Well Managed Animal & Livestock Nutrition As Part Of A Low Carbon Future

by Eduardo Martinez

eddie blog picture

Of many discussions around Global Warming and the subject of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), the majority are focused on causes like energy production or transportation emissions, and most of those emissions are carbon dioxide.  According to EPA’s 2016 Report, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, electricity production and transportation produced over 56 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

In addition to those well known causes, agriculture and livestock production also contribute significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.  The three main GHG emitted by the agriculture and livestock sector are nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, as well as losses of nitrogen (N), energy and organic matter that undermine efficiency and productivity in agriculture.

The greatest opportunity for reduction of GHG emissions in the livestock sector lie with improving the efficiency with which producers use natural resources (think tractor fuel) engaged in producing plant protein for animal production, to manage the cost per unit of edible or non-edible output. These improvements are always being pursued in the interest of increasing yield, enhancing quality, or reducing production costs, all while providing a safe and affordable food supply to the public.

There is an obvious and direct correlation between GHG emission and carbon intensities and the efficiency with which producers use natural resources. But among possible opportunities for reducing GHG emissions, fascinating breakthroughs lie in improving livestock nutrition efficiency at the unit level—in this case—the cow level. The average cow emits around 250 liters of methane per day and ruminants overall (animals like cattle, goats and sheep) contribute about 25% of all anthropogenic or man-made methane emissions.

Today universities and industry are working closely together in many ways to improve cattle production and efficiency by eliminating waste, applying the latest enzyme research to improving ruminant digestion and protein conversion. They are also introducing alternative forms of plant protein that might also be more sustainable than traditional energy-intensive animal feedstocks like soy or corn.

For example, recent studies have identified how livestock diet can affect or minimize methanogenesis — methane production.  One common misunderstanding on playgrounds across America is that the back end of the cow is the prime offender in producing GHG in the form of methane. But the truth is the vast majority of methane comes from the cow’s burp—over 95%, in fact!  Thus the opportunity for improvement lies earlier in the animal’s digestive tract.

Rocky De Nys, Professor of aquaculture at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, has been studying the effects that introducing seaweed to a cow’s diet can have on methane production.  Specifically, Professor De Nys and his team discovered adding a small amount of dried seaweed to a cow’s diet can reduce the amount of methane a cow produces by up to 99 per cent.  The species of seaweed is called Asparagopsis taxiformis, and JCU researchers have been actively collecting it off the coast of Queensland.

“We had an inkling that we would get some success from this species, but the scale or the amount of success and reduction we saw was very surprising,” he said, adding “methane gas was the biggest component of greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector.” The key aspect of Asparagopsis taxiformis is that it produces a compound – bromoform (CHBr3) – which prevents methane production by reacting with vitamin B12 at the final step, disrupting enzymes used by gut microbes that produce methane gas as waste during digestion.

Advances such as these are critical to increasing sustainability in the farm and livestock industry and reducing the carbon intensity of farming and producing our global food supply.  TerViva is providing forward thinking solutions in the form of our tree-based platform for producing plant protein and vegetable oil, Pongamia pinnata.

TerViva’s Pongamia tree produces 3 times the plant protein per acre than soy (3 tons vs 1 ton) and 10 times the vegetable oil per acre than soy (400 gal. vs 40 gal.) and all without the negative environmental impact and carbon intensity of annual row crops. Permanently installed orchard crops like Pongamia trees provide tremendous opportunities for carbon sequestration that offset anthropogenic GHG starting with the obvious visible form of the tree visible to the eye, and also from the deep and stabilizing root system below ground.  Pongamia is also a nitrogen fixing legume that takes atmospheric Nitrogen and returns badly needed (N) to the soil.

In the next 12 months, TerViva will be modeling the exact amount of carbon sequestered by our trees per acre, and therefore, the exact amount of carbon reduction that our protein meal offers as compared to soybean.  I’d bet that we’ll find our protein meal offers a compelling advantage over soybean meal in terms of greenhouse gas reduction overall.

Add these sustainable characteristics to the numerous high value products that Pongamia trees yield, and to top it off, a nice shady canopy to host a songbird’s nest or to provide some welcome shade to cattle or sheep on a hot, sunny day and you’ve got a winning addition to tomorrow’s sustainable farming portfolio.

Is precision agriculture the new low hanging fruit?

