Market Driven Restoration: Stepping Beyond Sustainability

by Drew Wilkinson, TerViva Propagation Associate

As a farmer, I’m naturally drawn to the diverse array of agriculture solutions that hold potential for making significant strides towards a carbon neutral future. While combing through the spring 2017 issue of Permaculture North America Magazine, I came across an interview that ignited my attention. It was on David Karr, the co-founder of Guayaki Yerba Mate, and featured a unique business model I knew little about, but came to greatly admire. It is called market driven restoration. Karr explains one of their main missions is to “steward and restore 200,000 acres of South American Atlantic Rainforest and create over 1,000 living wage jobs by 2020.”

With their roots planted deep in the soil, I was excited to learn about this company striving to go beyond sustainability. The more I read, the more I reflected on the intricate relationships between consumers, businesses, agroforestry, community, environment, and the resulting impacts on global climate change.

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Rainforest in Paraguay – Photo Credit: Cyrus Sutton

Guayaki specializes in fair trade organically grown yerba mate, an herbal tea made from the leaves and stems of the holly tree, Ilex paraguariensis found in the South American Atlantic Rainforest. Yerba mate has been a long standing cultural drink in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. It’s a healthy alternative to coffee and according to the Guayaki website it includes 24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids, a surplus of antioxidants, and naturally occurring caffeine all which provide a smooth energetic lift. Guayaki sells a variety of yerba mate products ranging from canned drinks to loose leaf.

There are many sustainable components of Guayaki’s business model that set them apart from the crowd. They have a very thought out supply chain that incorporates biodiesel powered cargo vehicles, biodegradable packaging, and chemical free facilities to name a few. They are a certified B Corp, which is a rigorous certification process completed by B Lab, a non-profit that verifies companies meet standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. The most impactful part of Guayaki’s supply chain lies within their approach to producing forest grown yerba mate and their ability to sequester 573g of carbon for every 454g of yerba mate produced.

According to Project Drawdown, which describes the top 100 ways to reverse global climate change, Paul Hawken and his team of international scientists and policy makers have ranked the reforestation and preservation of tropical forests as #5 on the list of 100 solutions. Guayaki has incorporated reforestation as a standard for cultivation of yerba mate. The highest quality yerba mate grows beneath the shade canopy of taller hardwoods. As Guayaki expands their agriculture production, they are replanting hardwood trees along with fruit trees to create the perfect environment to grow yerba mate, all the while restoring biodiversity.

A sustainable hand harvesting approach is used to collect yerba mate. Yerba mate produces more income per acre than cattle or agricultural products such as corn, soy, or wheat. Guayaki is able to provide a stable annual living wage for these small farmers, which allows them the ability to plan and make long term decisions about the health of the land and their people, while adding a “market driven” incentive to restore and protect the forest.

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Hand harvested yerba mate – Photo courtesy of Guayaki

Guayaki achieves this by building relationships and working with native forest communities. They help construct tree nurseries, organize grower conferences, and provide safe and just working conditions. The revenue generated from selling yerba mate in North America cycles back to these indigenous communities and helps fund the rainforest restoration. This steers the local economy in a regenerative ideology away from the clear cutting mentality for lumber, cattle grazing, and monocrop agriculture that has eradicated 90% of the South Atlantic Rainforest.

Project Drawdown summarizes that when these tropical forests are restored, “trees, soil, leaf litter, and other vegetation absorb and hold carbon. As flora and fauna return and interactions between organisms and species revive, the forest regains its multidimensional roles: supporting the water cycle, conserving soil, protecting habitat and pollinators, providing food, medicine, and fiber, and giving people places to live, adventure, and worship.”

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Indigeneous workers – Photo courtesy of Guayaki

At the heart of Guayaki’s business model is the principle of internalizing all the true costs. This goes outside the norm of traditional business structures with a narrow minded focus on profit. As companies strive to maximize profits, negative externalities result and are pushed to the side or slid under the rug and out of view from the public eye. As a result, companies end up not paying the full cost of extraction of materials, production, distribution, and disposal. These costs are often felt negatively by 3rd parties in the form of land degradation, excess carbon emissions, toxic waste, and polluted waterways.

Karr summarizes that this ‘short term thinking’ paradigm shifts the true costs of conventional business to future generations. Guayaki’s market driven restoration model serves as an exemplary platform for other companies to strive for. Karr states “We’re passionate about people voting with their dollars. We believe business can drive environmental and social change.”

