This story by Michael Grunwald originally appeared in Canary Media and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
Feeding the world without frying the world would be a miraculous achievement. Somehow, we’d need to grow far more food with far less environmental impact while using far less land. We’d also need to grow far more trees, so we could store more carbon on earth and reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Well, a miracle has arrived.
It’s called pongamia, an ordinary-looking tropical tree with agricultural superpowers. It produces beans packed with protein and oil much like soybeans, except it has the potential to produce much more nutrition per acre than soybeans. It’s hardy enough to grow on just about any land, no matter how degraded, without any pesticides or irrigation. It not only removes carbon from the atmosphere, which combats climate change, but it also sucks nitrogen out of the air, so it usually doesn’t need fertilizer that accelerates climate change.
In other words, it’s a dream crop for a hot and hungry planet that’s running out of fertile farmland and fresh water while choking on pollution from agrochemicals. At a time when modern farming is under attack for poisoning and depleting soils, pongamia can stabilize and restore soils. At a time when the food system generates one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, growing pongamia cuts emissions, sequestering about 5 tons of carbon per acre per year.
Basically, pongamia is an answered prayer for the planet in vegetative form — a reforestation crop that can replace deforestation crops like soy and palm oil without diesel tractors or chemicals or even added water. It’s a self-sufficient, heat-tolerant, drought-tolerant, jungle-tough badass of a tree that can produce monster yields on marginal land on a warming planet.
It may sound surprising that after growing wild for thousands of years throughout South Asia and Australia, pongamia is only now being domesticated and reinvented as a super-crop in the United States. But if we’re going to reduce agricultural emissions by 75 percent by 2050 to meet the goals of the Paris accord, while increasing agricultural production by 50 percent to feed 10 billion people, we’re going to need some surprises.
You probably haven’t heard of pongamia before, which is probably a giveaway that it hasn’t yet transformed the global agricultural sector, and that this column won’t be uninterrupted good news. The world is currently mired in a food crisis, created by horrific droughts in Africa and elsewhere as well as the war in Ukraine, and pongamia obviously hasn’t saved the day.
But the crop itself really is as cool and miraculous as it sounds. It really could help feed and heal the world. And the story of Terviva, the Oakland-based company that’s trying to bring pongamia to the masses, is a cool and miraculous story.
So let’s do the good news first.
Pongamia is not a new tree or a rare tree. It was cited for its healing properties in ancient Ayurvedic texts, and while it’s still most common in India, it can now be found all over the world, including in a park near my Miami home. It’s got a broad canopy, an extensive root network, and pretty white and pink flowers that bloom in the spring, so it’s often planted in yards or parking lots as an ornamental, windbreak or shade tree. Its oil, also known as karanja, is used in India as a natural lubricant, varnish, and lamp oil. Pongamia seeds also produce the active ingredient in the antifungal remedies you can buy at CVS.
But plant guides warn that pongamia’s seeds have a “bitter taste and disagreeable aroma,” with some guides suggesting they’re poisonous, which explains why they’ve never caught on as animal feed or human food. And that explains why pongamia was never cultivated as a crop before a University of California, Berkeley business student named Naveen Sikka visited central India in the spring of 2009, to see if the tree could produce sustainable biofuel.
At the time, the US and European Union had ambitious new biofuel mandates, and investors were blasting money into the space; the oil giant BP had just made a massive investment in a bioenergy research center at Berkeley. Sikka knew biofuels had one serious downside: Using good farmland to grow energy instead of food leads to the clearing of natural carbon sinks to create more farmland to replace that food. But when he saw pongamia flourishing in rocky soils in India’s arid badlands, he saw a unique opportunity to grow renewable fuel on low-quality land so that it wouldn’t compete with the food supply or drive deforestation.
Sikka’s idea when he founded Terviva was to create a genetic library of pongamia traits, a kind of arboreal 23andMe, then breed the superstar trees that could create the most fuel on the worst land. The biofuels market tanked while he was still fundraising, and Terviva had several near-death experiences as it burned through cash, but miracles soon began to happen.
The first miracle was the de-bittering of pongamia. Sikka had hoped it could be made palatable, at least for cattle, though he feared that would require nasty chemical solvents unfit for human consumption. He was stunned when his team figured out a way to do it with a solvent already consumed by quite a few humans: alcohol.
That’s when Terviva began to pivot from fuel toward its current mission of “planting millions of trees to feed billions of people.” As a child, Sikka regularly visited relatives in India, and after college, he worked for the US State Department in West Africa, so he had witnessed the developing world’s desperate need for protein and vegetable oil firsthand. Now he had a way to grow a lot without using any productive land.
The problem was finding someone to do the growing, because farmers are notoriously reluctant to gamble on untested crops, especially tree crops that take four years to yield their first harvest. Farmers are only willing to take a risk like that when they are, as Sikka puts it, “totally fucked,” which brings us to Terviva’s second miracle: A bacterial disease began wiping out Florida’s citrus trees, inspiring some totally fucked farmers to take a chance on pongamia on a few of their worst tracts of land.