“We have to look at land differently. We have to look at it from the point of view of ‘how do we sustain this essential resource?’ And cover crops need to be part of that answer.”
— Oliver Peoples, president & CEO of Metabolix, Yield 10 Bioscience
In this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by Go Seed, Oliver Peoples, president and CEO of Metabolix Yield 10 Bioscience company, discusses camelina, its benefits as a cool-season cover crop and potential incentives for farmers to grow camelina.
The Cover Crop Strategies podcast series is brought to you by GO Seed.
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Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by GO Seed. I'm Mackane Vogel, assistant editor at Cover Crop Strategies. In this episode, Oliver Peoples, president and CEO of Metabolix Yield10 Bioscience talks about camelina, its benefits as a cool season cover crop, and potential incentives for farmers to grow camelina.
I'm Ollie Peoples, that's the name I typically use. My background obviously is Advanced Science. I came out of MIT many years ago. I started a company called Metabolix, which back in I would guess 10-12 years ago started a big program on the oil seed, camelina, to develop it as a new platform crop.
In 2017, we actually refocused the entire business on what's now known as the Yield10 business and became the Yield10 Bioscience Company. I'm currently president and CEO. So I have a science background, but obviously 20-30 years of innovation, commercial development, partnering, all of these types of things.
So what's the main difference now that you guys are known as Yield10? How has the company's focus shifted?
The focus? The focus has shifted first from essentially, I would say, industrial biotechnology to make degradable plastics using fermentation technology to essentially using camelina as a platform crop to produce sustainable products.
Even since 2017, it's continued to sort of shift more and more towards the camelina as a business. The business model, really, is on contracting camelina production with growers. Obviously, that requires a tight partnership with the farmers and then seeking off-take agreements for the products from grain processing, whether it's biofuels today, which is obviously a huge interest, or basically in the future omega-3 oils, specialty omega oils, and then ultimately further out in time the PHA bioplastics.
So I think some of our listeners are familiar with camelina, not all of them are probably. So let's talk about a little bit more. What would you say makes camelina an ideal cover crop, and who would it be most ideal for in terms of climate and region?
Yeah, obviously, there's more spring and winter types of to camelina, and one of the big attractions, of course, is it requires fewer inputs than things like canola, but Yield10 developed a very winter hardy, true winter crop from it called WDH2. Last year, primarily in the Pacific Northwest region, mainly in Alberta, Manitoba, we planted about 1000 acres of this winter crop to a bunch of fairly skeptical farmers, actually. Farmers are kind of "show me people". They want to see it and they want to see it in their neighbor's farm and they want to see how it does. Quite frankly, it went extremely well. Obviously, that was harvested, I think back in July, it was harvested and actually delivered to one of our end users, which is a partnership we have with a crusher refiner organization that's private.
So it's very winter hardy. We've grown all the way through the Midwest up into northern Alberta, as far north as the Peace River region. As you know, the weather in those areas gets pretty chilly.
The interesting thing about it is in places like Kansas where sometimes it gets snow sometimes. They don't get a lot of snow. Even without snow, these lines actually survive perfectly well. I mean, it's a very robust plant. Then in the areas of Alberta, what we found, particularly in the dryland areas, we actually have pretty good crops, even although in some areas we only have one-and-half inches of rain over the growing season, which is not a lot of water. So remarkably hardy, remarkably cold tolerant, and yet still very early in this development cycle. So tremendous upside potential.
So you would say it's relatively drought resilient as well?
You never like to see other crops fail, but on a side-by-side, we had a decent crop of camelina. We had no canola, not us, the grower had no canola. His mustard was really struggling, and yet camelina looked pretty good. So that's a great thing for growers to have a winter cover crop that can also, shall we say, tolerate these kind of extreme conditions that growers are been experiencing. So it was another crop in the rotation. So we think it adds tremendous value, including the cover cropping as well.
One thing I know a lot of growers look to when they're planting cover crops is weed suppression. Does it have weed suppressing properties, or is it the kind of cover crop you'd want to kind of plant in a field that's not as weeded stricken?