So, where do we go from here? I encourage you to think about your next purchase as a consumer. Try to incorporate a broader whole systems thinking approach to the product you are purchasing. Instead of just laser beaming your focus on what the product will do for you and the associated lowest price mentality, think about the external costs that may or may not be reflected in the price tag.

While the effects of global climate change are felt across the world, environmentally conscious consumers can help shape more eco-minded businesses, and together we have the potential to play a huge role in shaping a carbon neutral future.

More references:

Toward a Low-Carbon Transportation Future: Part 2

By Tomas Endicott, Processing & Markets Manager

Last week I wrote about carbon intensity and how the GREET model, standardized by the U.S. Department of Energy, quantifies the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is generated when producing different transportation fuels—both fossil fuels and renewable fuels.

Today, let’s talk about factors that contribute to producing low-carbon transportation fuels.

Lifecycle carbon tracks CO2 emissions from feedstock production to combustion.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are tracked on a lifecycle basis. That is, CO2 is generated at many points in a fuel production pathway: feedstock acquisition, processing, refining, transport. The more carbon efficient each step in a particular fuel production pathway, the lower the carbon intensity of the final fuel. For processing fossil fuels or biofuels, reducing carbon emissions may include using renewable sources of heat and electricity that generate less CO2, such as biogas, wind power and solar power. Acquiring feedstock to produce transportation fuels presents many different pathways, each unique in the lifecycle CO2 emissions it generates.

All feedstocks are not created (carbon) equal.

Fossil fuel feedstocks—crude oil or natural gas—are fairly carbon-consistent no matter what their origin. They all are extracted in enormous volumes from underground. Biofuel feedstocks are incredibly diverse. There are many more variables that contribute to carbon intensity throughout every step of any particular biofuel feedstock production process.

All plants are self-sufficient. Some more than others.

Most plants are photosynthetic. They create hydrocarbons in the form of carbohydrates (i.e starch, sugar, wood) and/or fats (oils) using carbon dioxide (CO2), nutrients, sunlight and water. The plants use these carbohydrates and fats for their own energy, and they “invest” them into their seeds for the next generation. These carbohydrates and fats also are the source of the energy we harvest and convert into biofuels.

All plants also need some amount of nitrogen to grow and thrive. Legumes, like soybeans, alfalfa seed and pongamia seed, are special in that they harness their own nitrogen—the backbone for proteins—through symbiosis with bacteria that live on their roots. These rhizobium bacteria fix elemental nitrogen from the atmosphere and supply it to the plant in a form the plant can use.

Less inputs equals lower carbon intensity.

Non-leguminous plants must derive nitrogen from compounds in the soil. In a natural environment, that source of nitrogen may be composted organic matter or nitrogen compounds deposited in the soil through earthworm activity. Because modern, improved agricultural crops produce such high yields, they require large quantities of commercial fertilizer. Commercial nitrogen fertilizer is synthesized from natural gas, and its production requires significant energy input. As a result, producing commercial nitrogen fertilizer generates carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and those emissions are attributed to the lifecycle carbon of the crops that use the nitrogen fertilizer.

Nitrogen is expensive, both in the energy consumed to manufacture and transport it and in the dollars farmers must expend to apply it to their fields. Because nitrogen fertilizers must be applied to non-leguminous crops like corn and canola, producing biofuels from these non-nitrogen-fixing crops is more carbon intensive than producing biofuels from legumes.

By-products provide additional value.

Oilseed crops, like soybeans, canola and pongamia, can provide oil as feedstock for renewable fuels. They also provide another by-product: high-protein meal, which has significant value as livestock feed and as organic fertilizer.

Pongamia seeds are removed from their shells before being processed. These shells are half the weight of the harvested pongamia pods, and they can provide significant biomass to supply renewable, low-carbon heat and power to the pongamia biofuel processing pathway.

Greater yield per acre equals lower carbon intensity.

Because carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated while producing crops are spread across the total yield of a particular crop, crops that produce higher yields per acre can be more carbon-efficient. Every trip across a field to till, seed, fertilize, spray or harvest increases CO2 emissions and increases the carbon intensity for a particular crop. Crops with higher yields spread their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions over larger production.

Growing conditions also affect yield. Logically, crops grown in tropical and sub-tropical environments experience more sunshine and heat, and they have longer growing seasons, so they produce larger yields per acre.

Annual or perennial makes a difference.

