Camelina – the come­back of an under­es­ti­mated oil plant

In the past, camelina was culti­vated throughout Europe as the ‘rape­seed of the Bronze and Iron Ages’. It was then forgotten in favour of more lucra­tive crops and ended up on the red list of endan­gered native crops. A German scholar redis­cov­ered it: Thomas Kaiser has been working tire­lessly for over 30 years to rein­tro­duce camelina into arable farming.

Many have simply named him the “camelina pope”. Thomas Kaiser’s long­standing commit­ment to camelina led to the co-founding of the Camelina Initia­tive in 2014. Since then, the German scholar and founder of the Insti­tute for Energy and Envi­ron­mental Tech­nology has been fasci­nating more and more people with the rare oil plant. “We were simply in love with the plant because it grows so nicely,” Thomas explains. “We called it the cava­lier plant because it never over­shadows the main crop.” Together with his colleagues, Thomas wanted to intro­duce more diver­sity into the crop rota­tions and provide the insects with a nectar source in summer.

We were simply in love with the plant because it grows so nicely.

Thomas Kaiser

This was a major chal­lenge, not just due to the lack of farmers willing to grow camelina. The supply chain was also missing. Even­tu­ally, support came from the construc­tion paint manu­fac­turer DAW SE with the well-known brands Caparol and Alpina. The company wanted to develop a sustain­able wood varnish using camelina oil. The project was funded by the Federal Agency for Nature Conser­va­tion with money from the Federal Ministry for the Envi­ron­ment, Nature Conser­va­tion, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protec­tion (BMUV) as part of the Federal Programme for Biolog­ical Diver­sity.

The so-called “camelina project” (full title: Estab­lish­ment of large-scale mixed cultivation of peas and camelina to strengthen biodi­ver­sity and ecosystem services and build a value chain based on sustain­ably produced, domestic, renew­able raw mate­rials) gave the plant’s come­back a signif­i­cant boost. As a result, it was possible to give farmers a purchase guar­antee for their camelina at the start.

Herbert Miethke and his daughter Lydia in the camelina field.

Camelina yields less than rape­seed

This convinced farmer Herbert Miethke from Dolgelin in Bran­den­burg to venture into camelina cultivation. He planted the crop for the first time in 2019, having only recently converted to organic produc­tion. He grew it as a second crop in its pure form but has since switched to mixed cultivation with common birds­foot due to its higher yield poten­tial.

He now grows camelina on around 150ha of the 800ha farm. In an average year, this yields around 1t/ha; this year, for the first time, 1.5t/ha. Of course, that’s well below the usual 3.5t/ha expected from winter rape­seed. However, two aspects should be taken into account here: Firstly, in contrast to rape­seed, camelina has hardly been grown in recent decades. Secondly, it grows on marginal sites where rape­seed no longer has a chance. “These are completely different cultivation areas,” remarks Thomas.

Camelina does well when mixed with Serradella because the legume only really takes off after the camelina harvest.

In the sparse soils of Bran­den­burg, where the only crop that can be econom­i­cally grown is rye, camelina provides a welcome change and an addi­tional source of income. In addi­tion, camelina has a deci­sive advan­tage: It hardly requires any work. “You throw it onto the ground and then harvest it at some point,” explains Thomas. The seed is also cheap at €20/ha (£17.40/ha) because it is not subject to variety protec­tion.

Domestic camelina replaces imported flaxseed oil

Matthias Körber from Worlée is committed to the use of local camelina oil in the paint industry.

The Bran­den­burg farmer is not only a fan of the crucif­erous vegetable. He is now also involved in devel­oping the supply chain after the camelina project came to an end. Although the oil is valued in the food sector, the quan­ti­ties used could still be increased. There­fore, the paint industry’s interest plays a central role – all the more so as the chem­ical company Worlée continues to promote camelina cultivation even after the project came to an end. Worlée aims to replace the large quan­ti­ties of imported flaxseed oil with domestic camelina oil to help protect the climate. “At the moment, there’s no such thing as too much camelina oil,” explains the firm’s chem­ical engi­neer Matthias Körber.

From a polit­ical perspec­tive, there is great interest in the posi­tive influ­ence of camelina on biodi­ver­sity. “There are signif­i­cantly more insects in camelina than in other crops, including 15 species that are on the red list,” explains Herbert. Dr Stefanie Göttig, scien­tific adviser for the project, agrees: “As a yellow-flow­ering crucif­erous plant that blooms in the other­wise scarce flow­ering period from June to August, camelina attracts many insect species.” These include hover­flies and endan­gered wild bee species.

In conven­tional agri­cul­ture, concepts like the mixed cultivation of camelina and peas could help to minimise the nega­tive effects of inten­sive farming on biodi­ver­sity, says Stefanie. This is a great oppor­tu­nity consid­ering that, unlike the wild­flower strips or fallow land other­wise favoured in nature conser­va­tion, camelina also produces a yield.

