February 28, 2006

New US crop seeks to replace imported oils

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - A small North
Carolina-based specialty crops company is trying to turn a
humble wildflower into a major new oilseed crop that could
produce an alternative to coconut and palm oils.

After 20 years in development, cuphea (koo-FEE-ah) will
start its second planting this spring in the Midwestern United

"It's grown (as a crop) nowhere else in the world," said
Andrew Hebard, chief executive of Technology Crops
International in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which is
leading the commercialization of cuphea.

The plant's seeds contain novel fatty acids along with
lauric acid, which is used as a wetting and foaming agent in
soaps, detergents, shampoos, toothpaste and even airplane fuel.

The world market for lauric oil was about 4.5 million tons
in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are widely
available, according to market reports. The United States
consumed about 1.5 million tons of that, mostly from Southeast

Cuphea could reduce U.S. reliance on imported tropical oils
like palm and coconut. It could also cut dependency on some
petrochemicals and give American farmers a new crop to rotate
with corn.

Partners in the development of cuphea include the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, Western Illinois University, the
University of Georgia, TCI and the chemicals division of
Procter & Gamble Co., cuphea's main industrial sponsor.

The first commercial crop, in 2005, was small -- about 100
acres. But judging from industrial demand, Hebard said there
was potential for that to grow eventually to hundreds of
thousands of acres, if the economics can be made to work.

"There's a lot of interest from other countries to grow
it," said Dr. Terry Isbell, research leader in the new crops
and processing technology unit at the U.S. Agriculture
Department in Peoria, Illinois. "It's going to have a very
large number of applications. Once it's established and
developed, the interest will continue to grow."


Hebard, an agricultural scientist from Cambridge, England,
bought out U.S.-based Kings Ltd. and moved to North Carolina in
2002 to form Technology Crops International. It has added a
Midwest office in Fargo, North Dakota. A British office,
Technology Crops Ltd., is located in Braintree, Essex.

Hebard said Technology Crops International has 16 employees
and manages crops on up to 5,000 farms worldwide with the help
of independent farm agents.

The crops TCI manages are used for chemicals,
pharmaceuticals, cosmetics or specialty nutrition. They include
high erucic acid rapeseed, crambe, high oleic sunflower, high
oleic canola, echium, camelina, borage and lesquerella.

Lesquerella, which produces an oil and fatty acids useful
to the biofuel and biolubricant industries and the personal
care industry, is another new commercial plant being developed


"We try to find new crops to bring to the grower," Hebard
said. "They have to be sustainable and have traceability --
soil to oil. For example, we can trace a soft-gel capsule of
oil all the way back to the field it was grown in."

As demand increases for renewable energy, Hebard said he
sees the new oils in cuphea, lesquerella and other specialty
crops as sustainable and economically viable new raw materials
for power and energy.

"We're looking for new raw material that can be processed
into biodiesel fuel," he said, especially crops that are not
also used in the food industry.

A product like Willie Nelson's BioWillie Diesel, for
example, uses soybeans, which also are used for food and animal

"When Willie Nelson puts his soybeans in his truck, he's
competing with the food market," Hebard said.


TCI provides the seed, contracts with farmers, checks on
the fields, buys the yield and supplies it to a processing
plant where they crush the seeds and extract the oil.

"The challenge is a grower can grow one of quite a few
different crops on his land," Hebard said. "Wheat or corn or
beans or canola or flax. We've got to persuade him to grow
these new crops. He looks at these with a degree of enthusiasm
and a degree of risk. Farmers are generally very traditional."

USDA's Isbell agreed. "Not every farmer is going to be
ready to tackle this yet," he said. "There's no crop insurance.
It's a risk ... Less than 5 percent of crops grown worldwide
are grown for tech uses."

However, "these new crops offer unique chemistries that
traditional crops don't," Isbell said.

The introduction of new crops like cuphea from domesticated
wild plants is rare, he said.

"This is a very difficult process, to go from wild plant to
a fully mature, harvestable, plantable thing that industry is
interested in," he said. "It doesn't happen often. There are a
lot of false starts."

And the growing, Hebard said, is trial-and-error: "Do you
plant it on April 1 or May 1? It's important.

"We go into the fields, get the data, talk to the farmer
and then find out he did it under a waxing moon, and the whales
were leaping in the bay, and his crop did really well. So all
good to the whales!" he said, laughing. "But seriously, there
are many climatic and geographic issues that impact a crop's
performance, and we try to identify and quantify the fact and