Yeah, so I would say right now, this has been our first large scale experience and so you need to see on hundreds of thousand acres before you get a view. So I think it does generally repress weeds. However, we have a pipeline of herbicide-tolerant varieties coming through the pipeline fairly quickly. Obviously, the goal ultimately is to leverage also the weed control from this herbicide-tolerant varieties as another mechanism to assist the growers and add value for them. So those things are all kind of coming fairly quickly through the pipeline. I think the first herbicide line is probably going to be released probably 2025.
Then behind that, especially for cover cropping, you've got to also deal with the plant-back date. If you planted particular crop used, for example, a group two herbicide, then there's plant-back limitations. So you can't really plant camelina on land that had group two as a spring crop because those residues are going to really impair your productivity.
So very recently, we actually demonstrated in field trials that we actually had not only over the top weed control, but we had great stack, shall we say, stacked herbicides for basically tolerance, the residues of both types of chemistries used in group two herbicides. So growers are very excited about that. They'd like this thing because they see, we could just drop this in, this is going to be great.
Is it meant to be sort of a replacement for canola? Am I understanding of that correct?
No, not really because you can't really grow canola over the winter. It just doesn't do well. I mean the Canadians spent 30 years trying to do that, and it never really took off because it just doesn't really work. It doesn't have the cold hardiness of camelina. I think the other thing that's important to understand is this cover cropping in the Pacific North, the further north you is fewer frost-free days. So obviously, you've got limitations on what you could plant afterwards. But as you move down into Kansas, the potential to integrate this seamlessly into rotations so that you can sort of plant soybean after you harvest the camelina becomes very, very exciting, and obviously that's why we were doing those tests in Kansas.
So we've got to be realistic. This crop is early. It's got enormous potential. We're seeing good success with these first scale trials, and we have obviously a very strong pipeline of enabling technologies that are coming rapidly that's going to be in fit for us as well. So very excited about what we're doing here.
So I want to get a little bit further into the weeds, pun intended, of the science behind this and sort the science aspect of your company. So I guess maybe a good place to start is talking about the PHA bioplastic element of this. Is there a way you can explain this in simple terms to farmers and how it's going to affect them?
Yeah, it's interesting. The PHA bioplastics, I think that's likely to be the third product. Really what we're trying to do is we're trying to add value to the grain. So think about it from the point of view of traditional oil seed camelina or canola. You basically process, extract the oil, which can go into whether it's renewable fuels or food or whatever it is, and then the meal obviously can go into animal feed.
For camelina, the oil's already got [inaudible] for renewables. It has a potential for a very low carbon index, which makes it even more attractive for renewables. And the protein meal has been approved in rations for use in feed. So most of the hurdles are kind of with respect to that are gone.
But then you start looking beyond biofuels and you start to say well, this is a great platform crop. And what else can you make in it?
Well, the first thing we're going to make in it is an oil composition that's been modified using genetic engineering, or GMO, such that it produce high levels of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, which pretty important in human health and wellness. The primary source today, of course, is fish oil. So we have a drop-in replacement, land-based, sustainable source of fish oil, and omega-3 fatty acids for nutrition and nutraceuticals, which is coming along fairly quickly behind the launch of the biofuel business. So that's number one, but it's not going to be huge acres, but it's going to be a much higher value, which, of course, should be reflected in the pricing to farmers.
Then the second thing is obviously this PHA bioplastics. So again, our history is in this area of PHA bioplastics. That's why we founded the original company. The big challenge always was the cost structure using fermentation technologies. We had a joint venture with ADM called Telles that really de-risk the value chain from extracting the plastic from the microorganisms in that case all the way through the process to make any kind of plastic article you could want except either sustainably produced, number one, and number two, they're a 100% biodegradable because they're natural materials. They're not synthetic. So nature can essentially degrade these fairly well. And so you can make things with them.
