Island Independence

Island Independence

For some time now, islands have ben romanticized in human culture, placed at the apex of potential vacation destinations, often with good reason.


Islands present the opportunity to disconnect oneself from the familiar, culturally, geographically or otherwise. Those lucky enough to visit an island while on holiday will likely be impressed by any number of environmental, culinary or adventurous delights. But what of the machinery and infrastructure that maintain such idyllic locales, and the people who live there? With this blog post I will pull back the curtain, and provide a glimpse of what it takes to keep an island paradise running from an energy standpoint, using Hawai’i as a case study.

HIFirst, some quick, pertinent facts about Hawai’i. As of 2012, census data indicate there are a little less than 1.4 million people living in the state; with ~70% residing in the city of Honolulu on the Island of Oahu. All told, Hawai’i contains 6,422 square miles of land – the Island of Hawai’i makes up over half, at 4,028 mi2 – spread out over an archipelago of 130 islands that stretches over 1,500 miles. At ~2,400 miles from North America, the closest continent, Hawai’i is the most isolated population center on Earth.

Powering a population of this scale and geography is a serious undertaking, and requires substantial energy supplies and infrastructure. There is no appreciable production of fossil fuel energy in Hawai’i, thus 94% of all Hawai’i’s energy is imported. The Hawai’i Electric Company and its subsidiaries provide 95% of the electricity used by the state’s residents; a little over 73% of this electricity is generated from burning oil. This pie chart provides further information on energy consumption based upon the sector of the end-user:

HI Chart

Needless to say, if there was an interruption in this supply, the effects on the Hawai’ian economy could be devastating. In the interest of brevity, and not depressing readers of this post, I won’t use space here to catalog the potential for catastrophic environmental impacts associated with transporting oil.

In recognition of this dependence on imported energy and environmental hazard, Hawai’i has passed legislation mandating that 40% of all electricity and natural gas shall be generated from renewable sources that can be produced on the Islands (Hawai’i Revised Statutes §269-92 Renewable portfolio standards (a)(4)). This action sets the state on a path toward a future where the Islands of Hawai’i could become energy independent.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy supplies is already underway. Hawai’i currently produces ~11% of its electricity from renewable sources, including biofuels, geothermal, solar, and wind among others. This percentage is primed to increase substantially, as entrepreneurs and established companies alike recognize the market opportunity. HAWAI’IGAS, which supplies synthetic natural gas and propane to varied customers throughout Hawai’i, operates a pilot plant that converts up to 1 million gallons of renewable feedstocks such as used cooking oil into natural gas; this pilot plant is slated for expansion. Pacific Biodiesel got started producing biodiesel so early that they were able to buy the domain name BdslPacific Biodiesel was conceived in 1995 with a single facility that converted used cooking oil into biodiesel. Since then they have successfully built 12 production facilities on the mainland US and Japan, and continue to grow: the company’s newest venture is Big Island Biodiesel, a plant able to produce 5.5 million gallons of biodiesel per year.

Significant progress has been made incorporating increasing quantities of renewable energy and fuels into the portfolio of Hawai’i, but there is more to be done: the State’s energy plan aims to have an agriculture industry that will be able to provide 350 million gallons of biofuels by 2025. TerViva, the company that I work for, is currently planning for the deployment of its first commercial pongamia orchard in Hawai’i. Pongamia trees produce a bountiful seed crop; when crushed, the seeds yield oil that is well suited for conversion to biodiesel and natural gas, among other products. By producing a robust biofuel feedstock, TerViva and other industry leaders like Pacific Biodiesel and HAWAI’IGAS will help Hawai’i make progress down the road to an independent future, free from the constraints of imported oil.

Terviva: Why We Do What We Do — Part I

Whenever I introduce Terviva as a company at conferences or events, I always start off by saying, “Terviva develops new crops for marginal land”.

Very few people ask me why that’s important, or why anyone should care about new crops for marginal land.

And yet, for the people who work at Terviva, that “why” factor is at the heart of what we do.  It’s what motivates us and drives us to work intensively toward our goals.