Annual crops—those that must be planted every year—require some amount of tillage or application of broad spectrum herbicides (i.e Round-Up) to prepare the seedbed and to minimize weed competition with the cultivated crop. Tillage alone can increase carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from agricultural fields simply by exposing organic matter in the soil to oxygen, thereby, allowing it to be decomposed aerobically, which generates CO2.
Simply tilling the ground increases carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from agricultural fields. Photo by Kai Oberhäuser on Unsplash

Perennial crops are established once and produce for many years. They do not require annual tillage. For large trees like pongamia, annual maintenance is low when the tree canopy prevents sunlight from penetrating to the ground, so nothing can grow there.

Although they require a few years to produce their first crop, yields for perennial crops tend to be much higher per acre than yields for annual crops. Whereas the average yield for soybeans in the U.S. is about 2,700 pounds per acre, perennial pongamia trees can produce more than 10,000 pounds of seeds per acre per year at eight years of age and beyond. The average lifespan of a pongamia tree is at least 25 to 30 years.

How many gallons of oils per acre?

For the purpose of biodiesel or bio-jet fuel production, seeds of different crops have different concentrations of oil—their percentage of oil by weight. Whereas soybeans contain only 16%-18% oil by weight, canola seeds contains more than 40% oil by weight and pongamia seeds contain 30% to 40% oil by weight. Considering the combination of per acre yields and the oil concentration in the seeds of a particular crop determines the amount of biodiesel or bio-jet fuel that can be produced by a given cultivated area. Here is a chart demonstrating the amount of oil per acre produced by different oilseed crops.

More yield per acre equals greater carbon efficiency.

Whereas soybeans produce only 55 to 60 gallons of oil per acre annually and canola produces about 120 gallons of oil per acre annually, mature pongamia trees can produce more than 450 gallons of oil per acre every year.

The CO2 generated to harvest an acre of soybeans or to harvest an acre of pongamia seeds are similar. Mature pongamia trees, however, yield almost four times more seed per acre than soybeans, and they yield about eight times the oil for every acre harvested. Now that’s efficiency!

Maximizing transportation efficiency minimizes CO2 emissions.

To achieve maximum carbon efficiency, transportation fuels need to be produced and moved in large volumes. It is most carbon-efficient to move fuels by pipeline, although pipelines are expensive to build and they have other environmental considerations. Moving a million gallons of fuel on a single ocean-going barge is ten times more efficient than hauling the same volume of fuel the same distance in hundreds of tanker truck loads. The efficiency of moving fuel in 25,000-gallon rail cars lies somewhere between the efficiency achieved by barges and the efficiency attributed to tanker trucks. Renewable fuels, like fossil-based fuels, must be produced on a large scale to achieve transportation efficiency.

Going further on a gallon of fuel reduces CO2 emissions too.

The most efficient gallon of fuel is the one that you never use. Producing low-carbon fuels at scale is only half the battle. Reducing consumption of all transportation fuels is the best carbon-reduction strategy for the transportation sector. Electric cars, hybrids and clean diesel technology are all available today, and all are improving with each new model year. In 2012, President Obama established new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards which will raise the average fuel efficiency for all new cars and trucks in the U.S. to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Impressive! Currently, the CAFE standard is 35.5 miles per gallon.

Carbon-efficient, sustainable biofuel feedstock, high-protein livestock feed and organic fertilizer from the perennial pongamia tree.

The pongamia tree can provide a unique and substantial contribution to the United States’ sustainable, low-carbon biofuel future. It is a nitrogen-fixing, subtropical tree that is native to India, Indonesia and Australia, and it grows well in Florida and in Hawaii. It is both drought resistant and accustomed to Monsoonal rains (TerViva’s pongamia orchards in Florida held their own against the wind, rain and flooding from Hurricane Irma last week). Pongamia can grow on sandy soils, and it is resistant to moderate salinity. It is a perennial tree that is highly productive for both non-edible oil as a feedstock for biofuels and for protein-rich meal for livestock feed and fertilizer.

Imagine our low-carbon transportation future!

TerViva is rolling out pongamia orchards on abandoned citrus land in Florida and on land that formerly grew sugarcane in Hawaii. Imagine a future where 100,000 acres of pongamia trees produce 50 million gallons of biofuel and 340,000 tons of high-protein meal each year. Imagine biomass heat and power produced from a half-million tons of pongamia shells harvested annually. Imagine bio-char from gasified pongamia shells sequestering carbon in the soil for thousands of years—steadily reversing the CO2 increase in the earth’s atmosphere.

Imagine millions of acres of pongamia orchards spread across the sub-tropical areas of Asia, Africa, Mexico and South America providing billions of gallons of biofuel every year. Imagine fuel efficient vehicles that go twice as far on a gallon of fuel so that we consume half the transportation fuel that we do today. With biofuels, electric vehicles and other technologies in the mix, renewable fuels could make up 50% of the total transportation fuel consumption in the U.S. within twenty years.

