In a time when bio-security and foreign oil dependency share the spotlight as major issues facing the nation, it comes as no surprise that the idea of growing castor on U.S. soil and extracting castor oil for biofuels and industrial use is a growing controversy with supporters on both sides of the question: Would the benefits outweigh the risks?

On one hand there is little or no commercial castor production in the U.S.  Nearly all castor oil used in the U.S. is imported from India, China and Brazil. But because of its high seed oil content, castor has tremendous potential as an oilseed crop in North America, especially in parts of the Southwest. The increasing demand and potential use of castor oil in the production of specialty chemicals, biodiesel, and RFS2 renewable fuel has generated considerable interest by several companies in developing commercial castor oil production in this country. Since castor grows well on marginal land, it represents an alternative crop suitable for production in select areas of Texas.

On the other hand, castor production comes with a reputation, largely related to the fear of growing a potentially toxic crop. Ricin, a protein toxin found only in the endosperm of castor seed, can represent up to 5 percent of the meal weight remaining after oil extraction. It could pose a threat if not carefully isolated and controlled as there is a concern the meal could be refined and used as a bioterrorism agent.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) classifies ricin as a Class B biological terrorism threat, identifying it as an agent that can be disseminated relatively easy. Ricin is not only poisonous but deadly if inhaled, injected or digested, raising fears that in the wrong hands the protein could be weaponized and used by terrorists. U.S. Homeland Security and the FBI carefully monitor interest in castor production for this reason.

Believing we can have our cake and eat it too, a group of Texas A&M and Texas Tech researchers have been working together on a castor variety that greatly reduces risk and still offers value in production. Working with the best tools agricultural science can offer, they have aggressively developed a semi-dwarf castor variety with reduced ricin levels and one that allows for mechanized production.