In the world of agriculture, ‘precision ag’ is hot. Precision agriculture is a farm and site specific management system to optimize inputs and outputs. Essentially, farmers use GPS, sensors and big data analytics to better understand and adjust for spatial variability in their fields such as yields, moisture levels, soil variability, etc. Rather than treating the farm as a monolith, the idea is to break it down into smaller sites and customize agronomy to each site accordingly.

WSJ graph on precision agMonsanto recently announced big initiatives in the space, including the launch of FieldScripts (software), the $250M purchase of Precision Planting (hardware), the $1BN purchase of Climate Corporation (data analysis) and the acquisition of the soil analysis business line of Solum, Inc.  The company says that precision planting, based on detailed analysis of soil and land conditions, can improve corn yields by 10 bushels per acre. Monsanto isn’t alone in embracing precision ag. John Deere, Syngenta, CNH, Dupont and others have also been pushing the technology. Not surprisingly, the venture guys are following suit with a number of investments in the space.

If you want to understand why, just read last week’s Wall Street Journal article that estimates that 41 million acres of corn seeds were planted in 1 week last year (twice the max rate in 2008). GPS software attached to tractors allows farmers to plant more precisely and to plant at night. Planting faster is important because farmers can identify ideal planting windows and optimize for weather.

precision ag chart

Source: http://lb.landw.uni-halle.de/publikationen/pf/pf_cc98.htm

Over the past 100 years, the agriculture industry has pursued a variety of means to increase yields. These “low-hanging fruit” innovations include new irrigation techniques, mechanically powered tractors, biotech crops, fertilizers and higher density plantings. Precision agriculture is next. Just in time too. According to the US EPA, “some 3,000 acres of productive farmland are lost to development each day in this country.” That’s more than 1 million acres lost every year, an area the size of Delaware.

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Precision ag also holds another promise: countering climate change. For example, it has the potential to curb overuse in fertilizers. A report released last month by California Environmental Associates argues that countries like China use too much fertilizer. Using precision ag technologies, farmers in China could reduce fertilizer use by 30%-60% without harming yields.

Data management tools give farmers more choices to measurably improve nitrogen use efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions. Just last week, Smithfield Foods and Environmental Defense Fund teamed up to help farmers optimize fertilizer application. EDF estimates that this collaboration will reduce excess nitrogen fertilizer on more than 450,000 acres and reduce GHG emissions from agriculture by more than 60,000 tons. Not bad.

Despite these possibilities, precision agriculture needs to overcome a number of challenges in order to reach its full potential. At a recent Agri-Tech Summit hosted by Sidley Austin LLP, Dr. Ted Crosbie (Monsanto’s Integrated Farming Systems Lead) described some of these challenges. For example, on any given field, soil can materially vary every 150 feet! That’s a lot of data that needs to be collected and analyzed. In addition, there are concerns about the privacy of farmer data; namely who owns it and who can use it.

Still, like the innovation that came before it, precision agriculture holds enormous possibilities for how we grow food and further optimize farming inputs and outputs. Hopefully investment in this space will bring the costs down so farmers around the world can reap the benefits.

By: Sudhir Rani
CFO of TerViva, Inc.

Various News Bits from the World of Ag 2.0

Hi Ag 2.0 Readers – I’m short on time this week so I’m providing links to some of the more interesting articles that I read in the last few days.

 

Props to Syngenta for Putting the Focus on Problems Like This

Props to Syngenta for Putting the Focus on Problems Like This

1.  “Soil Leadership Academy” formed by Syngenta and UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) (http://bit.ly/1prluVy).

Some interesting facts from the press release and related links:

  • UNCCD estimates that globally, at least, 24 percent of usable land is already degraded.
  • On average, every year we lose 24 billion tons of fertile soil to degradation. As a result, more than 12 million hectares of productive land becomes barren due to desertification and drought processes.
  • Syngenta estimates that we lose a soccer field of farmland every second to soil degradation.
  • Through its Good Growth Plan (cool website:  http://bit.ly/1hDofek), Syngenta has committed to improve the fertility of 10 million hectares of farmland on the brink of degradation.