This is not a pipedream. It is absolutely possible. It is a matter of aspiration, effort and will.

Let’s do it!

Toward a Low-Carbon Transportation Future: Part I

by Tomas Endicott, TerViva Processing & Markets Manager


It’s the 21st century. We have amazing technology! Certainly we can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transportation sector in the U.S., but how? We’re doing it! Did you know that already we have good systems for tracking and measuring our progress?

Fossil fuels are the mainstay for transportation energy in the U.S., and there is no question that they power our economy, but renewable fuels like ethanol, biodiesel and renewable natural gas are also making significant contributions. In the U.S., biofuels are derived from primarily corn and soybeans, as their production systems are well-established and their production volumes are extremely large. But just wait! In time, perennial crops like seeds from pongamia trees will contribute even lower-carbon fuels to the transportation mix.

Carbon efficiency is cool. Carbon intensity is not.

Carbon efficiency is cool because it reduces greenhouse gases and mitigates climate change. Hydrocarbon-based fuels have carbon embedded in their molecular structures, but they also generate carbon emissions in the form of the heat, power and transportation that are consumed to produce them and to get them to market. The less carbon emissions generated to produce a particular fuel, the more carbon efficient it is. In comparison, fuels that generate larger carbon emissions have a higher carbon intensity (CI). Not surprisingly, fuels that are more carbon efficient are generally more energy efficient as well. The less energy we consume as a society, the less greenhouse gases we generate.

We consume a lot of transportation fuel in the U.S. and that generates a lot of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In the U.S., the transportation sector generates about 27% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually—second only to electricity generation, which accounts for 29% of GHG emissions. GHG emissions from transportation are the result of burning liquid fuels—primarily gasoline and diesel fuel.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2016 U.S. drivers consumed about 143 billion gallons of finished motor gasoline (that’s a BILLION with a “B”), a daily average of about 392 million gallons. U.S. drivers consumed about 44 billion gallons of diesel fuel in 2016, a daily average of about 122 million gallons.

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Plants use sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce biofuels for transportation

Did you know that renewable fuels are required by law?

In the U.S., the federal government requires fuel companies to blend a minimum volume of renewable fuels, like ethanol and biodiesel, into the total fuel volume consumed every year. This program, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), began in 2005 with the passage of the Energy Policy Act. Congress expanded the law in 2007 with the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). How much renewable fuel does the RFS require? More than 19 billion gallons of renewable fuel, primarily ethanol and biodiesel, in 2017! Of the 188 billion gallons of total transportation fuel Americans will consume this year, renewable fuel will make up a little more than 10%. In other words, renewable fuels could supply the U.S. transportation fuel markets for almost 38 days. Not bad really, but we can do even better!

All fuels are not created (carbon) equal.

All liquid fuels -whether bio-based or fossil-based- are composed of hydrocarbons: long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms bonded together in a variety of ways. All of these molecular bonds contain energy that is released when the bonds are broken -when the fuel is burned. The result: the fuels are converted into energy and their molecules are converted into primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H20).

This is where biofuels and fossil fuels are different. Fossil fuels mine ancient hydrocarbons from beneath the earth’s surface and add new carbon to the atmosphere, but biofuels recycle the same contemporary carbon in the atmosphere on an annual basis. The CO2 released by burning biofuels today is re-captured by living plants to create more biofuel during the next harvest cycle—a net zero effect for the carbon embedded in the biofuel.

Carbon attributed to different fuels includes more than just embedded carbon, though. To create fossil fuels requires exploration, extraction, refining and transport -all of which generate carbon emissions. To create biofuels from recycled materials (i.e. food waste, used cooking oil) requires collection, refining and transport. To create biofuels from agricultural crops requires cultivation, fertilization, harvesting, processing, refining and transport.

Accounting for carbon is the first step.

As scientists and policymakers acknowledge the effects of increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the need to reduce them, they create systems for measuring the GHG emissions generated by different activities. Carbon accounting tracks the amount of carbon emissions required to produce a particular fuel.

The federal RFS tracks the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. Carbon intensity is the measure of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions attributed to all activities required to produce a transportation fuel, expressed in grams of carbon dioxide equivalents per megajoule of energy or gCO2e/MJ. Wow! That’s a mouthful, but what it means, simply, is that making different transportation fuels generates different amounts of carbon emissions. The lower the carbon emissions generated to produce any particular transportation fuel, the lower the carbon intensity.

