Florida Farmers Turn to Ancient Pongamia Trees for Sustainable Biofuel and Protein Solutions

Featured & Cover Florida Farmers Turn to Ancient Pongamia Trees for Sustainable Biofuel and Protein Solutions

An ancient tree from India, the pongamia, is now thriving in Florida where citrus trees once flourished and could potentially help provide renewable energy. The citrus industry in Florida has suffered due to diseases like greening and citrus canker, leading farmers to seek alternatives such as the pongamia tree, known for its resilience and potential to produce plant-based proteins and sustainable biofuel.

Historically, pongamia has been used as a shade tree, producing inedible legumes due to their bitterness. Unlike orange and grapefruit trees, pongamia trees require minimal care, no fertilizer or pesticides, and can thrive in varying weather conditions. Harvesting the beans is straightforward, requiring just a machine to shake them from the branches.

Terviva, a San Francisco-based company founded in 2010 by Naveen Sikka, uses a patented process to remove the bitter-tasting biopesticides, making the beans suitable for food production. “Florida offers a rare opportunity for both Terviva and former citrus farmers. The historical decline of the citrus industry has left farmers without a crop that can grow profitably on hundreds of thousands of acres, and there needs to be a very scalable replacement, very soon,” Sikka told The Associated Press. “Pongamia is the perfect fit.”

The pongamia tree, native to India, Southeast Asia, and Australia, is now being used to produce various products, including Ponova culinary oil and protein, featured in Aloha’s Kona protein bars. The tree also produces oil that can be used as a biofuel, especially in aviation, which has a low carbon footprint, according to Ron Edwards, Terviva’s chairman and a long-time Florida citrus grower.

Transforming pongamia from a wild to a domesticated tree has been challenging. “There are no books to read on it, either, because no one else has ever done it,” Edwards said. The tree supports local biodiversity by attracting bees and other pollinators to its flowers. An acre of pongamia trees can produce as much oil as four acres of soybeans. After extracting the oil, the remaining high-grade protein can be used in baking, smoothies, and other plant-based protein products, showing potential for both the food and petroleum industries.

Sikka emphasized the advantages of growing pongamia in Florida: “We know pongamia grows well in Florida, and the end markets for the oil and protein that come from the pongamia beans — biofuel, feed, and food ingredients — are enormous. So farmers can now reduce their costs and more closely align to the leading edge of sustainable farming practices.”

At a nursery near Fort Pierce, workers skilled in pongamia grafting techniques ensure the genetics and desired characteristics of the mother tree are perpetuated in all of Terviva’s trees.

Citrus was Florida’s premier crop until the 1990s when citrus canker and later greening began to devastate groves. Citrus canker, a bacterial disease, causes lesions on fruit, stems, and leaves, eventually making the trees unproductive. Citrus greening, or Huanglongbing, slowly kills trees and degrades the fruit, reducing citrus production in Florida by 75% since 2005. The disease has spread to Louisiana, Texas, and California. Hurricane Ian caused $1.8 billion in damages to Florida’s agriculture in September 2023, further impacting the citrus industry.

Global citrus production has also been affected by disease and climate issues. Brazil, the world’s largest orange juice exporter, is facing its worst harvest in 36 years due to flooding and drought, according to Fundecitrus, a citrus growers’ organization in Sao Paulo state.

However, pongamia trees are largely unaffected by climate and disease. “It’s just tough, a jungle-tested tree,” Edwards said. “It stands up to a lot of abuse with very little caretaking.” Pongamia also thrives in Hawaii, on land previously used for sugarcane.

John Olson, owner of Circle O Ranch west of Fort Pierce, has replaced his grapefruit groves with 215 acres of pongamia trees. “We went through all the ups and downs of citrus and eventually because of greening, abandoned citrus production,” Olson said. “For the most part, the citrus industry has died in Florida.” In the 1980s and 1990s, a grove of similar size was profitable, but the costs of combating disease eventually became too high.

Edwards shared his motivation for switching to pongamia: “What attracted me to pongamia was the fact that one it can repurpose fallow land that was citrus and is now lying dormant. From an ecological point of view, it’s very attractive because it can replace some of the oils and vegetable proteins that are now being generated by things like palm oil, which is environmentally a much more damaging crop.”

In December 2023, Terviva signed an agreement with Mitsubishi Corporation to provide biofuel feedstock that can be converted into biodiesel, renewable diesel, and sustainable aviation fuel. “Our partnership with Mitsubishi is off to a great start,” Sikka said, noting that the company coordinates closely with Mitsubishi on tree plantings and product development and sales. “Terviva’s progress has accelerated thanks to Mitsubishi’s expertise and leadership around the globe on all facets of Terviva’s business.”

Research on pongamia’s food products is ongoing. Edwards mentioned they have successfully made graham crackers and other plant-based protein products, including flour and protein bars. Pongamia offers an alternative to soybean and yellow pea protein “if you don’t want your protein to come from meat,” he said.

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