F3, a Canola of Worms

February 1st, 2013

Part I: Don’t Rape

If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain.
If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees.
If you want one hundred years of prosperity,
educate the people.

Chinese proverb

“The Field to the Fryer to the Fuel Tank Project,” or F3 for short, is about growing crops for seed, extracting and refining the seed oil for food, then recycling the remaining oil into biodiesel. It starts with canola (a hybrid of the rape plant developed in the 1980’s), and soy may be next.

F3 is being run by a consortium led by Advantage West. Partners include Algaenan Energy Corporation, Appalachian State University, The Biltmore Company, Blue Ridge Biofuels, Blue Ridge Food Ventures, Land-of-Sky Regional Council, NC State Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center, and Old Dominion University. An initial planting of canola on The Biltmore will be harvested this spring to produce the first 7,000 gallons of cooking oil.

fried chickenI recommend that the project switch from canola and soy to animal fats, both for frying and for fuel. Vegetable oils, particularly canola and soy, are generally unhealthy both for people and the environment. By interbreeding with GMO strains, even non-GMO canola raises some serious agricultural issues. A healthier alternative would be black walnut oil. Basically, I say, “don’t rape; go nuts.” Here’s why.

For years I have advised people not to use canola, especially for frying. For why canola is not fit for human consumption, see “The Dangers of Polyunsaturates” and “The Great Con-ola” on the website of the Weston Price Foundation. The same website has plenty of information on the many reasons not to consume soy either, except maybe when fermented (e.g., as tempeh or miso).

As the second article explains, canola was first marketed as LEAR (Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed) but people were understandably leery of it. Indeed, one of the main criticisms leveled against Dr. Andrew Weil, the #1 figure in natural health (who is writing the foreword to my upcoming book), is that he endorsed canola when it first came out. He now recommends olive oil instead.

Fortunately, F3’s canola will be expeller-pressed (for the problems associated with high heat chemical extraction, see here). The large-scale production facility will use patented technology licensed by The Algaenan Energy Corporation (AEC). The only thing I could find online about AEC is that they are an Asheville-based company only a year old.  Who is AEC?

At the Venture Local conference last month, I told Vanessa King, Biltmore’s Sustainability Coordinator, about the problems with canola and potential alternatives. I then sent her the links to the above articles about canola. Here is her response:

We are growing 50 acres of Non-GMO Canola to press into cooking oil. Currently the plan is to only use the oil for our frying needs on the estate and at a few local restaurants in the Asheville Area.  Blue Ridge Biofuels, our partners in this project, will then collect the used oil and turn it into biofuel for our off-road equipment needs.  I am excited about this pilot project for many reasons but mainly to see if we can grow a reliable winter crop, provide our restaurants with a estate grown oil seed, and to produce our own fuel.

I understand that everything has its disadvantages, but I am hoping that by creating a closed loop system that provides us with a viable crop for the WNC region and lowers our dependency on foreign oil will out-way the disadvantages noted.  There are also a few byproducts that will be used on the estate such as the meal produced from cold-pressing the seed.  We can give this to our livestock as a feed supplement to reduce our methane emissions.

 I then spoke with Melita at Blue Ridge Biofuels, and they think black walnuts would be too expensive. She pointed out that the Biltmore Winery generates a lot of grapeseed, but it would also be too expensive. Besides, the Biltmore is meant to be a pilot and not everyone has a vineyard.

What about sunflower seed oil? Like canola oil, the only suitable variety for frying would be high oleic (low polyunsatured) hybrids. Sure would be pretty in the field, though!

I then corresponded with Bill Whipple of The Buncombe Fruit and Nut Club and he suggested hazelnuts. But who wants to wait for trees to grow?

That’s the problem. The problem with canola, fundamentally, is true for nearly all field crops everywhere. Field seed crops are annuals with quicker turnaround than trees (in this case, a year from seed to fuel), but this is just another example of choosing short term gain, and with it, long term pain. This is the hallmark of our culture. But this is Asheville; surely we can do better. Sustainability needs a triple bottom line and human health is one of them.