Who accounts for GHG emissions in transportation fuels?  How do they make sure that comparing all fuels is comparing apples to apples?

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory developed the GREET model.  The Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) model is a “well to wheel” or “farm to wheel” life-cycle model that is used to establish a specific carbon intensity (CI) value for every type of fossil fuel and renewable fuel that is consumed in the U.S. transportation sector. A fuel pathway describes the feedstock and the process for how each fuel is made, so each fuel pathway has a unique CI value.

This chart shows the carbon intensity (CI) values for different renewable fuels compared with gasoline and diesel fuel. Gasoline has a CI value of 95.86, whereas the CI for ethanol ranges from 77.44 to 120.99 -depending on where the ethanol is made and what type of energy is used for the heat and power required in the production process. Ethanol from Brazilian sugarcane has a CI value of 73.4. Petroleum diesel has a CI value of 94.71, whereas the CI for soy-based biodiesel is 83.85. Biodiesel from recycled cooking oil has a CI value of 11.76 or 15.84. Wow! That’s a reduction. Almost 90%!

What specific factors contribute to higher or lower carbon intensity (CI) values of transportation fuels?

Different feedstocks -both bio-based and fossil-based- and different fuel production pathways generate different amount of CO2 emissions.  What are the factors that affect the carbon intensities for different feedstocks and for different fuel production pathways?

Stay tuned.  We will pick it up there next week.

We Can Reverse Climate Change

by Lila Taheraly

After learning about Project Drawdown last year, I could breathe a sigh of relief. I could finally envision an appealing goal for the world: reversing climate change. Not mitigating it, adapting to it, or solely reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but actually reversing climate change.

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming is a book which gathers 100 solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon. It ranks them based on their potential carbon impacts in the next 30 years, and studies their implementation costs compared to business as usual (using fossil fuel oil, gas and coal). Published in June 2017, the book describes a possible and hopeful future.

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PC: Paul Morris on

What is Drawdown? Drawdown represents the moment when greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere begin to decline. Combined, all these proposed solutions could eliminate up to one trillion of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2050 — enough to prevent the climate tipping point of 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial level. These solutions would also cost less and create more jobs than business as usual.

Below are the top 10 solutions in terms of carbon impact and their potential carbon savings by 2050:

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PC: Karsten Würth on

  1. Refrigerant Management – 89.74 GT CO2* eq.
  2. Onshore Wind Turbines – 84.60 GT CO2 eq.
  3. Reduced Food Waste – 70.53 GT CO2 eq.
  4. Plant-Rich Diet – 66.11 GT CO2 eq.
  5. Tropical Forests – 61.23 GT CO2 eq.
  6. Educated Girls – 59.60 GT CO2 eq.
  7. Family Planning- 59.60 GT CO2 eq.
  8. Solar Farms – 36.90 GT CO2 eq.
  9. Silvopasture – 31.19 GT CO2 eq.
  10. Rooftop Solar – 24.60 GT CO2 eq.

Beyond these 10 solutions, the real power of this book lies in the abundance of solutions and the measurement of their potential impact. These technologies all exist today, and some are scaling up right now. In the USA, in 2016, solar power employed more people than electricity generation through coal, gas and oil combined.

To reflect on this profusion of solutions, here is my selection of favorites through an award competition.

The unexpected: Educating Girls, ranked 6th.

Discovering “Educating Girls” as the 6th solution to mitigate Climate Change was fascinating! After the surprise, the explanation made perfect sense. Educated girls tend among others to have fewer and healthier children, to have higher wages and contribute more to the economic growth. In developing countries, educated women also grow more productive agricultural plots, and their families are better nourished. Today, there are still barriers preventing 62 million girls from their education rights.

The low-key: walkable cities, ranked 54th.

Walkable cities or neighborhoods favor walking over driving (thus reduce CO2 emissions but also improve health). In a neighborhood, walkability can include density of homes, offices, and stores; practicability of sidewalks, walkways and pedestrian crossings; and accessibility to public transportation. Today, demand for walkable cities far exceeds the supply. You can check the walkability of any location via applications like this one.

The never-heard of: temperate forests, ranked 12th.

We hear so much about the tropical forest degradation, than we tend to forget its sibling: the temperate forest. A quarter of the world’s forest lies in temperate zone, either deciduous or evergreen. 99% of it has been altered throughout history with timber, conversion to agriculture or urban development. This solution is to restore and protect temperate-forests on degraded land. Young temperate forests sequester carbon in both soil and biomass at very fast rates.