 

Farmed and Dangerous2.  Chipotle has launched a mini series on Hulu called “Farmed and Dangerous”:  See the 4 episodes at this link:  http://farmedanddangerous.com/#.  I’ll admit, I haven’t watched it all, but it’s already stirring up some controversy (http://bit.ly/1lJ4lS7).  One of the plot lines:  fictional industrial company “Animoil” comes up with an animal feed made out of petroleum, called “Petro Pellets”.  Laughable as this idea sounds (maybe?), it’s not laughable to link the attitudes of Big Ag to those of Big Oil.  Entrenched companies in both industries seem to often think of innovation as “how to sell more oil” and “how to sell more corn seed”.

 

Prez in Corn Field3.  President Obama openly gets behind ag biotech:  Obama recently wrote a letter to the family of Dr. Norman Borlaug (the “Father of the Green Revolution”) to mark the the dedication of his statue in the US Capitol (http://bit.ly/1l7ihEA).    Obama hasn’t been very public on this issue, leading some to think that he might be in the anti-GMO camp.  But in this letter, he clearly states: ““I share [Dr. Borlaug’s] belief that investment in enhanced biotechnology is an essential component of the solution to some of our planet’s most pressing agricultural problems”.  I agree with the President on this issue, and it’s good to see him put out his opinion on it.

Naveen is TerViva’s CEO and hopes that one day the President visits a field of pongamia in Florida, where we are helping to combat citrus greening disease with a form of crop diversification.

Who’s afraid of the big bad data?

There’s been an explosion of news around big data over the last month but nothing much actually seems to have happened, perhaps its newsworthiness is the result of a growing realisation that it’s here to stay?

The fact that data is being collected, en masse and used to influence almost every aspect of your daily life, is nothing new.  The stark realisation just how some of this data has been collected in the past has created some stirs and caused the odd person to flee the country but still, for many, it’s old news, or just a validation point for a lot people who said “I told you so”.

For many, their credit score is something to be nurtured and tended in order for it to provide a lifestyle that we otherwise could not afford and we tend to welcome data collection that reflects well on our salary, ability to borrow and payback and generally shows us to be individuals worthy of inhabiting this planet of ours, so what’s good data and what’s bad data or is there no such thing as either?

In many ways we are on the verge of a new information era as can been seen by the changes of Internet2, currently we have the means to capture unheard of amounts of data relating to almost anything we wish, using it effectively however, is still proving tricky.  Google’s flu-tracking database has not had a good time of it lately, completely mis-calculating the ’11-’12 and ’12-’13 flu outbreaks, not great for what had become big data’s poster child.  Never has the old adage, rubbish in – rubbish out, been so true, much of the feeds for this area of development, known as “computational social science”, are from social networks such as twitter and facebook, which in themselves are proving to be unreliable platforms when it comes to reporting numbers.

However, in more closed systems is big data doing any better?  IBM lists hundreds of examples where big data analysis has yielded positive results, ranging from preventing athletes injuries to managing transport infrastructure, but these generally seem to be big data being applied to solve small problems.

googles brain

Googles brain

There has been a certain amount of bandwagoning in the agricultural sector after some big money was spent on big data companies by even bigger agricultural companies but big data is far from new in this sector.  The NSF funded iplant platform, was developed nearly a decade ago to help manage animal and plant life sciences data and is deeply engaged in Internet2 via universities and research hubs.

Modern farming techniques already harness huge amounts of data, helping to make decisions on how much fertiliser to use, levels of irrigation, when to harvest and methods of crop rotation.  Expensive machinery can now be monitored and pre-emptively serviced before costly breakdowns occur and with machine to machine communication, product usage and optimisation can be done in real time, saving money and potentially increasing profits.  Many people argue that big data is just a logical progression from the latest in a continuing stream of innovations that began with the mechanisation of agriculture in the early 1900s, followed by hybrid corn in the late 1920s.

Roberts Steam Tractor

Roberts Steam Tractor

With a predicted 47% growth in population by 2050, many people think that agriculture cannot serve the coming needs of the planet without the use of big data but does this throw up a potentially new conundrum for the sector?  Big data can help optimise the production levels of crops and also tell the a farmer the best time to harvest and go to market, based on the current market price for

Automated harvesting

Automated harvesting

their products, but who actually owns this potentially sensitive data and how private is it?  Could this mean the age of free market competition in agriculture is about to end?  With more and more information available on almost every acre of land in the US can a farmer keep this information private or indeed, should they, given the remit for big data to do more, with less?

You can read more at http://www.farmers-exchange.net/detailPage.aspx?articleID=13580

IBM’s success list can be found here (http://www-01.ibm.com/software/success/cssdb.nsf/solutionareaL2VW?OpenView&Count=30&RestrictToCategory=default_BigData).

