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Pongamia Trees Grow Where Citrus Once Flourished, Offering Renewable Energy and Plant-Based Protein

By Freida Frisaro

An ancient tree from India is now thriving in groves where citrus trees once flourished in Florida, and could help provide the nation with renewable energy.

As large parts of the Sunshine State's once-famous citrus industry have all but dried up over the past two decades because of two fatal diseases, greening and citrus canker, some farmers are turning to the pongamia tree, a climate-resilient tree with the potential to produce plant-based proteins and a sustainable biofuel.

For years, pongamia has been used for shade trees, producing legumes—little brown beans—that are so bitter wild hogs won't even eat them.

But unlike the orange and grapefruit trees that long occupied these rural Florida groves northwest of West Palm Beach, pongamia trees don't need much attention.

Pongamia trees also don't need fertilizer or pesticides. They flourish in drought or rainy conditions. And they don't require teams of workers to pick the beans. A machine simply shakes the tiny beans from the branches when they are ready to harvest.

Terviva, a San Francisco-based company founded in 2010 by Naveen Sikka, then uses its patented process to remove the biopesticides that cause the bitter taste, making the beans suitable for food production.

"Florida offers a rare opportunity for both Terviva and former citrus farmers. The historical decline of the citrus industry has left farmers without a crop that can grow profitably on hundreds of thousands of acres, and there needs to be a very scalable replacement, very soon," Sikka told The Associated Press. "Pongamia is the perfect fit."

What is the pongamia tree?

The pongamia is a wild tree native to India, Southeast Asia and Australia.

The legume is now being used to produce several products, including Panova culinary oil and protein, which are featured ingredient in Aloha's Kona protein bars. The company also makes protein flour.

The legumes also produce oil that can be used as a biofuel, largely for aviation, which leaves a very low carbon footprint, said Ron Edwards, chairman of Terviva's board of directors and a long-time Florida citrus grower.

Turning a wild tree into a domestic one hasn't been easy, Edwards said.

"There are no books to read on it, either, because no one else has ever done it," he said.

Bees and other pollinators feast on the pongamia's flowers, supporting local biodiversity, Edwards said. An acre of the trees can potentially provide the same amount of oil as four acres of soy beans, he added.

What's left after the oil is removed from the pongamia bean is "a very high-grade protein that can be used as a substitute in baking and smoothies and all kinds of other plant-based protein products," Edwards said. "There's a lot of potential for the food industry and the oil and petroleum industry."

Why Florida?

"We know pongamia grows well in Florida, and the end markets for the oil and protein that come from the pongamia beans—biofuel, feed, and food ingredients—are enormous," Sikka said. "So farmers can now reduce their costs and more closely align to the leading edge of sustainable farming practices."

At a nursery near Fort Pierce, workers skilled in pongamia grafting techniques affix a portion of the mother tree to a pongamia rootstock, which ensures the genetics and desired characteristics of the mother tree are perpetuated in all of Terviva's trees.

Pongamia vs. citrus

Citrus had been Florida's premier crop for years until disease caught up with it starting in the 1990s with citrus canker and later greening.

Citrus canker, a bacterial disease, is not harmful to humans, but it causes lesions on the fruit, stems and leaves. Eventually, it makes the trees unproductive.

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