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More than just oilseed

Matt Morra seeks to capitalize on mustard's potential


“Mustard is a great crop for this region.

It doesn’t need a lot of water or pesticides to grow well.

The meal is valuable, and

it produces oil for multiple purposes,”

—Matt Morra, University of Idaho soil biochemist

by Bill Loftus

Matt Morra, a University of Idaho soil biochemist, is leading an effort to win federal registration for mustard meal as a pesticide and fertilizer.

He is one of a cadre of researchers at the university focused on developing new oilseed crops that can serve multiple purposes ranging from providing farmers with better rotation crops  to giving communities new economic development opportunities and alternative fuels.

             

Morra also is driven.

He sees a business opportunity that has a strong foundation of science and is good for the environment. And he knows that opportunity is fleeting.

As the leader of a $613,000 USDA National Research Initiative project to explore mustard meal as a biopesticide and organic fertilizer, Morra and other agricultural researchers are cultivating sound science and business interests. A half dozen or more companies or entrepreneurs were requesting more information or beginning their own testing based on his work. The research study itself generated a patent application to classify mustard meal as a biopesticide.


The tough road to EPA registration; Mustard can KO pests

Biological pesticides probably will never rival the market share of chemical products, says Matt Kowalski, president of Houston-based Natural Industries, who worked with retired UI microbiologist Don Crawford and spent $500,000 to register a strain of bacteria for greenhouse and field crops with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“But for small companies, it’s a nice niche market.”

Glucosinolates, the pungent chemicals that give the  spice its kick, give mustard its pesticidal powers, the ability to control weeds, nematodes, and other pests.

Jack Brown, the university’s plant breeder who developed mustard varieties IdaGold and Pacific Gold, noted last fall that potato growers in the Columbia Basin grew thousands of acres of IdaGold. The plants were  plowed down, buried before they set seed, so the foliage becomes a biofumigant.

Meet the distinguished Brassica family

Morra’s interest is long-standing and wide-ranging in the biochemistry of glucosinolates and their presence in Brassicas, the huge and important plant family that includes mustard, canola, rapeseed, cabbage, and broccoli.

             

Nearly a decade ago, he cooperated with researchers in Macedonia, where many of the most important Brassicas were domesticated, to study their impacts on human and animal nutrition.

Morra focused on the toxicity of certain glucosinolates. Researchers in England say evidence shows Brassica vegetables and glucosinolates also can protect people against cancers of the lungs and digestive tract.

The agronomic benefits and business potential of mustard meal occupy most of Morra’s attention now. His team’s work at the Parker Farm east of Moscow documents mustard meal’s ability to improve the health of the land.

Those trials have shown mustard meal can control weeds and pests, and the meal can serve as a fertilizer by providing nitrogen. Tests suggest the meal’s destruction of soil organisms actually releases a flush of nitrogen as the cells break down, noted Jodi Johnson-Maynard, a fellow soil scientist.

The surge in fuel prices and rising tide of interest in biodiesel made from vegetable oils like canola, rapeseed, or mustard has brought a gold-rush atmosphere to Morra’s world as well. As many as a dozen groups have shown interest in the oilseed for both the oil and the meal.

CALS to hire a business specialist

 “These people have offered to put up real money to work with us,” Morra said of business overtures to him. CALS Dean John Hammel recognized that business potential by using college funds to match those contributed by Morra’s research program and biological and agricultural engineering department head Jon Van Gerpen’s biodiesel program to hire a business specialist for three years.

“We’re investing because we’ve got to,” Hammel said. “We’re trying to do the right thing. When you look at the  program’s development issues, and look at our future, we’re either going to be involved or someone else will capitalize on our researchers’ good work.”

Mustard’s potential as an Idaho crop

Mustard could give farmers a new crop, provide a new tool against pests, offer a renewable source of fuel, and promote local economic development if a crushing plant is built in the region.

On the May Spain trip mentioned in the introduction, the Idaho contingent hoped to convince Spanish officials that Lewiston or the Palouse would be the ideal place to locate an oilseed crushing and biodiesel plant.

“Mustard is a great crop for this region,” Morra said. “It doesn’t need a lot of water or pesticides to grow well. The meal is valuable, and it produces oil for multiple purposes.”

Contact Matt Morra at mmorra@uidaho.edu or visit his website at soils.ag.uidaho.edu/mmorra/projects/bio.htm.

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