Matt Willis, Director, International Markets.

Labels Aren’t Always What They Seem.

The old adage “you are what you eat” seems like a pretty innocuous and straight forward saying that can be interpreted to draw attention to the connection between what you consume and where it came from. With the recent uptick in “food consciousness,” such denotations as fair trade, hormone-free, grass-fed, cage-free, all-natural and of course, the Holy Grail of monikers, organic, continue to be ever more present and linked to our consumption habits. However, beyond the aforementioned denominations of food, there is a whole other realm of food labeling and sourcing that can be incredibly misinforming and deceitful.

The U.S. Govt.'s Perception of Where Champagne Comes From

The U.S. Govt.’s Perception of Where Champagne Comes From

Perhaps one of the biggest misunderstandings is due to appellation. Appellation refers to the authority of a specific geographic region to produce and market a product under very particular parameters. These guidelines include very specific methods, processes, and purity standards for said product to meet or exceed in order to be labeled as coming from that specific region. Perhaps the most well-known example of this applies to “Champagne.” Champagne is a wine growing region of France world famous for their very high quality production of sparkling white wines. The distinction of true champagnes only coming from Champagne was so important to the producers, that in 1891, The Treaty of Madrid was created to give France the legal right to create this distinction internationally (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Madrid_%281891%29). Even though Champagne is as an example, the treaty also covers such appellations for wines such as Chianti (Italy), Port (Portugal) and even cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan cheese from Parma, Italy). The treaty had 56 states sign on in agreement, but the U.S. was not one of them. This issue of appellation was of such importance that not only did the Treaty of Versailles (which officially ended World War I) ensure the dissolving of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and dismantling of German military and economic resources, the drafters of the treaty put in clauses to reinforce the condition of champagnes only coming from Champagne. Once again, the U.S. did not sign.
Today, the European Union has 600 geography-designated products, but the U.S. still lags behind in its accordance with the treaty. Back in 2003, the U.S. did sign the “Madrid Protocol”, which allows for a “trademark owner to seek registration in any of the countries that have joined the Madrid Protocol,” but each country is still allowed to “apply their own rules and laws to determine whether or not the mark may be protected in their jurisdiction” (http://www.uspto.gov/trademarks/law/madrid/). That being said, Congress in 2006 did prohibit American wine companies from putting “Champagne” on their labels unless they had approval to use the term before 2006 and that they also label the wine’s origin (e.g. California). While small steps, initiating such measures should only help if the tables are turned on American producers in case other countries were to start producing wines called “Napa” or “Sonoma” to take advantage of the notoriety of wines from those Californian vineyards.

Kobe Steak on Right Vs. USDA Prime Choice on Left

Kobe Steak on Right Vs. USDA Prime Choice on Left

Another misleading food item is Kobe beef. Kobe beef has a reputation for unparalleled marbling and flavor, but true Kobe beef is produced only in the Hyoyo region of Japan, and can fetch prices of $45/oz. once it reaches here to the U.S. Not only is it very expensive, but it is very limited and hard to find. Japan produces only 3,000-4,000 head of cattle that qualify as Kobe a year, and even then, only 5 and 17 head, respectively, have been imported into the U.S. in 2012 and 2013. Comparing these handful of Japanese cattle against the 29 million head of cattle produced annually in the U.S. really brings doubt into the prevalence of authentic Kobe beef being served at your local fine dining location even if they advertise that they do (http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryolmsted/2012/04/12/foods-biggest-scam-the-great-kobe-beef-lie/). A real cut of Kobe beef should come with a certificate (in Japanese) that traces it back to a cow with a unique 10 digit ID number and scannable QR code that can be accessed on the Kobe Beef Council’s website (http://www.kobe-niku.jp/englishtop.html). As consumers have become aware of this, many in the cattle and restaurant industry have switched to more ambiguous terms as “Kobe style”, “American Kobe”, “Waygu”, etc. in an attempt to be less dishonest with their dishonesty.
The initial intent of these laws serve as a means to protect and promote domestic production of consumer goods in the U.S., but it is still confusing, and I feel misleading, to uneducated consumers who buy “Parmesan” cheese from a dairy in Wisconsin or pay hundreds of dollars for a “Kobe” steak from a cow raised in Oklahoma.

