What is in this article?:
- Castor controversy pits bioterrorism against biofuels
- Getting to the oil
- Reducing ricin
- 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?
Getting to the oil
The oil produced by castor is essential to the global specialty chemical industry because it is the only commercial source of hydroxylated fatty acids. It is used by industry for a number of applications and the demand for the oil is high. In addition, there may be no better crop to use than castor to produce bio-fuels, making the product an ideal option to reduce dependency on petroleum.
“With castor seed producing as much as 50 percent oil and its ability to grow productively on marginal land, it represents a crop that could address a growing demand for castor oil. India virtually controls the global market now, and there is potential for domestic production,” reports Dr. Calvin Trostle, associate professor and research scientist at Texas A&M AgriLife in Lubbock.
“Castor production will play a major role for many years to come,” agrees Dr. Dick Auld, oilseed crop specialist and research scientist at Texas Tech University. “At one time some 70,000 acres in Texas were dedicated to castor farming. But when prices fell in the 1970s interest faded, and concerns over ricin and the potential for contamination of food crops overshadowed interest for its return.”
With a federal mandate to ramp up production of biofuels in the years ahead, Trostle and Auld agree there is a growing interest in domestic oilseed production, including castor.
Last year at a Texas crop tour, Dr. Travis Miller, AgriLife Extension program leader and associate department head for the department of soil and crop sciences at Texas A&M University, told attendees a successful castor industry will require isolating castor seed and using a number of strategies to insure it remains only in industrial oil handling and marketing channels. In other words, modern bio-engineering holds the key to reducing ricin levels and toxicity and combined with appropriate management and controls, castor will soon present itself as a safe oilseed alternative.
“The long term solution is to develop castor varieties that greatly reduce toxicity, and we’re well on the road to achieving this goal,” Auld explains.
A new variety known as the Brigham, so named after the advancement of castor research by Dr. R.D. Brigham of the USDA Research Center in Lubbock, has provided promising results, effectively reducing ricin toxicity by 70 to 90 percent. A semi-dwarf variety, Brigham also allows for mechanized commercial production.