The most picturesque: in-stream hydro, ranked 48th.

While hydropower reminds us at huge dams, reservoirs, and big environmental impacts, in-stream hydro is defined as less than 10 mega watts hydropower technologies. They are small scale in-stream turbines. The advantage of small scale is that turbines can be designed to have a minimal impact on the environment and become accessible in remote territories like Alaska or Nepal, unlocking great potential.

The most related to our business: perennial biomass, ranked 51st.

Compared to annual crops like corn, perennial biomass grows for many years. In a climate perspective, it makes a fundamental difference. Perennial biomass throughout their lifetime requires fewer energy inputs, and prevents soil erosion, produces stable yields, supports pollinators and biodiversity. As an example, Pongamia, an oilseed producing tree, is a legume and fixes nitrogen naturally.  Pongamia also grows deep roots thereby reducing water needs and increasing the carbon sequestration.

My  favorite coming attraction: living buildings

Besides 80 solutions against climate change, Project Drawdown also introduces 20 “coming attractions”. One of them is “Living Buildings”. Living buildings answer the question: How do you design and make a building so that every action and outcome improves the world? For example, Living buildings could grow food, use rainwater and protect habitat. The Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach, VA, completed in 2014 produces all of its drinking water from rainfall, uses 90% less water than a commercial building of the same size, and generates 83% more energy than it consumes.

Curious and inspired by Project Drawdown? You can visit their website, read the book, and come back to tell me about your favorite solutions.





*Note: 1 gigaton of CO2 (GT) = 1,000,000,000 tons of CO2.

At ambient temperature, one ton of CO2 holds on in 559 cubic meters (19,775 cubic feet), i.e. in an 8.25 m high cube (27 ft).




From Inside the Pipeline: Energy & Ag in Hawaii

By Marie O’Grady, Elemental Excelerator Communications Coordinator

Exhaust poured from the truck as it came to a grinding halt at the base of a conveyor belt, delivering Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company’s last cane harvest, symbolizing the end of an era in Hawaii. As happened in Puerto Rico and Trinidad & Tobago, growing sugar in Hawaii was no longer profitable.

In early 2016, Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), the fourth largest land owner in Hawaii, announced the close of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S), the state’s last large-scale sugar plantation. Over the years, HC&S had faced controversies around water, pesticides, and field burning, and in 2015, the company incurred a $30 million operating loss.

Alexander & Baldwin announced in early 2016 that all 36,000 acres of former HC&S land would be transitioned to diversified agriculture, such as energy crops, agroforestry, livestock, diversified food crops, and orchard crops. Last month, A&B announced a new partnership with TerViva to cultivate pongamia on 250 acres of former plantation land.

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We believe pongamia can help diversify agriculture production on Maui while also potentially addressing our community’s need for renewable fuels. Our former sugar lands provide a great opportunity to grow more energy crops locally as they are ideally suited for large scale cultivation and mechanical harvesting.” – A&B President & CEO, Chris Benjamin

TerViva was the first ag company to join Elemental Excelerator’s portfolio in 2014. As part of their demonstration project, they are growing more than 200 acres of pongamia trees on Oahu and Maui. The oil extracted from pongamia seeds is well suited for industrial applications such as biopesticides, lubricants, chemicals, and fuels – and the residual seed cake shows promise as a feed supplement for beef cattle. Compared to soy, pongamia requires only 25 percent of the chemical and water inputs. One acre of pongamia produces 10 times more oil and 3 times more protein rich seed cake than one acre of soybeans.

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This project is not only transformational for TerViva (it’s their first orchard in the region), but it’s also transformational for Hawaii.

  • Local farmers and agribusinesses are a critical source of economic stability for rural economies, through jobs and direct and indirect spending. TerViva is steadily growing its Hawaii-based team, and the company supports two local nurseries and a handful of contractors.
  • Pongamia is able to grow on marginal agricultural land that is not suitable for other crops. This is ideal for a place like Hawaii where the soil, which once provided resources for thousands of acres of sugarcane and pineapple, has been largely stripped of key nutrients.
  • Biofuel and biomass play a role in Hawaii’s transformation to clean energy, providing firm, dispatchable power. Hawaiian Electric’s December 2016 Power Supply Improvement Plan outlines how the utility plans to utilize biofuels in power plants to replace oil as a fuel source.

