Summer on Maui means mangoes and, inevitably, scraping up those rotting, fallen fruits off the ground. But as you’re doing yard work this season, imagine a technology that would convert all that plant matter into something other than compost.
In fact, the USDA Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center (PBARC), along with Florida-based BioTork Hawaii LLC, did just that. More than $1 million later, they’ve successfully developed “an economically sustainable zero waste conversion project producing biofuel and high protein animal feed from unmarketable papaya,” according to an April 6 news release from the Governor Neil Abercrombie’s office. What’s more, the release said that “this technology can be applied to any plant material as a carbon source.”
The promise of non-petroleum, clean-burning fuel is real, and is already providing great environmental benefits. The United States wastes up to 20 million metric tons of produce, states the news release, which could produce as much as 1.7 billion gallons of renewable lipids. The proposed program also plans to use invasive trees such as Albizia, of which the islands’ supply is plentiful.
“This patented evolutionary technology is unique to the marketplace and places Hawaii in a leading position in the area of biofuel and feed research,” Abercrombie said in the statement. “With this technology, farmers can turn agricultural waste into an additional revenue stream, and local production of biofuel can lower dependence on Hawaii’s import of fossil fuels.”
At the April 6 open house event, Abercrombie also presented the Hilo based PBARC “zero waste biofuel and high protein feed program” with a $200,000 check from the state Department of Agriculture.
“The state’s $200,000 investment will assist PBARC in moving the project to pilot scale as a prelude to commercial production,” said the news statement. “The State of Hawaii’s Agribusiness Development Corporation (ADC) will become a venture partner to globally export the rapid conversion technology in association with PBARC and BioTork Hawaii LLC. The state also hopes to develop a long-term revenue generator as a partner exporting this technology. At full scale, more than 1,000 jobs are projected.”
The biological conversion process works using “organically optimized” algae and fungi-developed and patented by BioTork–and a specialized environment that does not require sunlight. As a by-product of this process, “high protein feed” is produced that can be used to feed animals.
“Aside from the benefit of producing biofuel, this technology has the ability to create another revenue stream for papaya and other tropical agriculture farmers,” said Abercrombie in the release. “Local high protein feed production–another by-product of this process–can greatly benefit cattle, hog, chicken and aquaculture farms through competitive market pricing.”
Of course, all this wouldn’t sound so ominous or even torn from a dystopian sci-fi story if either the news release or BioTork website had included research, details and data. Alas, science does not appear to be Abercrombie’s forte. Indeed, the news release from his office included an erroneous tautology. It included the statement “heterotrophic environment, meaning no sunlight is needed…” when, in fact, “heterotrophic” means to consume organic compounds as opposed to autotrophs like plants that can produce them using processes like photosynthesis.
After asking Abercrombie’s office for further information on the program and the $200,000 contribution, they sent us a second copy of the press release and a reference to the Agribusiness Development Corporation (ADC), who sent us a copy of the three-page project request.
That document included less substantive information than would be found in a passable high school biology lab report. When asked for more information, the ADC referred us to the PBARC, which was able to confirm that, in fact, that three-page document was all they need to formally submit in exchange for the $200,000 grant.
This didn’t surprise Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land. “There are a lot of unanswered questions about it,” he said. “Agricultural operations in this state tend to have a lot less scrutiny, a lot less oversight than other types of projects. The ADC, of course, is made up of the big, most powerful agricultural interests in the state. So the ADC does not represent the little company, they represent the big guys. It’s sort of a quasi-government-private-public partnership type of thing.”
So what would another private entity have to say about the ADC’s new venture? “The more people we bring into the mix into the process of developing feedstocks and processing oil, the better our state’s going to be,” said Pacific Biodiesel founder Kelly King. “We’re happy to be kept informed on all these different projects, and to be able to help wherever we can.”
She continued, “They’ve been very successful in growing these algae from papaya waste; the challenge is getting the oil out of it economically. The oil would be processed at Big Island Biodiesel. Their [PBARC and BioTork] challenge is getting the oil out of the algae, and we stand ready to process that algae—it’s when we get it.”
According to King, Pacific Biodiesel has been told that the program has developed a feasible way of separating the oil from the algae, but, she says, “we’re still waiting for a sample of the raw algae oil, which, by the way we have not gotten from any of the algae companies in Hawaii. We have a standing offer of $500 for the first gallon of raw algae oil we can get from anyone in the state of Hawaii,” she added, laughing.
What’s more, the proposal also has no plan for how all this oil, produced from GM papayas, will be separated from the algae.
During the event, Abercrombie also declared April 6 to be “Dr. Dennis Gonsalves Day,” to honor Dr. Dennis Gonsalves for “his research efforts at PBARC to improve and develop sustainable agriculture crops and programs in Hawaii and around the world.” Gonsalves is notably known for his efforts at creating the genetically modified rainbow papaya.
GM papayas have drawn considerable criticism since they’re grown outside Hawaii with little analysis of their possible impact. Critics have alleged that the GM crop has contaminated organic seeds and believe that alternative forms of pest management are better.
“To me it seems like the U.S. has been kind of twisting the arm of the Japanese personnel to try to get the papaya approved,” said Hector Valenzuela, a University of Hawaii vegetable extension specialist in an April 25, 2010 Honolulu Star Advertiser story
With friends and honorees like that, you can see why we’re suspicious.