Blogs & Comment

The trouble with tribbles (and triticale)

Journalists are inundated with press releases, but a sure-fire way to catch the attention of a scribe of the techie variety is to drop a Star Trekreference. Such is the case with a press release that landed in my inbox from the Canadian Triticale Biorefinery Initiative (CTBI) the other day titled, “Star Trek crop at forefront of environment battle.”
Triticale is a wheat-rye hybrid crop, and one that happens to be mentioned briefly in an episode of the original Star Trek, “the Trouble with Tribbles.” (Technically, the crop mentioned in Star Trekis “quadro-triticale,” but Im not going to quibble.) In that episode, Captain Kirk finds himself neck-deep in a sea of rapidly procreating furry creatures called tribbles that threaten to eat through the Enterprises food supplies.
In the real world, triticale has failed to multiply as fruitfully as tribbles. Farmers in Canada have never taken to growing it on a large scale, preferring the cash crops of canola and wheat. But now there is serious government money behind promoting triticale based on its environmental and economic benefits.
The federal government invested $15.5 million in CTBI this month, a 10-year research and development program created by the Alberta government in 2005 with an initial investment of $4 million. The crop could have a variety of applications, including plastics, transportation fuel, and renewable heat and power generation. CTBI says triticale has advantages over other crops, such as higher yields, lower input costs and higher biomass contentkey for energy production.
Using food crops for energy is, of course, a tricky business. Corn ethanol has been pilloried for its impact on carbon emissions and food prices, and is seen as an example of lobbyists and rural economic development zeal trumping environmental concerns. Second-generation ethanol, which uses the non-edible portions of the crop, has so far proven uneconomical on a commercial scale. ( Read more here.)
CTBI saystriticale can be competitive with corn for ethanol production, but “without complications related to competing food uses.” The reason, according to the Alberta Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, is that triticale is not typically used in food or energy production, and it grows on marginal land, so its acreage can be expanded without taking much land away from food and fuel crops.
But triticale is used as a food crop elsewhere in the world. The departments website states elsewherethat the crop is considered “a very suitable grain for human diets” and that “internationally, triticale has found great success in a very large number of ethnic cereal-based foods.” If triticale is a cheap, high-yielding crop, why not promote its use as food as opposed to vehicle fuel? That could free up funds to invest in other technologies that can mitigate climate change. According to a C.D. Howe Institute reportreleased last month, wind and biomass power (such as switchgrass, a non-food crop) are the most efficient technologies to reduce emissions available for widespread roll-out in Canada today.
Triticale is farther off. CTBI is still working out the environmental and economic benefits of triticale for use in both transportation fuels and heat and power generation, and the crop may yet prove to be beneficial. But whatever CTBI finds, government and industry need to ensure the environment doesnt lose out in the name of economic development.