So I’d like to share “why” we develop new crops for marginal land.  I’ll break our logic down into three parts, to be covered across two blog posts.

(1)  Why marginal land matters

(2)  Why new crops are necessary for marginal land

(3)  What is Terviva’s unique approach to this opportunity

First – why marginal land matters….

In agriculture, the big picture goal is to increase food production.  The often-cited UN statistic is that, over the next 40 years, global population will increase by 2 billion people, and the world will require 70% more food production.

To meet this challenge, we need to farm more acres, farm more per acre, and – even more basically – maintain the viability of existing land.

It is estimated that 1 to 2% of all agriculture land becomes indefinitely fallowed every year due to soil salinity issues.  Now, add in other factors, such as desertification, declining water availability, extreme weather conditions, new crop diseases, and volatile macroeconomics.  The result:  a significant amount of land that was once valuable for farming is now longer so.

Marginal agriculture land in Florida, with TerViva pongamia trees now planted on it

Marginal agriculture land in Florida, with Terviva pongamia trees now planted on it

There are numerous examples of this marginalization of agriculture land.  We specifically work in three affected areas:

Florida:  citrus greening disease has wiped out nearly 50% of citrus tree acres in the last decade (almost 500,000 acres).

Texas:  extended droughts have triggered irrigation water cutbacks and declining productivity in rice, corn, and cotton farming

Hawaii:  sugar and pineapple farming, once mainstays of Hawaiian agriculture, have almost completely ended, due to competition from lower cost geographies in Asia.

It’s unlikely that any of these three areas will recover to the point where their land will once again be farmed for their traditional high value crops.  But there may be alternative crops for these areas – ones that can meet the demand for food, feed, fiber, and fuel more efficiently than traditional crops such as corn, soy, and sugarcane.

Abandoned citrus field in Florida -- another victim of citrus greening disease

Abandoned citrus field in Florida — another victim of citrus greening disease

No matter what, the amount of marginal land in the world is going to continue to grow.  Solutions are needed to improve the usability of marginal land, and at Terviva, we think we have some great answers.

Next week, I will write Part II of my post, discussing the need for new crops on marginal land and Terviva’s approach to developing these crops.

Naveen Sikka is Terviva’s CEO.

Genetic Testing: A Common Thread in Breast Cancer and Agriculture

TIME Magazine, May 27, 2013

TIME Magazine, May 27, 2013

By David Harry, TerViva

Angelina Jolie’s personal decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy became a very public discussion topic after she published an op-ed piece in the May 14, 2013, New York Times (  TIME magazine (May 27, 2013) followed suit by featuring the story on its cover.  Ms. Jolie’s story is valuable because it provides an instructive example to help others begin to understand how genetic testing can help assess risk.  But it also provides a learning opportunity for better understanding how genetic testing can be applied in agriculture.

Ms. Jolie sought out genetic testing because her family history presented strong evidence of an inherited predisposition for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC,  her mother died of breast cancer at age 56; her maternal grandmother died of ovarian cancer at age 45; and within weeks after Ms. Jolie’s announcement, her maternal aunt died of breast cancer at age 61 (   Ms. Jolie’s genetic test revealed that she carries the defective (cancer causing) version of the BRCA1 gene associated with HBOC.  Ms. Jolie subsequently opted to undergo a double mastectomy dramatically reducing her overall risk of developing breast cancer.  The overwhelming public reaction has been an outpouring of support, coupled with praise for Ms. Jolie’s decision to go public in order to help others.

Extrapolating from medical genetics to other applications such as agriculture requires some explanation.  First, it’s important to realize that the same rules of inheritance apply equally to plants, animals, and humans.  Likewise, the process of interpreting these rules, and coupling family history with genetics, follows incredibly similar rationales and offer similar predictive opportunities in both medicine and in agriculture.

