A gifted tree

 By Livia Formisani

Land degradation is a global problem. According to a 2018 UNESCO report, it has reached critical levels, currently affecting 3.2 billion people as well as countless wild species worldwide…

Land degradation causes loss of biodiversity and affects climate change; since soil absorbs and captures CO2 “the avoidance, reduction and reversal of land degradation could provide more than a third of the most cost-effective greenhouse gas mitigation activities needed by 2030,” according to UNESCO. It is also one of the reasons wide-scale reforestation efforts such as the Bonn challenge are so critical in mitigating this environmental crisis.
The main culprit is identified as unsustainable agricultural practices. Over time, monoculture farming—growing a single crop or plant—and heavy tillage deplete soil of its nutrients, including nitrogen, making the soil increasingly acidic. Chemical fertilizers, used as a quick fix, further raise acidity over time. Once the soil’s pH level gets too extreme, growth is unsustainable; at that point, the land is likely abandoned and the same monoculture farming practices applied to new areas. Natural phenomena such as drought and wildfires also contribute to land degradation on a global scale.

Land degradation is caused by multiple forces, including extreme weather conditions particularly drought, and human activities that pollute or degrade the quality of soils and land utility negatively affecting food production, livelihoods, and the production and provision of other ecosystem goods and services.

Some plants, such as clover and beans, are known for their ability to restore nitrogen in degraded soils. But none of them can compare to pongamia (Millettia pinnata), a tree native to Asia. Because it thrives in degraded and marginal land, it is the perfect candidate for reforestation where other plants cannot grow. Furthermore, it requires little water and produces seeds that are very rich in oil (up to 40 percent) and proteins. Its carbon sequestration capability is higher than other species – pongamia sequesters more CO2 than it emits – and because its oil is a natural fungicide and insecticide, the plant requires little, if any, artificial protection from parasites. As a low-maintenance, low-water, non-food, high-yielding, restoring oilcrop, pongamia also represents a great biofuel feedstock.

Long-term sustainability investments

Since 2010, Oakland-based agtech company TerViva has been researching and planting pongamia in Florida, California and Hawaii, recently raising over $20 million in capital. Their projects focus on degraded land, such as former sugarcane plantations in Hawaii and abandoned citrus groves in Florida. The company has just announced plans to open new offices in Australia and India, where the native pongamia has been known and used for centuries. “We’re actively developing scalable production operations to meet the anticipated demand from growers for large numbers of pongamia trees, and we continue to strategically connect farmers to profitable markets that are sustainable in the long-term,” says Naveen Sikka, founder and CEO of TerViva. “Both India and Australia have great potential for pongamia research and development and new operations there will allow us to make significant advancements in our goal of filling the world’s growing protein needs,” he adds.
TerViva is only one of several companies active in the sector, especially when it comes to pongamia-based biodiesel production. One company goes as far as to dub pongamia oil, “reforestation oil”. One of TerViva’s assets is its proprietary bioinformatics infrastructure, used to analyze and compare a vast range of non-GM varieties of pongamia, which are then crossed (with traditional methods) to increase yield rate. “The excellent team of scientists and agriculture experts at TerViva all share a passion for our mission. With their support we’ve compiled an exclusive library of selected genetics from around the world to allow for scalable, consistent cultivation of high-yielding pongamia. We have invested $15 million to build a plant science team, put pilots on various soils and climates, and to validate yields. As a result, our pongamia produces ten times the amount of oil and three to five times more protein per acre than soybeans, but uses a fraction of the water, fertilizer and pesticides,” says Sikka.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded a Certified Biobased Product label to Karanja Meal 4-1-1 Organic Fertilizer – 100% Single Cold Pressed™. It's possible now to find a unique USDA label that highlights the percentage of biobased content in TerViva’s karanja seed meal (

As a hardy, non-invasive species, pongamia has already been used in governmental reforestation efforts across India. The best part is, due to its extraordinary properties, pongamia can be used for biofuel production, its oil commercialized as insecticide and its seeds to produce a protein-rich seedcake (with a 36 percent protein content, three times more than soy) used as livestock fodder. This capability for diversification makes pongamia a promising investment in the long run, and one to keep an eye on in the growing restoration economy. “We are always looking for the right opportunities to offer growers a chance to diversify their revenue through pongamia,” says Sikka. “We will continue to identify new opportunities as we grow.”


Cover image by Vinayaraj, Wikimedia

READ MORE: Replanting trees with drones by Livia Formisani

about the author
Livia Formisani