Winter camelina shows promise to restore farmland, fight climate change

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Comparison of runoff filtered through soil planted with clean water crops

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Earlier this fall, a number of farmers in Minnesota and other Upper Midwest states began introducing a new seed to their fields on 1000 acres of farmland. That’s a tiny area compared with the approximately 16 million acres of row crop lands in the state. But the seeding of the new crop – winter camelina – represents a new chapter in the history of farming in Minnesota, and hopefully the entire Midwest.

Winter camelina has been bred by the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, a team dedicated to developing useful, marketable crops that improve the land and water around them and help to combat climate change. MEP has supported greater Legislative funding for Forever Green for nine years, helping to secure a cumulative $13 million in state funding, and we hope to continue growing this work. As we chart a new course for agriculture in the face of climate change and water and soil challenges, Forever Green is one of the best investments we can make.

Camelina isn’t quite as far along the commercialization process as the perennial grain Kernza®, another crop that Forever Green researchers focus on. But scientists and agronomists believe that if scaled up, camelina can be integral to the national economy and a big boost to water quality and ecosystems in Minnesota. 

Unlike the presently dominant row crops such as corn and soybeans, camelina requires little watering and very low levels of fertilizer. It is planted and begins sprouting in the fall, stays dormant through the winter, and is ready for harvest by June. That allows it to be planted in the same fields without disrupting the summer growing season. 

Early spring is a particularly bad time for nutrient pollution from fertilizer to infiltrate streams and groundwater, as well as a time when the soil is especially likely to erode. Having camelina roots in the soil from October to June dramatically reduces this nutrient problem and staves off erosion.

Pollinators also enjoy significant benefits. Because of pesticides and row crop monoculture, Minnesota’s farmlands are normally desertlike in their hostility to pollinating species. But camelina’s spring blooms produce food and habitat for pollinators, giving them a fighting chance at the beginning of their active season.

Along with the immediate environmental benefits of simply growing camelina, the crop’s potential applications in food and industry are great news for climate action. Camelina seeds are 36-45 percent oil, which can be used in food, biodegradable plastics, and even fuel. Aviation is a particularly difficult source of carbon emissions to solve, and it has been estimated that using jet fuel made from camelina emits 84% less greenhouse gases than petroleum-based fuel. 

Bringing this crop up to scale and onto more farmland is a no-brainer, but there are challenges that must be overcome. Existing processing infrastructure and markets are geared toward the dominant ethanol crops, not camelina. New facilities, market systems, and resources for farmers will require support from both the private and public sectors.

When the Minnesota Legislature meets again in February, MEP will be there with our partners to make the case for Forever Green and efforts to support Minnesota farmers, water, and habitat. We don’t have to wait around for miracles – we have the seeds of a new green revolution growing right here in Minnesota.

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