Ms. Jolie’s journey illustrates how, in light of her family history and genetic testing results, her medical advisors estimated she had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer.  Such predictions are not always as straight forward. Over the past two decades, the roles of certain genes in breast cancer have been increasingly understood.  BRCA1 and BRCA2 play particularly significant roles in cancer because they affect DNA repair, but the involvement of other genes ( means that completing a battery of  genetic tests does not ensure accurately predicting the likelihood of developing cancer.  Genetic counseling is typically recommended since a large number of factors must be considered, including the interaction of an individual’s personal history in conjunction with complex environmental influences.  Needless to say, amassing the resources to evaluate overall risk is no trivial matter, and deciding how to act on this information involves balancing many factors.

All medical decisions, with or without genetic testing, are made from the perspective of an individual.  In light of all pertinent medical information, and after balancing all other factors, what course of action is best for an individual patient?   Each decision, whatever its outcome, is highly individual, being made by a patient in consultation with his/her medical advisor and family.

In contrast to human medicine, agriculture decisions are typically neither individual nor personal.  In agriculture, decisions typically involve evaluating alternatives affecting groups of plants or animals (e.g. populations, herds, fields, orchards, etc) to select the most economical means to achieve a given commercial or environmental outcome.   For example, the typical mission of breeders and geneticists is to somehow shape the genetic trajectory of a population so that it best conforms to a targeted goal—commercial or otherwise.  Genetic predictions can be influenced by family history (e.g. field performance of siblings), and increasingly, augmented using results from DNA-based genetic testing.

Two young pongamia trees with contrasting phenotypes.  Which might perform better in the long-run?

Two young pongamia trees with contrasting phenotypes. Which might perform better in the long-run?

Genetic screening, using methods akin to human medical genetics, is being widely used in diverse agricultural applications.  Some of these involve assessing the role of one or a few genes, combining perhaps dozens of markers.  Other applications are being developed that simultaneously evaluate hundreds to thousands of DNA-based differences, and then combine this information with massive datasets on plant or animal performance.

For pongamia, we are constantly on the look-out for cost effective ways to evaluate which trees to select, propagate, and distribute, using genetic markers as one of many inter-related approaches.  Genetic testing will rarely supply unambiguous predictions, so our goal is to stack the odds (i.e. like a winning hand in a card game) to provide the most likely collection of pongamia varieties for a given set of circumstances.

David Harry, Ph.D., is Director of Research and Development for TerViva.  His background encompasses research and management positions in the public, private, and academic sectors, working primarily to integrate novel genetic applications with applied breeding in plants and animals.  David has a B.S. and M.S. in forestry, and a Ph.D. in Genetics from UC Berkeley.

Ag, Robot

Robot. What does that word evoke? Something boxy, metallic, and humanoid from a science fiction movie? An arm-like apparatus used to build cars on an assembly line? Perhaps a little disc that vacuums your carpets? Whatever it is, I’m willing to bet that most people don’t think of “agriculture” when they think of robots.

Yet robots, and automation in general, have been making significant inroads into commercial agriculture at a pace and scale that may surprise even the most jaded techie. Did you know, for example, that several ag equipment manufacturers offer  GPS-guided tractors and combines with the capability of steering down a row of crops to an accuracy of within two inches? Check out the following video for more:

There’s more than just whiz-bang hands-free trickery, though. An automated sensing system developed by venerable ag equipment maker John Deere allows for the near-real-time identification of organic material such as sugar, starch, protein, and fiber, while the crop is being harvested. Based on near-infrared spectroscopy, this system allows livestock farmers to optimize their herd’s performance, and bioenergy feedstock providers to calculate the optimum quantities of biomass material to be harvested, by varying chop lengths by as little as 1 mm (0.04 inches).

We’re not done yet. The two examples we just discussed are applicable to harvesting row crops that operate in a relatively linear manner. What about more complex tasks, such as spacing plants in a nursery or greenhouse? No worries, because Harvest Automation has you covered. See below: 

And these barely scratch the surface. Blue River Technologies is developing a robot expected to physically remove weeds on organic farms (which are limited in their use of pesticides). Vision Robotics is developing one that can prune grape vines. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been working on a robot that can pick cherry tomatoes.

At this point, it may be reasonable to ask: Why robots, and why now? I’d venture that there are multiple factors at play, including trends in both supply and demand. Let’s take a look at some of them:

1. An existing technological analog. It turns out that the technology for self-driving robots shares much in common with that for self-driving cars. Generally speaking, it’s much easier to adapt an existing technology for a new application than to come up with the technology for that application from scratch.