More Appropriate Label For Olive Oil Bottles

More Appropriate Label For Olive Oil Bottles

Beyond deceptiveness of where food items imply they come from, there is an even more nefarious side to what a label says, and what it actually is. A perfect example of this is with olive oil. A recent University of California Davis study of 186 extra virgin olive oils tested in accordance with the International Olive Council’s standards revealed that 73% failed in meeting the standards, and some estimates have that 69% of all extra virgin olive oil in the U.S. is fake altogether (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/jan/04/olive-oil-real-thing). The reason for this isn’t quite clear, but there have been books and multiple investigative reports written that delve into the shady olive oil trade. The general thought about the olive oil industry and its apparent façade is that multiple countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, etc.) ship multiple types of oil (sunflower, canola, cottonseed, and soybean) to Naples, where it all gets mixed together at processing plants before getting slapped with “Extra Virgin Italian Olive Oil” and getting put on your local grocer’s shelf.
chart

Even potentially more disheartening situations occur in the fish market. Recent studies by universities and independent groups find that a large portion of fish served in restaurants and stores are not what they are said to be. Fish sampling via DNA analysis found that 1/3 of 1,215 fish samples taken across 674 retail sellers in 21 states were wrong for what species was advertised (http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryolmsted/2013/02/21/fake-fish-on-shelves-and-restaurant-tables-across-usa-new-study-says/). Some areas of the nation, including Southern California and Texas, had mislabeled fish for 50% of the samples. The most glaring example gleaned from these studies found that only 6%, or 7 out of 120, fish labeled red snapper actually were.

All of these aforementioned stories warrant the “buyer beware” mentality and use of commonsense, but at the same time, there should also hopefully be a certain level of accountability and trust that exists between seller and buyer. Not everyone has the time or money to analyze the DNA of their sushi rolls or have a lab run tests on olive oil for purity, so it can be hard. Perhaps, if anything, such occurrences should help us be reminded of our relative disconnect between what we eat, and where and how it comes to our dinner plate.

Peeling Back the Indian Onion Crisis

If you’ve ever eaten Indian food, you know that onions are an essential part of most dishes, which is why the skyrocketing price of onions in India—an increase of more than 300% in the past 12 months—is making front page news.

For consumers, prices have hit 85 rupees per kilogram and 100 rupees ($1.50-$1.75 per kg) in some retail markets. Local newspapers speculate about the growing number of onion heists (yes, onion heists) and about the potential political fallout in an election year. Everyone is angling to take short term advantage of the situation.

OB-YU171_igroup_G_20130905041646

To attract Indian customers, Groupon is offering deals selling onions at 9 rupees per kilogram and they are selling out in record time. Even the major political parties are getting in on the game, buying onions and selling them at a huge discount to attract voters in the upcoming elections.

By the numbers, India is the second largest producer of onions globally, (China is #1) and the country is usually a net exporter. India produces all three varieties of onion: red, yellow and white. Onions are available in both the winter and rainy seasons and are grown on more than 2.5 million acres (1M HA).

So what has happened in the past few years? Price increases are being driven primarily by shortages, trader manipulation and inefficient infrastructure. A Competitive Commission of India report points to significant market structure issues: “…the minimum role of [onion] farmers in price discovery due to low size of average farm holdings (1.15 to 1.3 acres)” is combined with an oligopoly in the commission driven trading and wholesaler markets. It doesn’t help that the demand for onions is inelastic (e.g. it is a necessary staple with no real substitute).

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The Commission makes some good suggestions, but its core recommendation is to encourage “entry of new commission agents and traders… to help in efficient price formation.” In my view, this simply adds more middlemen, which might create competition in the short-term amongst traders but does nothing to empower the small farmer. It is exactly this lack of power that has led to the market structure issues described above, and these can only be circumvented by reducing transaction costs in the system and allowing farmers to engage directly with grocery suppliers. While market price discovery is important to farmers, giving them collective bargaining power will be much more effective.

Combine these changes with higher productivity and you have a shot at creating a long-term solution. Consider this: India is the second largest producer of onions but it has one of the lowest yields per HA, at 14.21 tons according to a 2012 FAO report. The Republic of Korea has the highest onion productivity of 63.84 tons/HA in the world followed, by the United States (55.26 tons/HA). China produces 50% higher yields. According to the government’s Competitive Commission report, “reasons for low productivity in India include poor irrigation facilities, use of local variety seeds, small land holding and poor economic background of farmers, lack of use of improved method of cultivation, less use of chemical fertilizers and pesticide, higher post-harvest losses and absence of good scientific storage facilities.” Dear government:  addressing some of these challenges might be a better use of money than buying votes.

