Published on June 2nd, 2015 | by Glenn Meyers


Camelina Biofuel A Solution To Food vs Fuel Biofuel Conundrum?

June 2nd, 2015 by  

There are few clear-cut answers to using biofuels to meet our increasing energy demands. Among questions being debated:

  • Are we growing crops for food or fuel?
  • Who, if anybody, gets shortchanged?
  • What are environmental costs in producing biofuels?
  • How cost-competitive are biofuels?

Let’s start with my country, the United States.  Federal mandates to produce more renewable fuels, especially biofuels, have led to a growing debate: Should fuel or food grow on arable land? Remember a few years back when massive corn scarcity was threatened due to the production of ethanol? Recent research published by the American Society for Agronomy suggests Midwest farmers can successfully, and sustainably grow both — one in winter, the other in summer. The crop combo undergoing research is Camelina sativa with soybean.

Russ Gesch, a plant physiologist with the USDA Soil Conservation Research Lab in Morris, Minnesota, reports encouraging results when growing the two crops  in the Midwest.

“Finding any annual crop that will survive the [Midwest] winters is pretty difficult,” says Gesch, “but winter camelina does that and it has a short enough growing season to allow farmers to grow a second crop after it during the summer.”

Camelina 92696_rel

Camelina is a member of the mustard family and an emerging biofuel crop. It is well suited as a cover crop in the Midwest.

For growing two different crops on the same land parcel, water demand must also be considered. In the upper Midwest, soils need to retain enough rainwater for multiple crops in one growing season. Gesch and his colleagues measured water use in two systems of dual-cropping using camelina and soybean. The research team compared it with a more typical soybean field at the Swan Lake Research Farm near Morris, Minnesota. First, researchers planted camelina at the end of September. Different growing methods were used in conducting research — relay-cropping and dual-cropping. In double-cropping, soybean enters the field after the camelina harvest in June or July. Relay-cropping, however, overlaps the crops’ time. Soybeans grow between rows of camelina in April or May before the camelina plants mature and flower.

The benefits were numerous. Gesch said relay-cropping required less water than double-cropping the two plants. Camelina plants have shallow roots and a short growing season, which means they don’t use much water. “Other cover crops, like rye, use a lot more water than does camelina.”

camelina and soybeans 92697_web

his image shows newly emerged soybean seedlings between rows of camelina in the relay-cropped treatment. Note that the camelina has already begun to flower.

Conveniently, the extra water required during dual-cropping takes place in the spring, a good moisture season in the Midwest. “We tend to have an excess of moisture in the soil in the spring from the melting snow pack,” said Gesch. Growing camelina as a winter cover crop can help farmers take advantage of spring’s extra moisture. Gesch added the need for more water use does mean camelina dual-cropping may not be the best option in all areas. “As you get further west and precipitation drops off and soils get lighter with lower water-holding capacity, crop yields may start to go down,” he said.

Growing camelina as a winter cover crop can also have other benefits, according to Gesch.

“We had greater soybean yields with the relay-cropping system than when double cropping,” says Gesch, referencing a previous study. The earlier planting date during relay cropping allows for a longer growing season and contributes to the higher yield, according to Gesch. In addition, camelina plants flower early in the spring, providing a vital food source for pollinators like bees, when little else is available to them. As a cover crop, camelina may also help prevent erosion and build soil carbon content. Gesch and his colleagues are working to measure these ecological benefits of dual-cropping.

“We wanted to find alternative crops that could be integrated into the Midwestern corn/soybean cropping system in a sustainable way that also makes economic sense for farmers,” says Gesch. In camelina, they may have found just such a plant.

Gesch’s study was recently published in Agronomy Journal. This research will hopefully provide viable options for American farmers wanting to grow their businesses into viable entities that can operate sustainably, providing both food and biofuels which might be used in facing the overwhelming challenges associated with climate change. If successful, the next challenges will be economic ones. Can this biofuel be a clean burning and cost-competitive ingredient in meeting the staggering growth of our population’s overall transportation demand. We will hopefully find out in good time.

Photos via American Society of Agronomy

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About the Author

is a writer, producer, and director. Meyers was editor and site director of Green Building Elements, a contributing writer for CleanTechnica, and is founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.

  • JamesWimberley

    “Can this biofuel be a clean burning and cost-competitive ingredient in meeting the staggering growth of our population’s overall transportation demand?”

    Evidence? Controlling for population, vehicle miles in the USA are down from the peak. Without adjustment, they are flat (link).

    Air travel is ticking up in the US, and I suppose urban rail probably is too. But it’s not true that travel is destined to grow fast. Better telecoms make travel less necessary. What is true is that the level of transportation demand for energy, mostly liquid fuels, is staggeringly high, see the famous LLNL energy flowcharts.

  • GargoyleGuy

    The Biofuels Center of North Carolina did extensive research into Camelina and the possibility of using it as a feedstock for making biofuels, with biofuels defined as liquid transportation fuel like ethanol, biodiesel, and aviation fuel. While Camelina does have some benefits, like being drought resistant, there are too many downfalls to use it as a viable feedstock for a biofuels plant. First, in order for farmers to grow it, they would have to make money. Camelina doesn’t produce enough tons per acre to be profitable. It is also an annual and must be replanted every year, which is costly. With that said, there are several plants we found that work well, especially in marginal soil where farmers do not grow for human consumption. In NC, as well as the Midwest, plants like Switchgrass, Miscanthus, some varieties of sorghum and Arundo donax, are perennials so they do not need replanting, are all drought resistant and produce many more tons per acre than Camelina. So, according to our research, while Camelina does have some benefits as a feedstock for biofuels, there are far better alternatives.