2. An open-source culture. The software architecture on which much of the modern Internet is based relies heavily on the “open source” philosophy, which encourages universal access and unlimited distribution of a particular type of technology (e.g., the Android smartphone operating system). Open source allows product designers and engineers to spend less time reinventing the wheel and more time on building up on the work done by others.

3. The availability of cheap miniature chips and sensors. Even the coolest technologies with world-changing potential are just science projects until they can be commercialized. Advances in the miniaturization, robustness, and accuracy of off-the-shelf chips and sensors, as well as in manufacturing capability (especially by Asian component manufacturers), mean that a variety of components can be cheaply sourced – leading to a product that can be sold at an attractive price.

4. Rising labor costs in industrialized countries. Japan and the European Union countries are no stranger to high labor costs, and so pursuing automation may be a cost-effective route for farmers in these countries. In the United States, too, an increased awareness of immigrant labor has led to an interest in ag robots.

5. The incentive for emerging economies to move up the value chain. According to this article, China is starting to install an ever-increasing number of robots for various applications – which seems incredulous at first. After all, isn’t the country known for its inexpensive labor? As it turns out, wages are rising, as a result of which China is incentivized to move up the value chain to provide its workers with higher-wage opportunities (or else see their jobs be moved to even lower-wage countries and be left with a big skills gap). The use of robots to perform routine tasks is a step in this direction.

In summary, the intersection of a number of complex global factors is leading to the continued revolution in the “robotization” of agriculture that is as significant as it is low-profile. What impact will this have on conventional row crops? On horticultural crops? On industrial crops grown on unproductive land? Only time will tell.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. My robot chef just sent me a text saying that dinner’s ready.

The 99%

Look around you right now and you will see plant based products: the coffee in your mug, the cotton in your shirt, and the mustard stain on your pant leg. Plants are out there silently manufacturing a myriad of compounds and polymers that weave their way into every aspect of our lives.

The shear variety of food, medicine, personal care items, and industrial products made possible by harnessing and commercializing plants is mind boggling. Even more amazing is that this plethora of plant products is largely derived from only 250 domesticated plant species. To put that number in perspective, that is only 0.06% of the possible 390,000 estimated species of land plants that grow on earth. What about the other 99.94%? Is there an untapped reservoir of agronomic possibility lurking out there in the forest? Think what we could do by effectively harnessing just another 0.06% of it. 

The fact that such a small percentage of the earth’s plant species have been domesticated tells me two things 1) domesticating new plant species has been difficult for most of human history 2) somewhere in that 99.94 % there must be at least a few leafy gems waiting to be mined by someone with the right equipment.

wheatBut, why bother with new species anyway? In the past, people have rarely found it necessary or economically beneficial to domesticate a totally new species, even when business as usual wasn’t working. Settlers moving to the American Midwest found that their European varieties of wheat didn’t grow too well in the new environment. Did they drop everything and domesticate local prickly pears? No, they developed new varieties of European wheat. I’ll take a wild guess and say that a big factor in that decision was that the demand for wheat was probably higher than for prickly pear.

So, why is today any different? What is the incentive to domesticate new crops, and will there be a market?

Since the agricultural expansion of the Midwest, some things have changed, and other things have stayed pretty much the same. Americans still ask themselves “How can I make the best use of my land?” and “Who am I going to sell my crop to?” The main difference is that the answers aren’t so simple anymore.  Markets for agricultural products are larger and more complicated. To name just a few new demanding customers with specific needs: biodiesel refineries want cheap triglycerides, chemical manufacturers want feedstocks for specialty chemicals, the health foods industry wants better nutrition grown with lower environmental impact, and manufacturers of personal care items want oleochemicals in high volumes. Farmers want all this to happen using less inputs, and environmentalists want it to happen on less land with less environmental impact. It’s a big ask from our 250 domesticated plants, especially if it’s going to happen in a sustainable and profitable way for the farmer.factory

I believe that many of these new demands will require new crops to satisfy them.  It is likely that some solutions will come from tweaking plants that we are already familiar with, but perhaps we will also need to look toward the 99.94%. Just as advancements in mining equipment has allowed miners to reach untapped ore, advances in agriculture and genetics will allow scientists and growers to explore the potential of a broader range of species for cultivation. For the past few years Terviva has been matching suitable growers with a new tree crop, pongamia, to help them add value to land where conventional crops, such as citrus, have failed. In just three years, pongamia went from being unheard of to relatively well known in a few key geographies.