This past Sunday, many Indians celebrated the festival of Diwali, which marks the end of the harvest season in most of India. Families give thanks for the bounty of the year gone by and pray for a good harvest next year. This year, they are no doubt praying for lower onion prices too.

diwali

Sudhir Rani is the CFO of TerViva, Inc.

Are you fracking crazy?

The global debate on fracking continues to dominate much of the world’s energy press.  The US is currently benefitting from a boom in shale gas production which some commentators claim is one of the biggest reasons the American Eagle is still managing to dominate the Chinese Dragon.  In just a few years the US has gone from being a net importer to net exporter of gas.  This cheap liquefied gas is driving Brent crude prices down and breaking the US’s reliance on the OPEC countries output and price controls.  The US is currently opening up more than 10,000 new fracking wells each year and gas prices are three and half times lower than in the UK.

Fracking is far from new technology, Canada has been doing it since the 60’s and Germany since the mid 70’s.  France and Bulgaria have banned it, but the Netherlands and China are actively pursuing it.  China’s addressable reserves are claimed to be 50% higher than the current largest production centre, the US.

lng

Some large scale shipping companies have started to convert their fleets to gas engines

The debate in the UK is fierce with many doubters claiming that the sheer physical difference between the landscapes of the US and the UK mean that a revolution of this scale is simply not feasible.  Many of the suitable fracking sites will be in urban centres or near potential vulnerable areas such as rivers.  However, cheap, instant energy, is a hard argument to resist, indeed PM David Cameron has already gone from stating that renewables are the way forward for the UK’s energy requirements, to fracking being the new solution, in less than a year.

As usual, all is not clear, the endorsement in the UK reeks of biased corporate interest with many of the Governments advisors having strong links in the burgeoning fracking industry, Lord Browne, ex Chief Exec of BP and now chairman of Cuadrilla, one the largest operating fracking companies in the UK, being the most prominent.  Is it a coincidence that The Royal Academy of Engineering had Lord Browne as its president while producing the final report on shale gas extraction, which is used as the backdrop to justify the safety of fracking, by the UK government?

US Fracking

Fracking on the Pinedale Anticline formation in Pinedale, Wyoming, where there are serious water shortages being reported

However, the current US gas prices are a big incentive unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the UK’s prices will follow the same pattern, or that the trend in the US is even sustainable.  Indeed, some researchers claim that the US bubble is already bursting.  Michael McElroy, who writes for Harvard Magazine, states that: “the economic momentum of the shale-gas industry can be sustained for the long term only by decreasing production (ultimately causing prices to adjust—a process that may be under way…) or by increasing sales of its product”.  Veteran Petroleum Geologist, Arthur Berman, wrote in 2011: “Facts indicate that most wells are not commercial at current gas prices and require prices at least in the range of $8.00 to $9.00/mcf to break even on full-cycle prices, and $5.00 to $6.00/mcf on point-forward prices. Our price forecasts ($4.00-4.55/mcf average through 2012) are below $8.00/mcf for the next 18 months. It is, therefore, possible that some producers will be unable to maintain present drilling levels from cash flow, joint ventures, asset sales and stock offerings.”

Do low gas prices provide an opportunity to reduce Carbon emissions?  Most claims, that shale gas will significantly reduce US carbon emissions in the future, are not currently based on any solid facts but rather on a certain amount of wishful thinking. That’s because those claims assume natural gas is replacing coal only, rather than replacing some combination of coal, renewables, nuclear power, and energy efficiency — which is obviously what will happen in the real world.  A separate study released this week from the International Energy Agency found“low natural gas prices will hamper the U.S.’s incentive to continue spending on energy-efficiency projects.”

Stanfords_model

A new study, from Stanfords energy modelling forum, “Changing the Game? Emissions and Market Implications of New Natural Gas Supplies Report.” suggests that use of Shale gas will have little or no effect on the reduction of CO2.

Is the lure of cheap natural gas just too great to resist and should it be pursued at the cost of other more sustainable technologies?  Is this the start of a sustainable movement towards better use of our natural resources or simply another boom and bust gold-rush to be exploited?