There is a growing trend in the number of new agtech companies mature enough for a demonstration project, as evidenced in Elemental Excelerator’s pipeline of applicants:

  • Since 2014, EEx had added four other agriculture startups to the portfolio of 53 startups. These companies are working to increase local beef production, increase crop yields, and help small farmers use data to reduce water usage.
  • Over the last few years, EEx has also seen a dramatic increase in applications from ag startups. This year, 10 percent of the companies who took the first step to apply were agriculture-related. That’s twice as many as last year!

After Monsanto acquired the Climate Corporation in 2013, ag tech gained significant attention. In 2014 alone, investments in ag tech grew 170%. Most innovation was focused in the areas of biotechnology and seed genetics. Today, subsectors include bioenergy, sustainable protein, decision support tech, soil & crop tech, advanced imaging & data analytics, and many others. Investment and innovation are no longer limited to players in the agriculture sector. Moreover, as concern grows over droughts, weather fluctuations, the cost of farm labor, and competition with international markets, key players such as farmers, agro-businesses, and landowners are searching for ways to grow smarter.


Elemental Excelerator

Elemental Excelerator helps startups change the world, one community at a time. Each year, they find 12-15 companies that best fit their mission and fund each company up to $1 million to improve systems that impact peoples lives: energy, water, agriculture, and transportation. To date, Elemental Excelerator (EEx) has awarded over $20 million to more than 50 companies. What makes EEx unique? They co-fund, co-design, and co-develop projects and strategies that improve infrastructure and sustainably enhance communities. The program is funded by a diverse coalition of utility partners, corporate partners, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Energy, state government, and philanthropic organizations, and is structured as a non-profit created in collaboration with Emerson Collective.


Related articles:

2015 State Ag Land Use Baseline Data, Hawaii Department of Agriculture

AgTech Is The New Queen Of Green, TechCrunch

Cultivating Ag Tech: 5 Trends Shaping The Future of Agriculture, CB Insights

Hawaii’s Last Sugar Plantation Finishes Its Final Harvest, NBC

Land Sharing vs. Land Sparing: Can We Maximize Yield and Biodiversity?

By Nathan Chan, TerViva Germplasm Development Associate

We often think of the environmental impacts of agriculture being limited to things like pesticides and nutrient runoff polluting waterways (see my colleague’s post for more on this), and methane emissions from livestock contributing to climate change, but one of agriculture’s biggest impacts has been its role as a leading cause in declines in wildlife and natural habitat. That may not resonate with those of us in Europe and the United States, where we’ve had a fairly mature agricultural industry for the past 100+ years (I challenge you to imagine what the West may have looked like before humans), but deforestation to create lands suitable for agriculture in South America and Southeast Asia is directly responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of hectares of habitat for thousands of species. This is not a sustainable approach moving forward as we aim to feed 9 billion people worldwide while working to maintain our remaining biodiversity.

Clear cutting and burning rainforests is common in the tropics to create more land for agriculture.

A popular framework for finding a sustainable solution gives us two strategies: “land sharing” and “land sparing”. In land sharing, lower intensity agriculture is practiced in favor of less productive methods that promote more suitable conditions for wildlife resulting in less food produced per acre. In land sparing, farmers practice high intensity agriculture to boost yields, enabling them to forego expansion and leave natural areas “wild”. There are tradeoffs with both approaches — organic “land sharing” farms have on average 30% higher species richness and 50% higher abundance than conventional “land sparing” farms, but produce 20-25% less yield per acre.

In an article examining the tradeoffs of food production and wildlife published by The Breakthrough Institute, Linus Blomqvist puts forward the idea that higher yields, especially in the row crops that use the most land globally, will always result in lower on-farm biodiversity because there are “simple biophysical components of yield growth that there is not much of a way around.” The highly specific management practices farmers must use to get maximum yields from a specific crop preclude the establishment of other plants, which form the basis of a habitat that can sustain wildlife. As evidence, Blomqvist cites declines in farmland bird populations in Europe and America being driven by the loss of habitat and nesting sites in high-intensity agriculture settings – not due to direct mortality from pesticides.

An example of a “land sparing” farm — diverse set of crops, surrounded by potential wildlife habitat.

Even in the most organic, ecologically friendly, “land sharing” farm one can imagine, any decision to increase yields would result in higher-intensity practices that would in turn decrease the farm’s ability to support wildlife. If higher yields per acre on an organic farm decrease on-farm habitat quality, than the only way to increase yield while maintaining habitat quality is to use more land. In the West, more land probably means acquiring farmland or uncultivated land from a neighbor.  However, in South America, Asia, or Africa expanding croplands often takes place at the expense of natural habitats like forests. Any gains in on-farm biodiversity may be offset entirely by the loss of natural habitats.