Creating channels for the acceptance and utilization of new crops is not an easy task, but progress is being made. Once the domestication channels are in place, new crops will likely be easier to bring online. The rewards will include the preservation of an entrepreneurial agrarian lifestyle that America has come to know and love, as well as the production of higher value agricultural products using fewer inputs.

Upgrading the World’s Most Important Crops

We are all accustomed to adopting new versions of familiar products like phones, computers, and cars. But what about taking on new versions of our most important food crops? Corn, wheat, and rice all have something in common that hasn’t changed since their domestication: an annual life cycle. This characteristic aided their domestication in the hands of Neolithic farmers by allowing quick improvements in yield due to the short time span between generations. Interestingly, these major grain crops have lesser known perennial relatives that did not lend themselves as well to domestication, but otherwise produce similar useable parts. Recently, humans have turned to perennial relatives of our annual staple crops in the hopes that they can help solve some of our most pressing agricultural issues.

Growers face common challenges including water shortage, erosion, high fertilizer costs, and lack of soil nutrition. These problems are caused and/or exacerbated by cultivation practices tailored to plants with annual life cycles. Annual root systems are relatively shallow and short lived. Therefore, a lot of the water and fertilizer applied to annual crops is lost in the form of runoff. By comparison, perennial plants have deeper root systems that remain in place for multiple years in a row (see image below). They help mitigate the above agricultural issues by holding soil in place, maximizing water use efficiency, and improving nutrient uptake. Many non-grain commercial crops are inherently perennial, require fewer agricultural inputs, and do well on marginal land. Examples include grapes, olives, pidgeon peas, and many common fruit and nut trees.


Despite the aforementioned crops, the world still lacks commercially viable perennial alternatives to the world’s most important grain crops. The catch with perennial grain species is that in order to produce extensive root systems and store energy for next year, they must divert energy away from seed production, thus lowering yields. It shows that the saying, “there is no such thing as a free lunch” holds true in the plant world. Currently, in order to get the ecological services of an extensive root system, you have to compromise on yield. Most growers on good agricultural land are not yet forced to make that compromise, but those on marginal land might take it into consideration. Breeders are working on backcrossing domesticated grains with their wild perennial relatives to close the yield gap between perennial and annual varieties. Breeding and commercializing these varieties has proven to be technically challenging and underfunded, but there are some notable signs of progress.

The Land Institute, founded in 1976 by Wes Jackson in Salina, Kansas is a leader in the research and implementation of perennial agriculture for cereal crops. The institute faces the challenge of creating varieties with adequate yields while also maintaining perennial characteristics. Some breeders say they are still 15 or 20 years away from developing varieties that are suitable for main stream agriculture, but signs of progress are imminent. Dr. Hu Fengyi of the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences has bred a variety of perennial rice that has produced yields for the last three years of roughly equal quantity to annual rice in the region. Nevertheless, projects on this time scale do not lend themselves well to the three year federal grant cycle, and their mission does not exactly jive with the business model of large agricultural companies, so there will likely be some financial hurdles to overcome.


Regardless of the challenges, one has reason to be optimistic that recent advances in bioinformatics and marker assisted breeding techniques combined with mounting pressure from environmental hardships such as soil degradation and water shortages could tip the balance in favor of perennials sooner than people might think. Commercial viability of a crop is not decided in a vacuum, and depends on more than just the crop itself. It is a function of many economic, environmental, social, and biological factors that change from year to year. Additionally, there is an opportunity to get smarter about matching specific varieties to specific land use situations. Proto-varieties of perennial grains will probably not be able to compete on prime agricultural land in the near future, but prime ag land seems to be a static (perhaps diminishing) resource. In an approaching era of agricultural innovation, marginal land could prove to be a vast and profitable new niche for agricultural companies. The development and implementation of hardier crops such as perennial grains are likely to see huge payoffs.

