Enter TerViva, a California-based start-up on a mission to turn the pongamia tree – which produces 5-10 times the biomass per acre than soybeans with a fraction of the water, fertilizer, and pesticides - into a household name in the US.
TerViva is building an IP platform around high-yielding pongamia trees coupled with propagation techniques that deliver scalable, consistent crops in a variety of locations from Florida (where it partners with fruit growers devastated by citrus greening disease), to Hawaii (on land previously dedicated to sugarcane).
It has also developed proprietary techniques that remove anti-nutritional components of the oilseeds during processing – which have historically prevented pongamia from being used in food industry applications –opening up new market opportunities for the nitrogen-fixing crop beyond animal feed and biofuels, said VP Jim Astwood.
"We produce the pongamia trees [which have historically been grown in Southeast Asia]... we do the grafting in greenhouses. We sell the trees to growers, and after 3-4 years they start becoming productive in the yield sense, and after that we buy back the beans for further processing into food ingredients."
But TerViva is not looking to become the next ADM or Cargill in the oilseed processing arena, he said: "Our major objective is to demonstrate commercial viability and that implies some scale, but certainly small scale compared to the large agricultural multinationals. As this program proceeds we'll be looking for partnerships in a range of activities on everything from ingredient development to large scale commodity processing."
We've recently made a pongamia milk that has a terrific mouthfeel
Astwood, who was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the Specialty Food Association’s Winter Fancy Food Show, said the company will put together GRAS determinations for the oils and proteins, which he claims have a variety of food and beverage applications.
"On the oils side, this is a high oleic oil that's very similar in some regards to an olive oil or a high oleic soybean oil. One difference though is there are very low levels of omega-6s and unique [low] levels of saturates, so it has a unique positioning offering a new type of functionality for the industry.
"On the protein side, the protein - being in the legume family - has some analogous types of protein that you'd see in pea and soy and some others, but what we see is really strong gelling and emulsification properties... so we've recently made a pongamia milk that has a terrific mouthfeel because of that emulsification capability, and the protein content is quite high relative to nutmilks. We're 10x what you'd see in an almondmilk.
"For human nutrition it's an ideal replacement for soybeans," added Astwood, who said the company had "recently obtained significant funding that will give us runway for a pretty significant period of time."
Founded by Naveen Sikka, Maggie Kavalaris, Joseph Andrew, and Anne Slaughter Andrew in 2010, TerViva has established pilot projects and commercial size acreage in Hawaii and Florida for pongamia trees.
Together with partners, TerViva has evaluated pongamia varieties in their native environments for over a decade, cataloguing agronomic traits such as growth, shape, disease and pest resistance, flowering, seed yield, and seed oil content.
The best varieties are then subjected to clonal propagation, in order to deploy 'true to type' varieties in fields. Through a National Science Foundation grant, the company has also began to develop molecular markers for pongamia breeding in collaboration with UC Davis and Texas A&M University.