A minor crop with huge potential

06 Jun 2012

Author: Georgie Mills

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A new ‘super-high’ safflower crop, with the highest level of purity of valuable fatty acid currently available in any plant oil in the world, has the potential to create huge industry demand.
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Safflower is one of humanity’s oldest crops. Used to make red and yellow dye for Ancient Egyptian textiles in the 12th century, safflower was also found in garlands adorning Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Today, the brightly coloured crop is produced in more than 60 countries for the oil which is extracted from its seeds; but safflower has been grown only on small surfaces around the world and remains a minor crop with huge potential. In Australia, several companies have attempted to expand safflower production but the crop has historically produced a relatively low quality oil yield. As a result, larger producers have tended to focus on alternative oilseeds like canola, sunflower and cotton.

Now however, breakthrough safflower research by the Crop Biofactories Initiative (CBI) may completely recolour the future for grain growers in Australia, helping to position the country as a significant global player in the bioeconomy. The CBI is a strategic research and product development partnership between Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC). It aims to add value to the agricultural chemicals industries through the development of technologies for novel industrial compounds from genetically modified non-food grain crops.

Dr Allan Green, Deputy Chief of CSIRO Plant Industry, says the CBI is developing new varieties of the safflower plant that contain the world’s highest levels of valuable oleic acid. The team’s research has produced safflower seed oil that contains more than 90 per cent of this valuable fatty acid – the highest level of purity of an individual fatty acid currently available in any plant oil.

The CBI research team used CSIRO gene silencing technology to boost the level of desirable oleic acid in the seed.

“Plant oils contain a range of fatty acids including both monounsaturates and polyunsaturates,” Dr Green says. “For food use it’s important to have a healthy balance of these. However, the polyunsaturates cause problems for industrial use because they are unstable and difficult to remove during oil processing. We have succeeded in dramatically lowering the polyunsaturates to below three per cent, thereby raising the monounsaturate oleic acid to over 90 per cent purity."

This breakthrough safflower oil combines high purity for industrial chemical production with tremendous stability for direct use in industrial lubricants and fluids, creating a versatile, valuable industrial raw material.

The new ‘super-high’ safflower type will provide Australian grain growers with a unique opportunity to produce and supply renewable, sustainable plant oils to replace petroleum-based feedstocks in the manufacture of industrial products.

With the potential to fit neatly into Australian grain production systems, safflower has been an under-used crop to date. Safflower is ideal for Australian biofactories as it is a very hardy and adaptable crop that does well in warm-season conditions and is expected to cope well with the predicted stresses of climate change.

Safflower harvest uses existing machinery and gives growers more strategic pest and weed control options. Sowing safflower in spring provides an opportunity to generate income from paddocks that receive additional cultivations or other controls to manage herbicide resistant winter weeds. This later sowing and harvest than traditional winter crops can help spread peak workloads over a longer period of time, allow management flexibility and reduce production and economic risks.

While domestic demand for safflower oil is currently small, export markets in India, Japan and other countries are quickly developing. Dr Jody Higgins, Senior Manager Commercial Grain Technologies at the GRDC, says the breakthrough development could create an entirely new crop industry in Australia.

“Our market intelligence has shown that global demand for high purity oleic acid oil could require over 100,000 hectares of ‘super-high’ oleic safflower, which is comparable to the size of the cotton industry in Australia,” Dr Higgins says.

Other opportunities for commercialisation of the new safflower promise to come through increased demand for edible vegetable oils, and more recently, biodiesel.

Riverina Oils and Bioenergy Pty Ltd recently constructed an oilseed factory at Wagga Wagga, NSW, where commercial production will commence in 2012. The factory is expected to process 165,000 tonnes of safflower, canola, soyabean and sunflower seeds per year and produce 66,000 tonnes of refined vegetable oils for the food manufacturing and food service and retail industry, as well as 90,000 tonnes of vegetable protein meals for the poultry, dairy and animal feed industries per year.

As the CBI engages in discussions with local and international companies looking to produce this high value safflower crop in Australia, this capable team of researchers comes quickly closer to recolouring the grain growing landscape with their red and yellow super crop.