Multiple combines and tractors with grain carts harvested a large field of corn outside New Haven, Ky.

As we try to feed a human population of 9 billion-plus people, agricultural land will expand and will undoubtedly come at the expense of wildlife and natural habitats. The question we face is how to minimize that impact. Land sharing and land sparing underscore the idea that there is a tradeoff between food production and biodiversity: increasing one will invariably decrease the other. Fortunately, there are ways in which we can try to mitigate that trade off. Embracing GM technologies like Bt enables crops to produce their own insecticide (that is safe for human consumption) and reduce the need for spraying pesticides allowing non-target species to thrive. Incorporating staples of organic or agroecological farming like crop rotations and cover crops make it difficult for a single pest species to persist from year to year further reducing pesticide loads.

There is no correct answer to the land sharing vs. land sparing debate. Both ideas have their merits and embracing one or the other is better than nothing. The growth of the global human population will continue and it will be at the expense of the natural world, but through the discussion and implementation of ideas like land sparing and land sharing, and the incorporation of new crop technologies and agronomic practices we can hopefully reduce that negative impact.

Author’s Note: The idea behind this blogpost came largely from the previously mentioned article published by The Breakthrough Institute, Food Production and Wildlife on Farmland. I encourage you to read it if you are interested in this topic. 

Keep Edible Oils for People, and Non-edible Oils for Industry

By Tom Schenk

In 2012, actor Matt Damon starred in a movie “Promised Land”.  The story was about a rural community whose water was being contaminated from chemicals used in the injection fluids from a petroleum company’s nearby oil and natural gas fracking operation.  While the movie was a box office flop for Damon, it did raise the public’s awareness about the toxic cocktail of chemicals (benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene, and methanol, to name a few) that are combined with the large quantities of water (up to 7 million gallons) and sand that are injected deep underground at high pressures to fracture and open up rock formations so oil and gas can flow to a well. These chemicals help to reduce corrosion of the well, lubricate the extraction process, and prevent clogs and bacterial growth.


Many studies have claimed that these chemicals were used in such small quantities that they posed little risk to aquifers and other groundwater sources. Nevertheless, the movie, numerous articles, and academic studies raised the public’s awareness about some of the potential dangers created by this new drilling technology.  And no doubt it also raised alarms in the oil and gas companies’ legal and risk management departments that contaminating the water supply of one or more cities would wipe the company off the map.

Guar gum has been used in the food industry for many decades.  It has also been one of the favorite products drillers used to hold that sand in suspension and deliver it to its destination.  The greatest source for guar gum historically has been India.  The boom in fracking has created monumental price spikes and shortages for drillers in obtaining this product and has created havoc on their P&L’s.

In recent years, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, and a myriad of other oil-related companies have been developing suitable alternatives – often from plant-based oils – for developing greener, more environmentally-friendly lubricants for their drilling activities.  They would also like to see a more dependable domestic supply for the ingredients in their fracking recipes for biodegradable polymers.

However, in the fast developing world of biodegradable polymers, drilling fluids are almost a rounding error by comparison to all the other wonderful consumer and industrial products that technology that is developing from plant-based oils such as marine oils, auto and aviation lubricants (often with superior wear and heat properties), surfactants, detergents, shopping bags, food containers and countless other products where petroleum-based products and plastics have historically dominated. This technology is in a profound growth phase as almost anything we currently know as plastic can be reproduced in a more sustainable manner with plant-based oils rather than petroleum. And it sells because the consumer wants it.

Soy is the most dominant feedstock for many of these renewable products, as well as corn, canola, flax, palm, cottonseed, peanut, and others that are cultivated in large quantities worldwide.  Couple the growth in biofuels with the growth in this new technology for industrial applications, and all it will take is one or two bad years of crop production for there to be be a collision between food security for people and feedstock supply for factories and refineries.

Only the most arable lands – which are in diminishing supply – should logically be devoted exclusively to food.  Champions of these earth-friendly fuels and industrial products made from renewable feedstocks are missing the full picture.  They should be calling for the development of high-yielding non-edible oilseed crops that can thrive on the marginal land!

This is Terviva’s mission.  One of the most promising crops in this space is the wild tree called pongamia that our company is commercializing. These oilseed trees can produce up to 10x the amount of oil per acre that the best soybean land in Iowa can produce. Carbon is sequestered, and vast fallow acreage in Florida and Hawaii is on its way to becoming annually renewable – and profitable -“oilfields”.  Hardy, high-yielding crops on marginal lands are the optimum way to achieve peak biodiversity. Leave the good lands to make food for people.