Matt Willis is Terviva’s Director, International Markets.

$hake it till you make it

Author: Adam Hanbury-Brown

It’s the busiest time of year in California’s central valley where nut tree growers are working hard to harvest millions of pounds of nuts from their orchards. Given Terviva’s current interest in mechanical harvesting for pongamia, we have been paying close attention to the growers’ activities on our doorstep.

California produces approximately 2 billion pounds of almonds per year, and at $2 per pound that represents 4 billion in revenue. Given how much money is at stake, it is no wonder that growers take their harvest very seriously. Paramount Farms alone is forecasting 550 million pounds of pistachios this year, and when they’re selling at $2.20 per pound even a small percentage of yield left behind could result in millions of lost revenue.

As a nut tree farmer like Paramount Farms, your revenue is not simply contingent upon what your trees produce; rather, you get paid for what makes it out of your orchard in a marketable state. Therefore, one of the most critical elements of a profitable season is a successful harvest. An orchard overflowing with nuts is useless unless there is a cost effective and efficient way to get your nuts off the trees and safely on their way to the processing facility. Each tree crop has its own biological idiosyncrasies that the grower must contend with when developing the optimal harvest strategy. For the most well developed tree crops such as almonds, pistachios, and walnuts, these strategies have become remarkably sophisticated. Left is an example of a tree shaker. green-pistachio

9_26_2013 142 - resize

A successful tree crop harvesting strategy requires the harmonious marriage of machinery and biology. For example, as anyone who has ever eaten a pistachio knows, every pistachio has a slit in its side. The slit slowly starts to open as the nut matures on the tree. Although a properly split pistachio can make things easier for the consumer when trying to take the shell off, it causes a conundrum for the grower. If a pistachio with an open slit hits the orchard floor, it has potentially become irreversibly contaminated. Removing dirt and the chance of harmful bacteria from inside the slit of a pistachio is not an economically viable option so every nut that hits the ground is lost revenue. Therefore, pistachio growers use an ingenious machine that shakes the trees, catches the falling pods, conveys them into crates (or a bulk carrying device), and separates out leaves- all in the same machine! Above (left) is a picture of one such machine in operation.

Similar machines are also used by stone fruit growers. But what about nuts that fell to the floor before your harvester got there? What about nuts that might still be immature and on the tree? In pistachios they can help alleviate those problems by doing an earlier pass and then a later pass a few weeks later in the harvest season.  For other species, there are issues that make shaking onto catchframes totally non viable.9_26_2013 159Coe_Tree_Shaker

For example, walnuts growers can’t use catch frames for two reasons 1) a walnut tree is much bigger and 2) walnuts have the unfortunately phenological attribute of dropping a not insignificant portion of their nuts before the bulk of them are ready. This is what growers refer to as windfall, and you can bet that they want to sell it. Therefore, when it comes time to shake the trees (using machinery such as that shown on the left), they let the nuts remaining in the crown to fall onto the ground to join their early falling counterparts. Due to the fact that the edible parts of a walnut are completely enclosed in shell, it is not a health hazard to let the nuts fall to the ground. Once the nuts are on the ground, they are swept and blown into windrows (shown on the right), and then picked up by a large harvesting machine. Clearly there are more steps, and more pieces of equipment involved in this harvesting strategy, but the idiosyncrasies of the tree’s biology dictates that this is the most economically effective means of getting the product to market.

At Terviva we are paying close attention to the how growers are matching their nut crops to specific harvesting strategies. This will help us find the best possible solution for our own tree- pongamia. Even though it is early days for the large scale commercialization of pongamia, it is clear that we will need an efficient mechanical harvesting process in order to maximize profits to the grower. Preliminary conversations with harvesting experts indicate that equipment that is already available should work well with pongamia. Making fine tune adjustments will come as the pongamia industry grows. For now, we are looking to our doorstep in California’s central valley to learn from some of the most sophisticated nut growers in the world. This invaluable information is shaping the way we think about genetic selections, plantation layout, and orchard management.

Adam Hanbury-Brown is a Research Associate at Terviva

Island Independence Part II: US Military Impact

I recently had the good fortune to attend the Asia Pacific Clean Energy Summit and Expo in Honolulu. Listening to the innovative presentations, and interacting with the bright and enthusiastic proponents of clean energy inevitably led me to reflect on Island Independence, about which I previously blogged. Looking back at that blog post, I caught an egregious error: there was no mention of the key role that the US Military plays in supporting the companies and academic researchers working to build this emerging industry.

