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Princen, L.H. 1990. New crops research and development: A federal perspective. p. 17-20. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

New Crops Research and Development: A Federal Perspective

L.H. Princen

    1. Crambe (Crambe abyssinica)
    2. Meadowfoam (Limnanthes alba)
    3. Rapeseed (Brassica napus, B. campestris)
    4. Cuphea (Cuphea spp.)
    5. Apiaceae (formerly: Umbelliferae)
    6. Lesquerella (Lesquerella fendleri)
    7. Vernonia (Vernonia galamensis)
    8. Stokes' Aster (Stokesia laevis)
    9. Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis)
    10. Kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus)


The introduction of new and improved agricultural and horticultural plant germplasm has been an ongoing process since the beginning of civilization. Although in earlier times improvements were made through a simple selection process based on keen individual observations, in our modern era such improvements are often the result of close cooperation between scientists of many different disciplines and between many different government, industrial and academic institutions.

There are still opportunities for a single person or organization to develop and introduce new plant materials, especially for fruits, vegetables, ornamentals, or traditional field crops, but when it comes to developing wild plant species into new industrial crops, it requires a scenario that depends on tight coordination and cooperation between many organizational entities for success. The large demand for resources makes it imperative that the Federal Government becomes a part of the research and development effort in most instances.

The Northern Regional Research Center (NRRC) and cooperating laboratories of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and many Land Grant Universities have accumulated 30 years of history and experience in research and development of new industrial crops. Only recently have scientists and engineers begun to see the fruits of their labors in the form of commercial successes. Millions of dollars and tens of thousands of scientist-hours had to be spent before some of these plant species could be grown by farmers for a potential profit. It required input from botanists, geneticists, plant breeders, agronomists, agricultural engineers, plant pathologists, chemists, chemical engineers, animal nutritionists, economists, administrative and production managers, farmers, laborers, company presidents, and users.

The spectrum of activities from initial research through commercialization includes at least the following phases: germplasm collection, evaluation and maintenance; germplasm improvement through genetics and breeding; crop development and production technology, processing and product development; product and by-products evaluation; production scale-up; technology transfer; commercial production and utilization.

Not included in the research and development (R&D) spectrum is the determination of the need for a new specific crop or new product derived therefrom. Such a need is often established as the result of national or regional considerations, rather than local or state-based issues. They include: dependence on imports for critical and strategic materials, imbalance between imports and exports, surpluses of traditional crops, need for crops that demand less water, present or expected world shortage of a particular product, and creation of new options for farmers and chemical companies for an improved economy.


Thirty years of experience have shown that Federal concerns and inputs are often required to gain success, but they are most important during the beginning and the concluding parts of the R&D spectrum. For example, all aspects of germplasm collection and maintenance is already a Federal assignment for all crops, but it is even more important that germplasm operations for new crops R&D be coordinated and monitored by USDA. Foreign germplasm collection should be handled officially through the Plant Introduction Office at Beltsville, Maryland, for import permits, inspection and numbering. International rules need to be observed and honored. Quarantine regulations have to be followed. In some situations, wild and improved germplasm is well represented and maintained at the National Seed Storage Laboratory or at the Plant Introduction Stations when such germplasm is appropriately deposited for safe keeping. For other new crops that have received reasonable levels of research attention, little attempt has been made to preserve wild and improved germplasm and subsequently much of it has been lost or can only be retraced with difficulty. With increased international attention to germplasm preservation in general and to potentially useful germplasm in particular, it behooves the Government and individual researchers to protect, evaluate, and share new crops germplasm to the fullest extent possible.


From genetic and breeding research through crop development to processing and product development, the sum total of resources required, both in terms of money and of needed technical expertise, makes it almost impossible for any one state or company to shoulder the burden. It requires a long-term commitment as well, often in the order of 15 years or more, before there is any hope for meaningful levels of new crop production.

