internal philosophy. While this ethos is not quantifiable or tangible, it suggests several attributes. First, a degree of humility in that the organization is willing to listen to suggestion as opposed to believing it already has all the answers. Second, openness demonstrates that there are no nefarious intentions or motivations. Finally, from our perspective, outreach shows that we wish to work with the local community, as opposed to residing and operating in a segregated enclave.