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A biorefinery coming to the Island could help farmers to diversify their crop rotation, while scientists find new markets for the crop waste.
Farmers on Prince Edward Island are growing a new crop this season that could bring higher profits than the oats, barley and other rotation crops grown in recent years. Last season, Nature's Crops International (NCI) contracted about 30 farmers to grow crambe (pronounced cram-bee), a crop whose seeds produce a quality oil that's in demand for cosmetics, polyesters and plastics.
For NCI, growing crambe is just the first step in a larger vision, which includes building a biorefinery on P.E.I. to extract the oils from the crops, and working with NRC and its research partners to develop new products for health and wellness. The company's presence could mean steady income for farmers, new jobs for Islanders, and a new source of health products such as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.
The perfect recipe
Several factors attracted the company to P.E.I., including a cool, humid growing season that's well suited to oilseed crops. Another essential component was the unique combination of nutrisciences expertise available from the NRC Institute for Nutrisciences and Health (NRC-INH), the University of Prince Edward Island, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
With $2.7 million in support from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency's Atlantic Innovation Fund, researchers at the three organizations will help NCI find bioactive compounds in the material left over after the oil is removed. These compounds hold the promise of benefits ranging from heart health to neuroprotection, and are expected to provide a new source of revenue for the company from what was previously considered a waste product.
"We've had nothing but really positive support from all the stakeholders to help deliver our plan, which isn't just about growing crops, but also about relocating and constructing a refinery here," says Andrew Hebard, President of NCI's parent company Technology Crops International. "This is a real plus point for P.E.I. in that there is strong cohesion among all the stakeholders to deliver the needs of a business like ours."
Real value for farmers
Crambe is just one of the crops the company plans to grow on P.E.I. — others include calendula and borage. Calendula oil provides a non-toxic alternative to the volatile compounds found in paint, while borage oil is used as a nutraceutical and in cosmetics.
Why grow crambe?
Crambe is a crop similar to canola that produces oil used in applications such as cosmetics, polyesters and plastics. NCI's parent company, Technology Crops International, is the only producer of crambe in North America. The multinational company, which has facilities in the U.S. and Europe, provides high value oils not available on the market, contracting with growers around the world to meet its clients' needs.
Although he doesn't expect these crops to replace potatoes, NCI's General Manager Steve Howatt says they are ideal as rotational crops. "For growers who haven't been able to make reasonable profits from wheat, barley or oats, this gives them another option that can provide real value to the farm," he says. Oilseed crops tend to be low users of fertilizers and pesticides, and add diversity to a farm's crop cycle as well as economic stability. "If we don't have a buyer for a product, we don't contract out to grow it."
For a 2009 pilot project, farmers grew more than 1000 acres of crambe for NCI — and the company plans to expand in 2010. "We hope to be up to several thousand acres of crops this year," says Howatt.
A biorefinery with big plans
A pilot biorefinery has been set up at NCI's facility in Kensington, and the company's commercial biorefinery is expected to be operational in fall 2010. The Government of Canada — through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada — and the Province of P.E.I. announced a joint investment of $6 million in NCI's future biorefinery. To assist the company in its efforts to optimize the biorefinery outputs for each crop, the NRC Industrial Research Assistance Program provided financial assistance of up to $375,000. NCI itself plans to invest more than $20 million in P.E.I. over the next five years, including crop purchases from growers, capital investment and staffing.
"I'm very impressed with the talent pool that P.E.I. has for a relatively small population," says Hebard. "There are very high-calibre people here, which makes running a business much more fun."
Good to the last drop
Getting the most from their oilseed crops is a priority for NCI. Researchers in the P.E.I. nutrisciences and health community will help the company squeeze top value from the new biorefinery and the oils that it produces.
First, researchers will explore ways to fine-tune the biorefinery to get the highest possible yield of quality oil. Then they'll look for health benefits hiding in the "waste" that's left after the oil is removed.
NCI's seeds are cold-pressed in a chemical-free process that extracts the oil, leaving a waste product called "meal." The greenish oil is then filtered to produce a clear oil, and what's left is another waste product called "retentate." "They need a way to get rid of these waste products and get value from them," says Dr. Bob Chapman of NRC-INH. "If they can do that, they could go from zero revenue for a waste product to several million dollars."
A team of chemists and biologists from NRC-INH and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada will analyze the meal and retentate to search for bioactive compounds that could be useful for brain health, heart health, or as anti-inflammatories or antioxidants. NCI will also optimize the biorefinery's processes to get the most from these waste products. "For example, NCI might want to push some components from the meal into the retentate, because it has more value," says Dr. Chapman.
The goal is to bring new products to market with proven health benefits. These products might be in the form of vitamin supplements or even cosmetics with antioxidant properties. "The farmers in P.E.I. get a new crop and we get to add value to the company by finding new markets for them," says Dr. Chapman. "It's a win for everyone."