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California Congressman Josh Harder’s FARM Bill Could Revolutionize The Central Valley’s Biotech Ecosystem And Turn Almond Husks Into Yoga Pants

Farming gets a bad rap when it comes to climate change. From extensive land and water use to greenhouse gas emissions and runoff from factory animal farming facilities – it appears that the agriculture sector is in serious need of modernization to improve its sustainability. California’s leadership is rising to the challenge: last year, state Representative Josh Harder reintroduced his Future of Agricultural Resiliency and Modernization (FARM) Act aimed to help farmers across the country more effectively fight climate change. The initiative focuses on improving farming practices and establishing a pyrolysis grant program.

Climate-conscious consumers have been switching to plant-based products to reduce their environmental impact. But a plant-based diet is not a panacea for climate change. For instance, it requires 20 gallons of water to produce a single cup of almond milk. To put it in context, it is still much less than the amount of water required to produce cow milk. But for drought-stricken California, every drop counts:

“As extreme heat, drought, devastating wildfires, intense flooding, and more violent storms ravage our country and communities across the world, the need for aggressive, comprehensive climate action has never been more urgent,” said Madeleine Foote, Deputy Legislative Director for the League of Conservation Voters in a press release. “Rep. Harder’s FARM Act is an important piece to solving the climate crisis by acknowledging the critical role farmers, farm workers, and the agricultural sector must play in tackling climate change.”

In addition to heavy water use, the almond industry produces a lot of waste in the form of shells and husks. These materials are typically discarded and burned. Not only is it wasteful, but it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions by putting all the carbon sequestered and stored in plant matter back into our atmosphere. The current practices call for innovation to help convert biomass into something useful. A company called Corigin Solutions has partnered up with Central Valley farmers and the state government to provide a solution to this problem – by converting almond refuse into useful material called biochar.

Biochar is produced by burning agricultural byproducts in the absence of oxygen, a process called pyrolysis. Unlike the wildfires that have devastated the state over the last few years, this process is carried out in a controlled way inside a specialized facility. And unlike the traditional agricultural burning that produces harmful air pollutants and releases carbon dioxide, pyrolysis actually allows for carbon capture. On top of it, farmers can put biochar back into the soil to enhance its health and crop yields.

“It holds nutrients, it holds moisture, and it increases the soil’s fertility,” explained Mike Woelk, CEO of Corigin Solutions. Biochar may also help drive down the costs of fertilizer by reducing the amount of synthetic nutrients that have to be added to soil to grow crops. Another product of pyrolysis is a liquid concentrate called pyroligneous acid, which provides beneficial organic compounds that enhance plant growth. The final component is syngas – a mixture of methane, hydrogen gas, carbon monoxide, and dioxide – which can also be put to good use with biotechnology. That’s right: the same substance that is responsible for the greenhouse effect can be converted into value-added products by microorganisms that feed on it.

An Illinois synthetic biology company LanzaTech has developed a carbon upcycling technology that uses syngas as a feedstock for production of ethylene, ethanol, fragrance ingredients, and even shoes and yoga pants. The biotech company is able to capture gas from industrial emission and use it to make virtually anything – from materials and chemicals to flavors and fragrances – using engineered microbes. LanzaTech has partnered with athletic apparel company lululemon to create a carbon-neutral fabric similar to the proprietary material used for its leggings. The waste-gas-derived polyester has the same appearance and functionality as virgin polyester but comes with the great feeling of knowing your yoga pants are eco-friendly.

A circular bioeconomy ecosystem

Last year, Representative Harder passed the Pyrolysis Innovation Grants Act. The bill will invest $5 million each year through 2027 in pyrolysis programs to help farmers convert nut shells into fuels and other valuable commodities instead of openly burning them. This program provides a stream of green income for farmers in the Valley, improves air quality, and creates new high-paying jobs. “And here’s the best part: You can’t ship half a billion pounds of nut shells to China, so our communities right here in America will reap the rewards for investments in this tech ten and a hundred times over,” said Congressman Harder during an Agriculture Committee meeting last year.

This initiative is part of a bigger push to establish a circular bioeconomy in California. The vision is to create an ecosystem for bio-based innovation and implement bio-based strategies to convert wastes to carbon-neutral and carbon-negative fuels and products. Caribou Biofuels, Scaled Power, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), State University of New York (SUNY), and the Berkeley Energy and Resources (BEAR) are collaborating on a CalFire grant project to develop and deploy a Mobile Biomass Harvester and Conversion Unit, which is essentially a portable pyrolysis facility. Blake Simmons, Division Director of Biological Systems at LBNL, has been spearheading the effort to process agricultural waste in Central California.

“The CalFire project is scheduled to be delivered in the first quarter of 2023 and will be deployed in the Tahoe region. It will be capable of converting 500-800 pounds per hour [of agricultural waste] into power, green gasoline, and biochar,” said Simmons. After the demo project gets off the ground, the goal is to build more units and deploy them throughout the state. The consortium working on this project has had discussions with food processors and waste facilities in the Central Valley (and beyond) to build and deploy larger units capable of processing up to 2 tons per hour that will be optimized for converting different types of waste streams.

All these initiatives come together to create a circular economy and help support regions that are in need of economic stimulation, like California’s Central Valley. I have previously talked about establishing the Bio-Belt program to infuse strategic investment in biotechnology into rural America. And technology like the CA Mobile Biomass Harvester and Conversion Unit could be the missing piece. Biomanufacturing relies heavily on the availability of cheap feedstocks, so it makes sense to build biotech facilities closer to where the source crops are grown and processed. This will not only help utilize the resources in a more efficient manner but also bring talent and innovation to the agricultural belts of the USA.

Fighting climate change requires a multipronged approach that includes implementing process improvements in agriculture, waste processing solutions, and upcycling those waste streams via biotechnology. California has long been the center of innovation when it comes to biotechnology and is now also leading the way for sustainable agriculture and waste processing:

“The FARM Act is poised to create high-paying jobs in agricultural communities like mine while improving our environment and opening up new streams of revenue for our farmers. When folks think of California innovation fifty years from now, they’ll think about the Central Valley and our leadership in 21st-century biotechnology,” said Representative Harder.

Let’s hope this idea spreads like a wildfire.

Thank you to Katia Tarasava for additional research and reporting on this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about, such as LanzaTech, are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest.