What is in this article?:
- 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?
- 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.
DR. NATALIA CASTILLO (Texas AgriLife Research, Lubbock), Dr. Mike Foster (Texas AgriLife Research, Pecos, retired), Dr. Calvin Trostle (Texas AgriLife Extension, Lubbock) are shown in a castor research plot.
The role of bio-science in modern castor production
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.
“And this is just a start. We are working to further reduce ricin levels in an effort to make the plant safe. We would like to reduce ricin levels to 3 percent. Add to this the plant’s ability to grow well on marginal land, and it becomes a promising oilseed for Texas growers,” Auld adds.
Working against the idea of commercial production of castor in Texas is the perception that castor is simply not safe to grow given its potential as a bio-weapon and the potential threat it poses to food crop and farm animal operations.
“Castor is certainly a crop that requires careful management such as proper isolation from food crops and good hygiene practices,” Auld concedes. “No one wants to contaminate the food supply, but continued research will see the development of new varieties with lower toxicity.”
Trostle adds that researchers are recommending stringent management and control measures, such as dedicating combines to castor-only applications, taking safeguard in transportation and storage of castor seed to eliminate contamination and restrictions on growing food crops on fields used for castor.
“Businesses that initially sought to resume castor production in 2009 in Texas were considering using bagging equipment to store the grain on-farm until shipment. This is a good idea because it keeps castor out of commercial delivery points and storage facilities,” cites a recent Texas A&M report about castor production. In addition, the report says castor seed must not be mixed with any food or feed grains or any other crop that might be used for human or animal consumption.
“Certainly we need to proceed with utmost care and careful consideration of every safety issue. No one wants to proceed without making certain each issue has been adequately addressed,” he says.
But as demand grows for less dependency on foreign oil and demand for biofuel rises in the months and years ahead, scientists working with castor research believe there is a place for castor production in Texas.
“Especially in areas like the Trans-Pecos region where high salt content has made growing other crops difficult,” says Auld.
Currently castor trials continue on test plots in that region and also in the Lubbock area, and some testing of Brigham castor have been staged in the Coastal Bend and in Southeast Texas.
“We may be two or three years away from producing the best variety for commercial application in Texas, one that is safe, highly productive and easily managed. The potential is there, and castor could one day soon find a home on Texas soil,” says Trostle.