Gleaning Profits from Drought-Smitten Fields
Food & Ag sessions got off to an interesting start this morning as three companies told their very different tales of sailing turbulent economic waters over the past two years in search of profitable harbors. The Value Proposition for Next-Generation Energy Crops: Value Chain and Business Model Considerations. By Val Giddings Food & Ag sessions got off to an interesting start this morning as three companies told their very different tales of sailing turbulent economic waters over the past two years in search of profitable harbors. With oil at $140/barrel, it looked like a game almost anybody could play. With oil at $50/barrel things are a lot more competitive. Aaron Schuchart (Mendel BioTechnology) described Mendel’s approach to the challenges of making and selling improved seeds to serve farmers seeking to provide feedstock for biomass energy and fuels. When a 10 percent increase in yield can improve producer margins by 114 percent, it’s a market worthy of attention. Mendel is working with a variety of materials including sugarcane and, Miscanthus, testing a broad variety of germplasm in search of the best material to adapt to regional markets. Mike Edgerton (Monsanto) described the very different economics and logistics related to corn stover feedstocks. A much less mature sector, with 2 million producers (as opposed to ~400 for cane in Brasil) makes vertical integration much more complicated and challenging for stover. Calculating how much organic material can be used for biomass fuel without damaging soil carbon or exacerbating erosion and water quality is a delicate and variable calculus. But with due attention to the myriad variables and disciplined analysis, both corn stover and cane can sustain profitable enterprises – particularly for the sellers of improved germplasm! Jack Kiser (Sustainable Oils) described a very different approach, working with Camelina sativa, an oilseed related to canola. High in omega-3 fatty acids and polyunsaturated oils, Camelina oil can be used to produce biodiesel while the meal can be used for animal feed. Although transgenics promise numerous opportunities for improvement, classical and mutation breeding have so far barely been used, by no means fully harnessed. Take home message from the session: competition is stiff and success is complicated, but there are many possible paths to a green future. Giddings is a genetics PhD and biotech consultant with nearly 30 years regulatory, media, and policy experience. He was a Vice President for BIO Food & Agriculture from 1997 to 2006. He can be reached at LVG@prometheusAB.com.