In my previous blog post, I outlined some of the challenges facing island economies from an energy standpoint, using Hawaii as a case study. The state of Hawaii must import nearly all of the energy needed to run its society, mainly in the form of petroleum. This situation presents an untenable series of consequences for the state, should the supply of petroleum be interrupted for any reason. As a result, the state is actively working to support an evolving and growing renewable energy industry, both through legislation and operations like the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative.

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The US Military is faced with a suite of challenges that parallel those confronting the Hawaii state government. Case in point: the US Department of Defense consumed ~5 billion gallons of oil in 2012 at a cost of $20 billion. For every price increase of $10/barrel for oil, the military must pay an additional $1.3 billion per year. This sensitivity to price increases is a threat to the operational readiness of a military already under severe pressure as a result of sequestration and other budget cuts.

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Of course, the military is not going to take the threat of fuel constraints lying down. In preparation for possible scenarios where fuel supplies become limited, the military is taking action. The US Navy successfully tested the use of biofuels for the surface ships and aircraft of the Great Green Fleet during RIMPAC exercises in 2012.To increase domestic supplies of biofuel, the military is sponsoring actively supporting organizations with the production of biofuel crops. One example of this is the Biofuel Crop Demonstration project in Hawaii, which has the goal of fostering an expansion of the production of oilseed crops, which can be readily converted into biodiesel. Another, broader example of support for this emerging industry lies in the support provided by the DoD and the Navy for the PICHTR Energy Excelerator, which supplies grants and a support services for private companies looking to bring innovative methods of energy conservation and renewable energy production to market; these innovations could then be employed by the military in its efforts to reduce dependence on petroleum imports.

IMG_5246TerViva is actively engaging in this renewable energy ecosystem, and is in the preparing to establish our first commercial-scale orchard of pongamia trees in Hawaii. Pongamia trees are native to Polynesia, non-GMO, and can be grown on marginal land unsuitable for conventional agricultural crops. The renewable oil produced from the seeds of the pongamia tree will be converted to biodiesel in Hawaii, directly reducing the need for petroleum imports. We look forward to playing our part in supplying locally produced fuel for both the military, and the people of Hawaii.

Shining a light on Guar

I read an amazing stat this weekend: Farmers in the Indian state of Rajasthan are growing 11 million acres (4.5M HA) of guar this year! That’s a pretty staggering figure considering that Texas grows just 6M acres of wheat—which is considered a large-scale commercial crop (and Texas is twice the size of Rajasthan). As it turns out, guar was India’s largest agricultural export to the U.S. in 2011, according to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.

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Guar has been grown in Asia for centuries. Guar beans are eaten by people and animals (cattle primarily). In the US, refined guar gum is used for various food purposes including as a stiffener in soft ice cream, a stabilizer for cheeses and instant puddings. However, it remained a niche crop until the boom in natural gas drilling tripled demand for the crop. In hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) guar gum powder helps thicken the water that is pumped into the ground to shatter the rocks, releasing oil and natural gas deposits. Demand increased, prices went up and farmers followed by planting the crop in large numbers.

However, there are less obvious and more significant reasons for the guar explosion.

  1. It’s easy to grow: Guar is less labor-intensive and needs less fertilizer than other cash crops like cotton or lentils. Importantly, farmers in Rajasthan have been growing guar for a long time and knew best practices to generate good yield.
  2. It has multiple benefits: As a legume that fixes nitrogen, guar has the added benefit of being an excellent soil-improving rotation crop for cotton, sorghum and other vegetable crops.
  3. It’s easy to process: Splitting and dehulling guar beans is a relative inexpensive and straightforward process.  There isn’t an expensive biorefining process that takes money out of the farmer’s pocket.
  4. There are large and growing downstream markets: With natural gas and food markets needing guar, farmers feel comfortable that their hard work will result in a profitable venture.

In other words, it is not just demand and price that matter, but also a robust ecosystem that incentivizes farmers to grow the crop. In an earlier post I discussed how TerViva’s first commercial crop, pongamia pinnata, has similar dynamics. Read more about it here (it just might be the next 10 million acre crop!).

Sudhir Rani is TerViva’s CFO. 

ps. Check out the front cover of Time magazine which talks about the pressing bee problem which we discussed in a previous blog post