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Growing Pains for Oil Seeds


For more than two decades, the lubricants industry has hoped for a useful plant – soybean, rapeseed, sunflower, weeds, anything – that produces better base oils. Conventional vegetable oils have good natural lubricity and wide viscosity index, but also have sluggish cold-flow properties, poor oxidative stability and laughable high-temperature resistance.

Plant researchers regularly announce they are working to improve these traits, but why is progress so slow? Part of the crux of the problem, answers seed expert Nigel Padbury, is the communication gap between botanists and the chemical industry.

Lubricant blenders could use a better understanding of plant breeding, he suggests, while botanists need more input from the lubricants industry about the specific characteristics it craves from plant oils. What are the properties that lubes want, in terms that I can understand? Is it viscosity? Is it acid content? I can breed for acid content, but is that what you need?

Unfortunately, he points out, both sides in this dialogue are at opposite ends of the agricultural supply chain, so contact between the end user and the plant breeder is filtered through layers of oil and grain traders, farmers and seed retailers.

Padbury is technical, sales and marketing manager for the U.K. and Ireland at Syngenta Seeds Ltd., part of the $11 billion global seed company Syngenta AG. Formed in 2000 from the merger of the agribusinesses of Novartis and Zeneca, and headquartered in Switzerland, Syngenta is the worlds third-largest seed company, Europes largest in rape-seed, and number one worldwide in sunflower seed, he told the ACI European Base Oils & Lubricants Forum, held in London in September.

In his presentation, Padbury described the lengthy plant breeding process, the regulatory and economic hurdles for new plant traits, and the prospects for improving feedstocks for lubricants.

He said seed companies foremost are trying to create renewable feedstocks that are sustainable in the field and can fit into the growing season for farmers. This means juggling issues such as environmental impact, crop sustainability, nutrition and – where possible – integration of food and nonfood crops within a farm rotation. The primary targets for seed companies are yield, improved agronomic characteristics, disease and pest resistance, and quality.

Each plant breed presents a unique puzzle, he said, like how to get more pints of beer from a ton of barley. Or how to make a plant more drought and disease resistant. The plant breeding industry is extremely competitive, and has undergone a huge consolidation, with giants such as DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta buying up smaller companies. Each invests billions in seed research annually, and gets paid (usually via royalties) for intellectual property that improves the plant or yield in some way.

Breeding Success

In its simplest form, a new plant breed begins with two parent lines, each with a desirable characteristic, such as high yield or high disease resistance. The botanist crosses the two to create an offspring – hopefully with the desirable characteristics of each parent.

It takes approximately eight to nine years to develop a new variety of winter rapeseed, from the original cross to the marketplace, Padbury pointed out; from 10,000 attempted crosses, perhaps only one or two successful lines will survive at the end of the process.

The first few years will be spent in the research lab and greenhouse, confirming that the desirable cross is reliable and sustainable. Field trials with farmers under contract may take another two to four years. Then the seed must obtain official registration from authorities such as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture, or the U.K.s Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board. Finally, the seed variety can be propagated in volumes for commercial release. And if farmers can be convinced that theres a commercial advantage in devoting acreage to the new breed, such as higher yields or bigger profits, the breed may flourish.

Despite the lengthy lead times, a number of markets exist in the rape-seed sector today because of plant breeding, Padbury said. They include:

High erucic acid rapeseed. About 16,000 to 20,000 hectares are in cultivation annually, most of which will be used for plastics. But its 55 percent erucic acid content also makes this oil useful in some lubricants. One hindrance: This plant requires strict isolation from other rapeseed crops to prevent cross-contamination, since high erucic acid oils are not fit for human consumption.

High oleic acid/low linolenic plants. Marketed by Monsanto as Vistive, this rapeseed has about 75 percent oleic acid content, with high antioxidant properties.

High oleic acid/balanced linoleiclinolenic varieties. Developed by Syngenta for the culinary oil market, this also has oleic acid higher than 70 percent.

These rapeseeds all took years to develop, but at least had broad potential markets. For lubricants, where volumes are smaller, there are many more questions to address, Padbury said.

Given the long lead time, one big question for plant breeders is, will the need still be there when the product is ready? Bear in mind the timescale required to develop a variety is at least seven years for most crops. And then, can we produce it in the volumes needed? Is there enough arable land?

Finally, theres the issue of the seed oils value to lubricant companies. Will the value of the product exceed the cost of development and production? he pondered. Looking at the cost points in seed development, its most intensive at the start, as breeders try to isolate and develop as many traits as possible. So the cost is front-end loaded, and then again at the end due to the registration process being so arduous. In fact, starting up from scratch, it can cost 1.25 million to 1.5 million sterling, plus 10 years of work, Padbury estimated.

Plant breeding, he said in closing, is a high-tech, highly efficient global business. But it needs to hear from the lubricants industry about what properties it wants – viscosity, acid content, or other. And then it has to receive fair value for those benefits.

One of the key short-term issues is understanding what lubricant manufacturers need, and breaking down the barriers to communication, he reiterated.

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