This is one of the things we made. This is made from PHA bioplastic. This was made in an engineered bacteria. That same plastic can be made in an engineered camelina seed. So now think about it, I've now got two seed products. I've got three seed products. So because of the genetics Yield10 is inserted into camelina, you produce the protein meal still, which is great. So you can still address feed applications. You still get oil not as much, but you still get oil. But then you get this third product, this higher value product, the PHA bioplastic, and you have to separate those three components, which is, again, it's not rocket science at that point. What you've done is you've just upgraded the value per acre of the harvest, which, of course, again, should benefit the grower and allowed yield tent to then increase revenue.
And of course, bioplastics in the context of the plastics market, there's almost unlimited demand at the right price point. The challenge with the earlier technologies using fermentation is you first have to produce a crop, you have to extract sugar or you have to extract oil, you have to build a very expensive fermentation facility costing hundreds of millions of dollars. You had to use a lot of energy, and then it was a very inefficient conversion process from either sugar or oil to make the bioplastic. By doing this directly in seed, you don't need any of that. You basically have an extra separation step in a crushing facility, and lo and behold, you have a material that has just enormous global potential, which is something that would be pretty [inaudible]. So very exciting in the future, but we've got to walk before we run. So we've got to get this biofuel business up and running.
We will come back to the show in a moment, but first I'd like to take a moment to thank our sponsor, GO Seed. Plant GO Seed's FIXatioN Balansa Clover and save up to $37 per acre in fertilizer input costs. At a trial conducted by the Ewing Demonstration Center in Illinois, FIXatioN Balansa Clover fixed nearly double the nitrogen per acre over Dixie Crimson Clover. FIXatioN Balansa Clover is the cover crop to improve your soil health, increase cash crop yields, and make a positive impact on the planet. Visit www.fixationclover.com to learn why GO seed is the industry leader in cover crop breeding and research. Now, let's get back to the episode with Dr. Oliver Peoples.
So the goal eventually would be to provide some sort of incentives directly to farmers for growing it then.
Job number one, this has got to benefit farmers. If this doesn't benefit farmers, guess what? They're not going to grow it, nor should they, right? They're business people and very savvy business people. So our goal would be to sort of make sure that they prefer the plant our seed because our seed generates more, is easier for them to use number one. B, it helps them with the other rotations, makes it very simple for them. Number three, it actually generates some extra revenue. It's got to be a windfall, and our goal is a win-win partnership with growers.
You talked a little bit in your answer about making gene changes to major crops. What exactly does that do? Can we talk about that a little bit more?
Yeah, I mean, farmers are very used to this. I mean, the bottom line is pretty much all of the soybean, canola, corn, cotton, even sugar beets in North America are all traditional GMO, right? And obviously, there's a tremendous track record of not only utility to the grower, I mean, it's been a tremendous boom for the farmer, but it's also been a tremendous boom for sustainability because of enabling things like no-till agriculture. So that's been huge. A massive reduction in the use of chemical pesticides because of the Bt, the insect tolerance. So in general, there's been huge benefits to agriculture overall, including basically increasing food production.
So we decided a number of years ago that we have to be believers in this technology. We see the real value in it, and we aren't going to be shy about using it in camelina because ultimately, it has to become a high-tech crop comparable to the performance of these other crops. Therefore, you need all the bells and whistles and traits that the growers are used to. So we use both GMO, traditional GMO. In fact, the herbicide technology we're progressing very quickly is based on GMO, is based on technology that's well proven in canola and soybean. And so we're not reinventing the wheel here. We're redeploying a proven technology with a long history of safety in a new crop in a way that allows us to leverage that.
Then the second thing we do is genome editing. I mean, there's been a lot of buzz around genome editing, and we made good progress with that. It's a fantastic tool. It's pretty much an advanced breeding tool, and that's really what it is. It's only as good as the knowledge you have about the genes to modify. That's, of course, the big challenge. It's not the tool. It's the targets. So we've made great progress with that. We've actually got genome-editing camelina with higher oil content, altered seed color.
Then you think about some of the big issues that, not big, but things that can be addressed with this. For example, you want to improve the quality of the meal for a particular feed application. Genome editing thing is ideal for that. We've also got genome editing lines of higher yield, and with growers, yield, yield and yield is pretty key. So we're very excited about where we're going with this.