The Lettuce Revolution

Who would’ve thought this would be the title of a blog post? In the last few years, we’ve seen significant changes in the market for — lettuce. We’ve observed three trends:

(1) Shift to local production: urban population centers consume the most lettuce, but lettuce is mostly grown far away from urban areas. More than 90% of the US lettuce supply is grown in California and Arizona. Now, several companies – including Go Green Agriculture ( and BrightFarms ( — are growing lettuce closer to where it’s consumed. Go Green has established a system of small-scale hydroponic facilities. BrightFarms is going even more local, with a deal with Gristedes supermarkets in New York CIty to grow lettuce right on supermarket roofs.

Go Green's model for distributed lettuce production

Go Green’s model for distributed lettuce production

(2) Shift to less intensive production: hydroponics, and now “aeroponics”, are all the rage with lettuce. Whereas hydroponic agriculture uses nutrient-rich water as the growing media, aeroponics uses almost no growth media (just air and nutrient mist). In addition to the aforementioned Go Green and Bright Farms, other companies to get their name out there are Aero Farms ( and Pod Ponics (

(3) New “varieties”: now commonly available in California are lettuces with the root balls attached, which preserves freshness and shelf life. I can personally attest to this — I left such a head of lettuce in my fridge for two weeks and when I went to use the lettuce, it was fresher than if I had bought a regular head of lettuce from my grocery store that day.

"Living" lettuce with roots attached, available (soon) at a grocery store near you.

“Living” lettuce with roots attached, available (soon) at a grocery store near you.

Also, recently Monsanto released “Frescada”, a cross between iceberg and romaine that’s packed with vitamins. Unlike Monsanto’s corn and soybean seeds, Frescada lettuce is not genetically modified.

So why the all the focus on lettuce recently? Truthfully, we’re not sure. We don’t see cost being a major driver — we don’t know of people who have been complaining about the price of leafy greens (aside from President Obama — We’re not even sure if hydro- or aeroponics will produce a lower cost lettuce.

Our guess is that the Lettuce Revolution is largely predicated on the belief that consumers want higher-quality and more sustainably-grown lettuces. Today, lettuce grown in the traditional manner can be of mixed quality. No one likes limp, slimy lettuce with browning edges. These hydro/aeroponic companies are certainly making a great product that uses far less chemicals and water than the lettuces grown outdoors in the California and Arizona deserts.

Another noticeable thing about the Lettuce Revolution — investors are getting on board. A few of the companies mentioned in this post have received VC funding. We’ve been a bit surprised by that. VCs typically like to say that they want to fund companies that can be “huge” (definition never clear when you talk with a VC), with an “enduring competitive advantage” (jargon that’s been forced down my throat many times). Based on some USDA data, the domestic market for iceberg and leafy lettuces are approximately $1 billion each. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but I wouldn’t call that huge. In addition, it already seems like there are low barriers to entry and a lack of differentiation in technologies from one new lettuce company to another.

Monsanto's new lettuce - Frescada

Monsanto’s new lettuce – Frescada

Lettuce is growing in popularity outside of the US, in places where it might be difficult to otherwise grow lettuce (i.e., the Middle East). The core hydro/aeroponic technologies are also extendable into other vegetables.

But still — VC funding for lettuce companies? No knock on the lettuce companies — they have some pretty significant talent. I personally met the young founder of Go Green Agriculture (a sharp, charismatic guy) and I recently learned that a very smart college classmate of mine with an investment banking background has joined Bright Farms.

We’re not sure how this will all play out. Consumers definitely stand to gain from the Lettuce Revolution, but I’m not sure if investors will. Lettuce farmers in California and Arizona are most at risk from the Lettuce Revolution. We could easily find that, in ten years, more lettuce is grown through hydro and aeroponics than in outdoor fields.