I then consulted with local permaculture experts Chuck Marsh and Zev Friedman of Living Systems Design. Chuck said,

Alan, you’ve put your finger right on the issue here.  It doesn’t sound like human nutrition and soil health have been fully integrated into this program… I can think of several possibilities for local oil production, but I don’t think they’re suitable for frying, like sunflowers, flaxseed, peanuts, and hazelnuts… What about corn oil? We already know how to grow that around here, but as we all know, heated oils in any form are not that healthy. A better place for minimally processed oils to go is into our bodies as food, not fried and then zip into the gas tank, and then into the air…

Canola is poison and soybeans grown conventionally lead to water pollution and soil loss.  Of course that is what’s already happening with corn farming in the mountains, so maybe it’s better to address the existing issues with conventional farming and the problem of short term profit and long term systemic failure. These are the problems with conventional ag, among others, that are not being addressed by the F3 program… [Even so,] I for one am delighted the F3 project is even underway because it gets us thinking more deeply about this subject.

Zev’s thoughts on F3:

I agree it has a dubious claim on sustainability. It is using tractor agriculture in a monocropping system with a “no-till system” that uses herbicides to kill all the plants in order to avoid tilling (much different from what organic farmers mean by no-till), all to produce canola oil with its highly questionable food properties, and then like Chuck pointed out, just to burn that carbon off into the atmosphere again, perpetuating the fossil fuel style economy (the unfortunate underbelly of the biofuels scene, which makes biofuels a transition strategy at best, in my opinion).

Matt points out that it is creating the more closed loop system and keeping those dollars and autonomy in the region, and that since it will be controlled locally it’s more likely that we can innovate it in the near future to a truly more sustainable program after the canola program proves itself and gets on its feet. in addition, the oil pressing facility is being designed in such a way as to accommodate expansion for pressing other oils from local oil sources on a commercial scale, so it could bootstrap up other options like walnut, pumpkin seed, sunflower, soldier fly larvae, Karl Rove’s nose, etc.

I then spoke with Jeanie Martin of Transition Asheville and she is in accord with all the above (except maybe the nose). The same critique is summarized in a book I edited for Sandor Katz. In it, he concludes that large-scale agricultural production of biofuel

…means more monoculture, more genetically modified acreage, and more agrochemicals. In their institutionalized forms, biofuels really aren’t especially eco-friendly at all, and they mostly benefit large corporate grain processors… (The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, 312-13)

Who is this project really meant to serve?

The canola F3 is using is theoretically non-GMO. However, farmers in Oregon have been fighting the introduction of canola, GMO or not, for years because all canola naturalizes quickly and cross-pollinates readily, creating a new class of invasive, noxious weeds. Besides, ninety percent of the canola in North America is genetically-modified. It would be unreasonable not to expect a “virgin” WNC crop to be tainted with GMO material within a few years:

Herbicide resistance is the most widespread GM trait so far. The biggest GM crops to date are those, like canola, that Monsanto has manufactured as “Roundup Ready,” augmented with a gene enabling it to tolerate the herbicide Roundup, also marketed by Monsanto. But genetic drift is a pervasive reality. Whatever diversity existed among regional heirloom canola varieties in Canada is being rapidly homogenized by the Roundup Ready gene. Rene Van Acker of the University of Manitoba has found canola with Roundup Ready genes in ditches, schoolyards, and city lots; she found that even the purest, certified non-genetically engineered canola now contains up to 4.9 percent Roundup Ready material.” And researchers have identified weeds that have acquired the engineered genes for herbicide resistance, thereby undermining the effectiveness of the herbicide used to treat the herbicide-resistant crops.

Katz, 49, emphasis added

 [UPDATE, September, 2013: GMO cross-contamination has already begun.]

Overall, canola, despite its current widespread use, is not a healthy choice for people or the environment. In contrast, contrary to contemporary popular belief, animal fats are wholesome, time-tested food. In fact, it is the lack of saturated fat in the diet that makes canola oil so dangerous.

oh deerAnimal fats are suitable and traditionally used for high-heat applications, i.e., frying. These include lard, duck or goose fat, and tallow from larger animals like this deer (c/o Jessica Foster, former apprentice and Supervisor of Recycling and Waste Reduction for Warren Wilson College).

There are certainly serious issues with factory farming, but using animal fat for food and/or fuel is making use of a byproduct that is currently going to waste. Every year, thousands of pounds of animal fat are routinely trimmed off at regional slaughterhouses and simply thrown away.

With animal fats, there is no “extraction” needed. Rendering (separation from connective tissue, illustrated here) involves a little water to keep the temperature under 212ºF. Water is nontoxic.