    • Bob_Wallace

      But you’re talking perennial plants that would tie up the land. The crops being discussed can either be grown at the same time as other crops or grown in between normal cropping seasons.

      In either case, it’s an additional crop that can be grown and sold from the same land.

      Perennial grasses offer great potential for land that is not high enough quality for food production and for land that has been “burned up” by too intensive farming, in particular cotton production. Grown for several seasons they can rejuvenate the soil by adding back in a lot of the stripped out organic matter.

    • newnodm

      I want genetically enhanced algae making biodiesel from waste water please.

      • Larmion

        Why would one do that if the ‘waste’ can (and indeed often is) anaerobically digested at much lower cost and with minimal processing required?

        • newnodm

          Because I want biodiesel plus phosphate and nitrogen removed from the wastewater. But mostly I would like to see a fairly low priced synfuel that can be burned in existing diesel engines beyond waste oils and ag oils.
          You may not have my soybeans for biodiesel.

          • Larmion

            And why would one need algae to accomplish that removal when denitrification (i.e. via anamox) is already dirt cheap and extremely efficient? Phosphate removal is rather easil done. Guess what? Small water treatment plants already do it using algae in lagoon-type processing units (a process now widely abandoned because of its low efficiency).

            You know what happens with those algae? They’re either burned or used as fertilizer. Algae fuel simply isn’t economical at the moment. They require significant processing, fairly complex growing conditions and cannot realistically be mass-produced from waste streams alone.

            And much though I love genetic engineering, you have to be realistic in what it can and can’t do. It can alter lipid yield and composition, but not to the huge extent required. GM doesn’t turn duds into stars, it’s just another way to further improve something that’s already pretty decent.

            As for the biodiesel thing: only aviation really needs it, and its demand can easily be supplied by conventional biofuels. For other uses of diesel, gasoline (and thus ethanol/butanol) are a good substitute.

            Compare the potential for producing ethanol from waste streams at low cost with the very limited potential for affordable biodiesel production.

  • newnodm

    Not going to work in a typical corn rotation in the U.S.

    • Larmion

      It seems mostly intended to be paired with soybean.

      Corn and camelina are both voracious nitrogen users, whereas soybeans are net generators of it (or more precisely, the slave bacteria they keep are). Oh, and the growing seasons aren’t a great match.

      Cover crops for corn exist, and are increasingly popular in Europe. They’re not Brassicaceae like camelina, but rather mixtures of various early-season grasses.

      The impact on yield is minimal (often slightly negative), but the grass mixture is excellent at preserving nutrients, supressing weeds and reducing erosion.

      • newnodm

        I doubt there would be enough growth planting late following corn. Since the normal rotation is corn-corn-beans, it would always follow corn.

  • Larmion

    The idea of using a cover crop as an energy source is an excellent one. The interesting and unanswered question here is: why Camelina?

    Camelina is an oilseed. Roughly speaking, energy yield per hectare (and per unit of nutrients/water) goes like this: burning solid biomass > digesting into biogas > ethanol > biodiesel (oil seeds).

    There are a lot of cover crops that are both cold-tolerant. Winter rye is a good example: it’s an excellent source of solid biomass and can be used for ethanol too if needed. Like most grasses, it also has an excellent water use efficiency and dense roots that control erosion like a champ.

    America seem fixated on liquid biofuels, but from a purely agronomical perspective, biogas or solid biomass are the more economical and ecological option. If you absolutely must have biodiesel though, this is the best proposal I’ve seen so far.

    • Bob_Wallace


      Perhaps the fact that it is an oilseed. We already grow oil seeds on large scale for food use. Farmers are familiar with growing oilseeds and the processing plants are already in place.

      Truthfully, I think the US has a bit of a bad taste in its mouth when it comes to ethanol and might be more favorably inclined to look at drop in diesel replacements. The entire ‘grown fuel’ field isn’t well established. I suspect people haven’t see non-corn ethanol produced on a commercial level.

  • Marion Meads

    Camelina is just like Jathropa. These plants are touted to be drought tolerant and can be grown in marginal lands. Yes it is true that they can be grown on marginal lands, but they will only yield the best when cultivated like any other crops, water and fertilizer intensive! If you grow these on marginal lands, the yield would be disappointingly low that you would spend more money collecting and processing them compared to what you can sell them for. I tried growing camelina and so I know first hand. Third world countries where labor is cheap, growing camelina on marginal lands would make sense. Additionally, camelina can also be a good nutrition source, as it is very rich in omega-3-fatty acids, so why just burn it for fuel? Debate about food versus fuel continues with this one too.

    • Bob_Wallace

      This article is not about growing camelina on marginal land with limited water.

      Give it a read….

      • Marion Meads

        When you grow Camelina after a major crop, in effect, the land becomes marginal. And still it doesn’t end the debate that the fact that Camelina can be a nutritional food source.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Camelina sativa is a close relative of the various rapeseed plants used for manufacturing canola oil.

          My understanding is that rapeseed/mustard can be grown in between wheat crops. That it requires no additional fertilizer, using what is left unused by the previous wheat crop. It helps lowers soil erosion and slows water runoff which allows more to soak into the soil. And the roots, roots and leaves disced back into the soil add organic matter.

          That is hardly turning the land marginal. It is doing exactly the opposite.

          Growing rapeseed also helps prevent fertilizer runoff into waterways.

          • Larmion

            Your understanding is entirely correct. Another advantage of a cover crop is that it helps in controlling weed emergence during the growth of the actual target crop (though that issue is less salient in the US, where herbicide resistances are more widely used).

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