Past experience has shown close cooperation between government, academic and private laboratories to be the most beneficial approach to the R&D process. Commitments to funding, staffing and facilities can be shared as agreed and required. Early entry of the private sector in the R&D process has the added advantage of early technology transfer and desire to succeed in the commercialization phase.


Guiding a new field crop into commercial production is a major operation. It requires a well-orchestrated and timed scenario. Farmers need to be informed about the peculiarities of the new plant in regard to production and harvesting. Since there is no open commodity market for the crop, the farmer needs a good contract up front. This establishes movement of the harvested crop and establishes a legal commitment between buyer and grower. Planting seed and extension service need to be provided. A processing facility needs to be contracted before the crop gets planted, so that the crop can be processed at the appropriate time into the desired products. For industrial crops, rarely will the processor be the end user of these products. More likely, they will be sold to chemical companies that will use the product(s) as intermediates in the manufacturing of its finished goods. Processors and end users also need extensive attention in terms of technology transfer. Rarely are producer, processor and end users found in the same state or even in the same region. This fact alone is sufficient to point to the Federal Government as the prime organization for technology transfer for the introduction of new crops.


Of the whole development spectrum the most difficult segment has always been the final step, achieving sustained commercial production. That is the crucial step when all the puzzle's pieces have to fall in place. Unfortunately, that is also the time when the private sector often comes into play for the first time. Farmers need to be convinced of forsaking maize, wheat, rice, cotton, or other familiar crops for some new crop and need to be educated about its production. Processors need to be found for toll crushing or other processing contracts. Product end users need to be talked into playing a lead role in the contracting process with farmers and processors, and into giving up familiar feedstocks for one that is not guaranteed to come in when planned and probably at a higher price for several years to come.

It is this setting that requires strong backing and cooperation from the Federal Government. However, it is not a setting where diversion of limited research dollars to this effort is sufficient to accomplish the multitude of tasks at hand. It requires significant input from scientists and engineers, from extension agents, and from strategists and other management experts. Above all, it probably needs financial incentive for a bridging period, which may be anywhere from 2 to 5 years, depending on the crop or product. Such assistance could be in the form of tax incentives, loan guarantees, direct subsidies, joint ventures, or perhaps just a commitment to continue an interactive R&D program to solve problems as they arise. Again, Federal Government institutions may need to play a major role in this precarious phase.


The Northern Regional Research Center initiated major R&D programs to develop domestic sources of long-chain fatty acids (crambe, meadowfoam, rapeseed), medium-chain fatty acids (cuphea, Apiaceae), hydroxy acids (lesquerella), epoxy acids (vernonia, stokes' aster), liquid wax esters (jojoba), and paper fiber (kenaf). It also assisted in efforts by others to introduce new species into American agriculture. Brief descriptions of the status of each new crop follows.

Crambe (Crambe abyssinica)

This source of erucic acid, now mainly imported in the form of rapeseed oil, is ready for commercialization but has not yet become successful. Oil can be used for many product lines over and above traditional use. Meal has been cleared by FDA for use in beef cattle feed. Crambe could benefit from one or a few good champions in the private sector to further its cause. Certified planting seed is available.

Meadowfoam (Limnanthes alba)

Small areas of this source of C20 and C22 fatty acids are produced regularly in Oregon under the auspices of the Oregon Meadowfoam Growers Association. Oil markets are gradually developing. There appears a strong interest in Europe to use meadowfoam as a local new crop for fatty acid production. Strong research programs are still active at Oregon State University and NRRC for crop and product development.

Rapeseed (Brassica napus, B. campestris)

With the advent of canola-type rapeseeds, production of traditional high-erucic acid rapeseed has waned rapidly worldwide. Up to 12 years ago, USDA and Oregon State University cooperated to create new lines of high-erucic, low-glucosinolate rapeseed for production in the USA. This early effort has recently shifted to a new development program at the University of Idaho.

Cuphea (Cuphea spp.)