Animal fat is also, again contrary to popular belief, a superior feedstock for bio-diesel. “Animal Fat-Based Biodiesel: Explore Its Untapped Potential” sums this up nicely, addressing concerns such as cold-weather performance. See also in particular the sections on stability and sustainability.  For a less glowing review of this option, see here. It must be a decent one, however, because European countries have been shifting from rapeseed to tallow as a cheaper alternative.

Does WNC produce enough animal fat to supply the project? F3 hopes to produce 5,000 gallons of fuel to start and eventually 300,000 gallons a year. In October, ASAP issued a report for Advantage West on feasibility of a regional slaughterhouse. They project processing about 5,000 cattle and over 2,000 hogs a year. The amount of beef tallow per cow, at as of 1956, is at least 35 pounds. A pound of fat is about a tenth of a gallon. That’s 17,500 gallons a year. The average hog yields 30 pounds of fat, which renders down to 24 pounds (2.4 gallons). That’s another 4,800 gallons a year, for a total of 22,300 gallons. That’s less than a tenth of F3’s projected volume, but there’s plenty more fat available from existing slaughterhouses in VA and TN.

A local meat processing plant is a wonderful idea. I have long lamented the lack of a humane slaughtering system to go along with how animals should be treated in life. Hopefully this would help. One of the challenges is of course profitability, hopefully the use/sale of the fat generated would help. Unfortunately, the only point in the report regarding animal fat came from a survey respondent. He simply said, “fat: no one knows what to do with it.”

Apparently, someone in California knows what to do with it. For the past year and half, North Star Biofuels of Watsonville has been producing, at a rate 100 times faster than typical vegetable oil biodiesel facilities, three thousand gallons of fuel a day, all from animal fat. They must be getting it all from somewhere. And that’s just a test rate. At full scale, the company plans to be putting out 65,000 gallons a day. The single $6 million factory would double CA’s current production. It will run constantly year-round and will exceed F3’s entire annual goal every five days. And it may already be in operation.

bacon shirtHow many facilities like this would it take to flood the national supply? Could a vegetable oil biodiesel plant in WNC even remain competitive at that point?

If this technology is available to the project, then maybe using the animal fat for food first isn’t even necessary. But if it is, and it’s a matter of re-educating local restaurants and/or their clientele on using animal fats, I know people who can do that. Maybe this fellow who came to my class for ODU in Norfolk this past September.

In summary, I hear that F3 looks like a good step in some ways, and that it’s transitional. In early January, I sent this article to Matt Raker, the point person for the project, and he said the same thing: basically, that canola is an easy first step. Once we have a factory we can use other, better ingredients. What’s wrong with replacing non-local canola with local canola in restaurants that are already using canola now, just for starters? The problem is that “transitional” efforts all too often get mired in the transition. And I just don’t see how poisoning the population can be justified, even in the short run, when there are much better alternatives. Why not get it right the first time?

I’m told that the project is too far along to change now. But you don’t stick with something just because you’ve already put a lot of money into it. That’s called the sunk costs fallacy. It’s like the man who insists on looking for his keys under the streetlight when he knows he lost them on the dark end of the street. There are plenty of people in our community with flashlights. I can pick up the phone and call ten local professionals who would laugh if I asked them if canola is suitable as food. Did the project ever bother to consult any of them? Raker says he was not aware of the health concerns I raise around canola; they’re just trying to get up and running regionally. That’s like saying you’ve already spent a few hundred thousand dollars to build a more local doughnut factory without consulting a single dietician. Who is this really going to benefit?

The effort to regionalize our food and energy systems is commendable, and that’s why I’m trying to help. But the way it’s looking now, I’m afraid that for all its effort, F3 will not get good press and none but the worst restaurants will go for it. For nearly twenty years, I have been supplying nearly all of the high end restaurants in the region with the highest quality, real food. My client list is now at 85, I appear in major media regularly, and I would much rather show off a plan that helps the people, not just the businesses, of WNC than have to explain what I’m explaining here.

Asheville, a.k.a., “Foodtopia,” could be on the cutting edge of both fuel production and nutrition. In that regard, I should mention that even the most efficient biodiesel may still be less ideal in the long run than photovoltaics, and I would direct the reader to Earthaven resident Chris Farmer regarding that.

In any case, as a medium-range strategy, the project could pursue animal fat for fuel, forgo frying with it, and process black walnut meats or oil for food instead. Unlike canola, black walnut is nontoxic, natural, native, and nutritious, as we’ll see in Part Two.