The job number one is obviously getting these GMO varieties of camelina ready for the growers as soon as possible. We're very excited about that for a couple of reasons. One, tremendous progress has been made. We have clear line of sight when this is going to happen, but the other reason for it is under the secure rule in the US, they're taking a very solid science-based approach to the regulatory process. So we already filed for regulatory approval for the first of these. We do expect to receive that sometime later this year, and so that process and the challenges associated with earlier regulations has largely been addressed. Again, it's based pretty simply on just the tremendous history of safety and efficacy and value in use that these technologies have demonstrated.
You guys use these tools, the Trait Factory and GRAIN, is that what it's called? So I guess once again, in simple terms, as simple as possible, what are these two tools doing to help target these?
Yeah, so GRAIN is really a way to mine data. If you look at what the ag sector industry has generated over the last decades, it's tons and tons of data. I mean just enormous quantities, terabytes, I mean, they've got so many bytes, I can't count them. The reality of it is, however, translating that into actionable targets has really been an issue. So coming from our advanced synthetic biology background, in other words, really looking at living systems as chemical factories and applying chemical engineering principles, we built the tool called GRAIN which is a data mining tool. What it does is it sort of says if you want to increase grain yield or oil content, the following things would have to change. If you treat it like a factory, the following things have to change. And then GRAIN allows you to search the public databases and say, how would we accomplish those changes? And you get a prioritized list of targets.
So for example, we took a look at, well, let's look at increasing oil content in camelina. And sure enough, we popped out 200 top line targets. We reduced that to 20 and tested four, and all four actually impact oil yield in an interesting way. Then that gives you a focus to then leverage and do the right design of changes that you need to optimize performance. But one of those, a gene called C3020, we see a 10% increase in oil, and literally, GRAIN allowed us to pick that out of the ether space. It was that successful. So it very exciting. A lot can be done with it.
But right now, again, and we have a pipeline of these things also by GRAIN, including advanced, I would say GMO technologies for crops that we've been able to demonstrate, can actually double yield. Now, they're quite far from commercialization, but the concept of doubling yield through this advanced technologies is really very exciting because it could really massively shift the timelines.
I guess last thing I would ask you is what else do farmers need to know about camelina and the future of the crop?
If you do some crude math and you say in the US, at least, and you say, well, what could be the next big crop? Well, first of all, we don't have new land. We're getting less arable land every year. In fact, I believe we lost 20 million acres in the last 20 years. So we have to look at land differently. We have to look at it from the point of view of how do we sustain this essential resource perpetuity because we're always going to have to eat, number one. And number two, how do I get the most out of it in a way that actually protects the quality of the land, the organic soil, carbon content, this type of thing. The thing that comes to mind fairly quickly is cover cropping, obviously. Then you get to the key question, which is, well, how do I make that pay for the grower not over the long term, but near term. And so that's not a cost for them.
So you see in the Farm Bill, obviously there's $5 an acre in crop insurance, that's a help. You see some states providing additional incentives, but what we believe is the answer is cash cover crops that enable us to increase productivity, generate additional revenue for the grower, and allow this to be seamlessly integrated into the existing rotations. We see there, you could readily see 44 million acres of cover cropping. If you just take roughly 25% of the total soy and corn acres and say, that's cover crop with oil seeds like camelina or even pennycress with other folks, and you say, actually, that's a pretty big contribution. That's a pretty attractive proposition.
So that's kind of the longer-term strategic vision is to get this to millions of acres, but obviously, as a small company with a pretty small staff, terrific staff, but small, we have to really focus. Obviously, we're driving forward now in commercial acres and really focusing on the herbicides, which we think is going to allow us to wrap the acres very quickly.
Big thanks to Oliver Peoples for today's discussion. The full transcript of the episode will be available at covercropstrategies.com/podcasts.
Many thanks to our sponsor, GO Seed, for helping to make this cover crop podcast series possible. From all of us here at Cover Crop Strategies, I'm Mackane Vogel. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.