Mark Brandon is the Managing Partner of First Sustainable (http://www.firstsustainable.com), a registered investment advisory catering to socially responsible investors. In addition to Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), he may opine on social venturing, microfinance, community investing, clean technology commercialization, sustainability public policy, green products, and, on occasion, University of Texas Longhorn sports.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Solution to Cadmium Poisoning


One of the unfortunate by-products of our reliance on coal for power generation is the toxic release of cadmium. Power plants spew the toxin into nearby land, where it gets into the soil. If that land happens to be a farm, cadmium poisoning of the food supply is a serious risk. Leafy plants such as rice, tobacco, and lettuce soak up cadmium as if it were any other soil nutrient. In Asia, population density, a reliance on coal power generation, and a cultural dependence on rice as a diet staple, have made cadmium poisoning a leading cause of death and disability. It causes brittle bones, kidney disease, infertility in men, and excruciating pain. Children, such as the unfortunate soul depicted in the photograph, are especially susceptible, and there is no cure.

The causes and effects of cadmium poisoning have been known for decades. In Asia’s less wealthy economies, poisoned crops still regularly creep into the food supply. In Japan, displacing farmers on affected land is politically untenable, so the government has taken to paying farmers to leave poisoned land untended or simply buying up the poisoned crops. Since this program is not sustainable, soil remediation is the only alternative. However, the best method in use today is “dig and haul”, literally digging up the top soil and disposing of it. The method is expensive, costing approximately $1 million per acre. With millions of acres affected, progress would be slow, even if the continued burning of coal ceased tomorrow.

Last year, while immersed in the Science and Technology Commercialization program at the University of Texas, some classmates of mine learned of a project from world renowned scientists to develop a plant that actually soaks up the cadmium from the soil at such a rate that remediation happens in a matter of 4-6 years. Over these seasons, the plants are discarded, the metal is reclaimed, new seeds are planted, and after a few seasons, the soil is back to normal. The technique has been given the term “phytoremediation” and the plant has been trademarked as “phytogreen”. The team worked up a business model whereby this patented plant could be deployed to remediate the affected acreage at a cost of $25,000 per acre, well less than the cost of dig and haul, and even less than the $137,000 to pay farmers to leave the land fallow. At $25k per acre and millions upon millions of acres either poisoning the population or otherwise useless, the opportunity is huge for the right commercialization team.

Obstacles remain for this technology, but none seem insurmountable. The first is acquiring the intellectual property. The team of scientists, from University of Maryland, Massey University in New Zealand, and Australia’s University of Melbourne, are spread out. The patents are shared between the individuals and their respective universities. University commercialization is terribly cumbersome, as the institutions are bureaucratic and not necessarily motivated by monetary incentives. Second, working out the “who pays” scenario will require some strong arming. A government would be the logical choice, but again, politicians are not necessarily motivated by economic incentives. The companies who were responsible for poisoning the land may not be motivated to pay either, considering they were brazen enough to poison the land in the first place. A real estate speculation play may be the ideal scenario. Especially in Japan, where an acre is extremely valuable, $25,000 to improve it and make it useful again, is a drop in the bucket. The third obstacle is controlling the intellectual property. By nature, the plant will seek to replicate itself. If seeds are available for free, who will pay the royalties? The scientists are working on making the seeds infertile. Whatever the model, this technology is here today and ready for deployment.

Thanks to Jean Norton, Kiem Tjong, Barry Kulpa, Kenichi Nakamura, David Huo, and Hyeram Youm for their considerable research and contribution to the article.

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