Last August, California-based Terviva established a 9.5ha Pongamia research and development site in Emerald in Queensland. The project aims to prove Pongamia’s viability as a climate-smart, high-yield oil and protein tree crop with valuable applications for Australia, Carlo van Dee* writes.
Historically used as a reforestation species, the Pongamia tree is particularly suited to a climate-changing world. Pongamia, also known by the common botanical name Millettia Pinnata, is a legume tree native to Northern Australia, India and other subtropic areas.
Pongamia produces abundant yields of oil- and protein-packed beans from its broad-spanning canopy. For thousands of years, Pongamia beans have been used primarily in Ayurvedic medicine or as a lamp oil.
A six-month-old Pongamia seedling growing on Terviva’s research and development site in Emerald in Queensland.
Now, the Australian Research Council (ARC) and University of Queensland have announced they will extend a grant to develop a framework that integrates Pongamia into carbon-neutral beef production systems to not only reduce emissions, but also support carbon capture and farm systems resilience.
More recently, Pongavia has been found to be a valuable source of biofuel. It was not until 2019 that Terviva announced it had created the first food grade oil and protein ingredients from Pongamia beans, called Ponova.
Last October, Terviva announced a commercial distribution partnership for Ponova oil with Ciranda – a global supplier of premium organic, non-GMO and fair-trade food ingredients. Later this year, a popular plant-based snack bar brand will launch a new product using Ponova oil – the first consumer-packaged good to do so.
Pongamia’s regenerative properties make it uniquely suited to meet Australia’s environmental challenges. It is drought-tolerant, sequesters carbon, generates nitrogen, and improves water quality while growing on land where other crops cannot.
The ARC grant will help determine the impact of Pongamia meal on cattle production efficiency, meat quality and methane emissions in Australia. Among the project’s key objectives are to evaluate the effect of Pongamia meal on beef cattle performance and meat quality, maximise reductions in methane emissions in cattle using Pongamia meal, produce carbon offsets and reductions in the carbon footprint of beef supply chains, and enhance the profitability of cattle farming enterprises.
Pongamia’s ability to sequester large amounts of greenhouse gasses can make it profitable for landowners to sink carbon and address climate challenges. Terviva is collaborating with Cultivo, a Public Benefit Company that unlocks investment into nature at scale, to deliver carbon credits from land restoration projects.
In the U.S., Terviva is registering Pongamia plantings into a carbon offset program on behalf of a client that wants to decarbonise and invest in nature-based solutions. The 1200-acre (485ha) project will sequester approximately 95,000 tons of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years. Enrolling these pongamia plantings in a carbon offset project makes farming a new crop more viable and makes it more likely that carbon captured will remain sequestered over the life of the crop.
Terviva is leveraging two tree cultivation models to scale pongamia tree plantings globally. In the US, Australia and Belize, Terviva is pursuing an orchard reforestation cultivation model to target a total of 13,000 acres (5260ha) in the US by 2030 by partnering to grow proprietary cultivars and increase traced raw materials.
In Indonesia and India, Terviva is pursuing an agroforestry reforestation cultivation model with plans to plant 400,000 acres (162,000 ha) of trees by 2030 for land regeneration, ecosystem services and to support community livelihoods enhancement.
There is opportunity to broaden the Pongamia supply chain across Australia and to connect local farmers to a valuable ecosystem that spans food, feed, fuel and carbon revenue.
Young Terviva seedlings growing in pots in 2022.
In the months ahead, Terviva’s team members will visit prospective commercial development plantations in various parts of Queensland to launch new planting operations. The Terviva visits to various sites in the region stretching from Maryborough to Townsville and inland up to Emerald is a critical aspect of the company's expansion plans.
This region has been selected due to its favourable climate for Pongamia cultivation, as well as the presence of important infrastructure and resources that are crucial for the successful production of Ponova oil and protein isolates.
Of particular interest to the Terviva team is the Rockhampton area, which is strategically located close to a major port and manufacturing facilities. The proximity of Rockhampton to these key resources is of great significance, as it provides the company with easy access to markets for its products and the necessary infrastructure for processing and refining the oil from Pongamia seeds.
This visit will allow the Terviva team to assess the potential of various sites in the region and make informed decisions about where to focus its efforts. The team will be evaluating factors such as climate, soil quality, availability of resources and infrastructure, and the local community's support for Pongamia production.
We look forward to keeping the tree crop community apprised of more updates to come.
*Carlo van Dee is director, tree operations, Terviva Australia. He has a strong background in building horticulture projects in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia. Prior to joining Terviva, he was general manager farming for the largest flower wholesaler in Australia. Mr van Dee studied horticulture and plant science at Helicon in the Netherlands with an emphasis on plant physiology.