This program serves as an excellent example of international cooperation between companies, governments and universities. Resources are pooled and annual conferences are held to review progress and to plan new work. Although from a chemical point of view no better genus of plants is known as a source of C8, C10, and C12 fatty acids, all species are difficult to domesticate due to indeterminate flowering, seed shattering, and the presence of sticky hairs covering the plants. Research is being carried out at many locations. Financial commitments have been made by all cooperator sectors.

Apiaceae (formerly: Umbelliferae)

This plant family contains many species that produce seed oils with high levels of petroselenic acid (delta 6-monounsaturated C18 acid). This acid can be split oxidatively into C12 lauric acid and C6 dibasic adipic acid. The latter is used commercially for nylon production. Common fennel is one species among several being evaluated for agronomic potential, but no integrated and well-organized effort is known to exist.

Lesquerella (Lesquerella fendleri)

This genus contains various species that produce several unsaturated hydroxy fatty acids, which are similar but not equal to the C18 ricinoleic acid from castorbean oil. Genetic and agronomic work is carried out by the ARS in Arizona, and the NRRC is evaluating the oil for grease formulations and other utilization opportunities. The oil may become prominent in coatings, lubricants and plastics technologies if given a chance.

Vernonia (Vernonia galamensis)

Initial work in the 1960s was carried out with Vernonia anthelmintica but was switched to V. galamensis in the 1970s. It now appears that epoxy acid-containing vernonias are not suitable for American agriculture due to the requirement of short day length for flowering and seed setting. ARS is assisting several African nations near the Equator in their efforts for crop development. Several laboratories in the U.S. and Europe are evaluating the oil in coatings and adhesives formulations. This potential crop species appears to be heading for success.

Stokes' Aster (Stokesia laevis)

This native American species contains an epoxy acid seed oil almost identical to that of Vernonia. It has received scattered production research attention over the years, but no concentrated, organized effort is anticipated at this time.

Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis)

Considering the drawback in production start-up costs due to the perennial nature of jojoba, this new crop can be considered a success story. The U.S. alone has now about 40,000 acres under cultivation, supported by an active growers association and a marketing cooperative. Sizable areas are now cultivated also in Mexico, South America, Australia, Israel, and India. Many other countries with warm dry climates are considering jojoba production. Oil production is increasing, but demand is expected to stay even with or to outpace production. Production and utilization research is continuing with excellent cooperation between the various sectors.

Kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus)

This annual species is a source of paper fiber and has become another success story. After 20 years of excellent production and processing research and 10 years of industrial evaluation, a commitment to invest over $300 million for a new pulp and paper mill has been reached by the private sector. The mill is being built in Texas and is based on 100% kenaf feedstock, which is to be produced on approximately 10,000 ha by farmers in the vicinity of the mill. This effort is only a beginning to reduce our $4 billion annual trade deficit because of paper import. It also creates new business and labor opportunities. A concentrated technology transfer effort by USDA contributed greatly to this success.


Experience has shown that new crops development is best accomplished by close cooperation between government, academia, and the private sector. Each has an important role to play. The Federal Government s involvement needs to be especially strong at the beginning and the end of the R&D process. Funding of projects should be predicated by national needs, such as shortages of strategic and critical materials, surpluses of present crops, or regional concerns and stresses in agricultural production. In the actual research process, germplasm collection, maintenance and preservation should be a major concern of Federal institutions. Commercialization of a new crop at the end of the R&D spectrum also needs strong Federal resolve. Technology transfer, loan guarantees, tax incentives, joint ventures, extension service are all aspects that need serious consideration and can be handled best by the Federal Government.

The past 30 years of new crops development experiences have taught us a lot more than new botany, agronomy and chemistry. The following points are a few examples of general knowledge gained that should be considered in any effort to develop a new crop:

No new crop has ever been successful without the backing from at least one strong proponent or a true champion. One champion each for the public and private sectors would be even more advantageous.

These points illustrate that the Federal Government's role is imperative for success of developing and introducing new field crops. Careful analysis of past successes and failures as a function of their R&D histories might lead to better planning of new initiatives in the development of new crops.


Last update February 12, 1997 by aw