A crop for poor soils

Oil flax can also be culti­vated in Germany – but it is not very popular. “Camelina has many advan­tages over flax,” reports Dr Katha­rina Speth­mann, who was respon­sible for estab­lishing the supply chain before Herbert. Camelina is prefer­able to flax on very light soils – it makes little sense to grow it in good loca­tions because it is less compet­i­tive there. “We have many farmers who grow it on areas with low soil quality. That works well.” Estab­lishing a crop rota­tion in these areas is a major chal­lenge which crucif­erous vegeta­bles can help with. Camelina is both a good recovery and preceding crop, says Herbert.

We have many farmers who grow it on areas with low soil quality. That works well.

Dr. Katha­rina Speth­mann

It removes nitrogen from the soil, which makes it an inter­esting crop for water conser­va­tion areas in partic­ular. A low fertiliser appli­ca­tion of 40-60kg/ha of nitrogen in pure crop cultivation is possible, but not neces­sary for this frugal crop.

A robust plant against drought

The oil plant does not mind drought either, as long as the seeds have had enough mois­ture to germi­nate. Farmer Herbert is quick to empha­sise that camelina must be drilled in moist soil. That’s why he sows as early as possible in March and to a depth of up to 1.5cm so that the seeds do not remain dry. If the start is successful, which takes a long time for this crucif­erous plant, camelina grows quickly and has an impres­sive record of successful weed suppres­sion and a posi­tive humus balance.

Low-risk cultivation

The firm seed capsules of the camelina make harvesting easier because they do not burst open on their own.

In mixed crop cultivation, espe­cially with peas, camelina offers secu­rity: If the peas are poor, you can still harvest the camelina. Cultivation as a second annual crop, on the other hand, makes it possible to fully utilise the culti­vated area over the entire vege­ta­tion period. The 100 days or so from the end of July to mid-October are enough for the camelina seed pods to ripen. This means that the plant does not get in the way of other crops and creates an addi­tional yield from the land. The low costs and the low labour input make up for the fact that the yield is rather low.

The firm seed pods, which do not burst, are prac­tical for organ­ising work on the farm. This does more than simply making the crop robust against hail­storms. Harvesting with the combine can also be timed to fit in with the farm schedule. Seed cleaning is simple – partly because, quality plays only a minor role. “Of course, it can’t be of extremely low quality. But I was able to sell some directly from the combine,” says Herbert.

The disad­van­tages

While there are plenty of advan­tages, there are also disad­van­tages. The main problem with camelina is that hardly anyone even knows about it. Cultivation was aban­doned because the area grown was so tiny. There are no hybrid vari­eties. For the same reason, hardly any plant protec­tion prod­ucts are autho­rised for use. “But it can also tolerate a lot,” reports Katha­rina.

If the sowing condi­tions are not suit­able or the seedbed is not clean, this improves condi­tions for the weeds to take off. Any weed that has better starting condi­tions than camelina would then become a problem. “But if the seedbed is clean, I don’t know any weeds that over­grow the camelina,” says Herbert. Even sweet clover and couch grass are then suppressed by camelina. Root exudates may play a role in this. However, these also impair the growth of flax, which means it should not be grown in a crop rota­tion with camelina.

Guar­an­teed purchase and good prices

Worlée paid at least €700/t (£609/t) for organic camelina in 2023 and slightly less for conven­tional crops. This gives farmers secu­rity in times of market volatility. “If you harvest 1.5t/ha on a very light soil and have low input costs overall, the plant offers a high margin with very low risk,” explains Katha­rina.

I can see the poten­tial for more camelina to be used for even more prod­ucts and for cultivation demand to increase.

Matthias Körber

Devel­oping or expanding other sales chan­nels, in addi­tion to the paint industry, is impor­tant for prof­itability. Including camelina press cake in the posi­tive list for straight feed­stuffs has fuelled the animal feed industry’s interest in the crop. “This is impor­tant because it makes camelina oil cheaper, even compet­i­tive with imported flaxseed oil,” explains Matthias from Worlée. Like the chem­ical company, the animal feed industry places impor­tance on reli­able supplies. The area grown needs to be expanded for this. “I can see the poten­tial for more camelina to be used for even more prod­ucts and for cultivation demand to increase,” he says.

A domestic source of raw mate­rials

Inno­va­tions in the food sector are gener­ating opti­mism for a sustained revival of camelina produc­tion. If you like, you can try pesto with camelina oil or camelina salt with camelina flour. From a nutri­tional perspec­tive, this is a good idea, as the compo­si­tion of essen­tial amino acids in camelina comes quite close to the World Health Organisation’s recom­men­da­tions for human nutri­tion. The MV e.V. research asso­ci­a­tion in Rostock is also working on this.

Perhaps the protein trend in the food sector will also give camelina a boost given that the seeds contain 40% protein as well as 40% oil. Last but not least, camelina is a domestic source of raw mate­rials which are avail­able even when global trade flows are disrupted – an advan­tage that should not be under­es­ti­mated, as the past year has shown.