Now, they’ve joined forces with US-based firm Amfora to develop and commercialise the technology to produce energy-rich livestock feed.
According to Dr Allan Green, Innovation Leader with CSIRO Agriculture and Food, it’s the first of many potential applications of the technology – others include producing oils for use in human foods, biofuels and industrial processes.
“Previously it has only been possible to extract oil from the oil-rich seeds and fruits of some specialised plants, such as canola, soybean, sunflower, coconut and oil palm,” explains Dr Green.
“What we have been able to do is switch on this high-level oil production in vegetative tissue, such as in stems and leaves, as well.”
In some species of plant, states the CSIRO, the research team has been able to get around 35 percent oil content into vegetative tissue – a similar percentage to that found in many oilseed crops.
“If the technology were applied to existing oil crops it could potentially treble oil productivity and greatly expand renewable oil production worldwide,” contends Dr Green.
“We are using solar energy captured by the plant to convert the leaf’s starch reserves into more energy-dense oil molecules, which significantly increases the energy value of the vegetative tissue where the oil accumulates.”
Technology to solve 21st-century issues
According to CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall, the organisation’s recent work into stimulating oil production in plant vegetative tissue is a demonstration of Australian researchers’ capacity to find innovative solutions to issues confronting industries globally.
“It is estimated that in 20 years’ time we will need 50 percent more plant-based oils just to meet the nutritional needs of a global population, and there is also a growing demand for renewable biofuels,” Dr Marshall says. “A transformational approach was needed to solve the increasing demand for plant oils within the limitations of our current agricultural footprint.
“CSIRO’s relationship with Amfora, under which CSIRO will become a significant shareholder, is an excellent demonstration of our Strategy 2020 in action.
“We are driving profound global impact from this breakthrough innovation, benefiting Australian farmers and securing a revenue stream back to Australia to support further research that will keep Australia at the leading edge of competition.”
Trialling the technology: corn and sorghum
Amfora will use the technology to develop oil content in the vegetative tissue of corn and sorghum. This will enable them to develop an all-natural, energy-rich feed for dairy farmers that does not require them to buy additional oils, such as tallow or cottonseed oil, to supplement conventional cattle feed.
In order to produce milk, dairy cows need diets consisting of around seven percent fat. If their feed incorporates this, in the form of oils, less agricultural acreage is required to produce feed; hence fewer greenhouse gas emissions are produced as a result of livestock-feed production.
CSIRO’s agreement with Amfora represents the first major application of CSIRO’s ‘high oil’ technology.
CSIRO’s new technology is especially exciting when applied to feed crops because it provides a direct path to market – in other words, the oils don’t need to be extracted from leaves and stems, or processed further, before these plants are used to feed cattle – or, potentially, other livestock and, down the track, for people.
Apart from its use in creating all-natural ‘biofortified’ foods for livestock and, potentially, humans, the technology has a wealth of potential applications, such as the production of industrial oils and bio-based diesel fuel.
Before these can be brought to market, however, techniques and processes for extracting oils from vegetative tissues and converting them into suitable products will have to be developed and commercialised.
About the agreement
In the April 2017 agreement, CSIRO granted Amfora a worldwide, exclusive license to its technology for use in the development of specified forage crops. CSIRO also took part in Amfora’s Series A financing along with Spruce Capital Partners, a San-Francisco-based venture capital firm and co-manager of MLS Fund II.
For more information about the new technology, the CSIRO-Amfora collaboration, or numerous other innovations in the pipeline, visit CSIRO’s website.