Energy Crops Growing On Seawater
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — June 30, 2010— Energy crop company Ceres, Inc. announced today that it has developed a plant trait that could bring new life to millions of acres of abandoned or marginal cropland damaged by salts. Results in several crops, including switchgrass, have shown levels of salt tolerance not seen before.
Ceres reported that its researchers tested the effects of very high salt concentrations and also seawater from the Pacific Ocean, which contains mixtures of salts in high-concentration, on improved energy grass varieties growing in its California greenhouses. Energy grasses, such as sorghum, miscanthus and switchgrass, are highly productive sources of biomass, a carbon-neutral feedstock used for both biofuel production and electricity generation.
“Today, we have energy crops thriving on seawater alone,” said Richard Hamilton, Ceres President and CEO. “The goal, of course, is not for growers to water their crops with seawater, but to enable cropland abandoned because of salt or seawater effects to be put to productive uses.”
Currently, there are over one billion acres of abandoned cropland1 globally that could benefit from this trait and others in Ceres’ pipeline, and 15 million acres of salt-affected soils2 in the U.S. The company now plans to evaluate energy crops with its proprietary salt-tolerant trait at field scale. If results are confirmed, biofuel and biopower producers will have more choices for locating new facilities, gaining greater productivity on marginal land and displacing even greater amounts of fossil fuels.
“In the end, this is not so much a salt trait, but a productivity trait and a land-use trait,” Hamilton said. “I am convinced more than ever that techniques of modern plant science can continue to deliver innovations that increase yields and reduce the footprint of agriculture. Improved energy crops will enable the bioenergy industry to scale far beyond the limits of conventional wisdom.”
Chief Scientific Officer Richard Flavell said that Ceres’ salt-tolerant trait could provide significant benefits to food production, too. In conventional plant breeding, breakthroughs in one crop have little bearing on another crop. However, by using techniques of modern biology to develop traits, researchers can duplicate this trait much more easily, and extend the benefits from energy to staple food crops.
“Soils containing salt and other growth-limiting substances restrict crop production in many locations in the world. This genetic breakthrough provides new opportunities to overcome the effects of salt,” said Flavell. In food crops, Ceres has confirmed the trait in rice to date and is preparing additional testing in others.
Flavell believes that salt-tolerant crops need to be combined with better land and water management practices as well as with agronomic techniques that minimize salt build-up in the soil. Furthermore, like first-generation traits, plant traits developed by Ceres can be stacked together to revolutionize plant yields.
“When we begin stacking together salt tolerance, drought tolerance and traits that allow plants to require less nitrogen fertilizer, we can deliver significant productivity and yield increases with fewer inputs than used in the first Green Revolution, as well as valuable increases on marginal or abandoned cropland that does not currently sustain economic yields,” said Flavell.
Ceres is a leading developer of energy crops that can be planted as feedstocks for advanced biofuels, biopower and bio-based products. Its development efforts include switchgrass, high-biomass sorghum, sweet sorghum, miscanthus and energycane. The company markets its seeds under its Blade Energy Crops brand. Ceres holds one of the world’s largest proprietary collections of fully sequenced plant genes.
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1Stanford University. The Global Potential of Bioenergy on Abandoned Agriculture Lands (2008).
2Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. Salinity Lab website.