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Groups Fight Over Castor Bean Plan

Filed by KOSU News in Feature, Local News, Science.
December 8, 2011

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Red Rock is miniscule even for typical small town Oklahoma: no general store, no real downtown, only a couple hundred residents. But two prominent groups are squaring off in a battle over farmland there. The Otoe Missouria tribe wants to plant thousands of acres of castor beans, and most local farmers are trying to put up roadblocks…

Castor beans are billed as a piece of the renewable energy puzzle. Oil from the beans can be converted to fuel, and they’re practically drought resistant. So the tribe’s plan first looked like a surefire win. Yet there’s an ugly side too.

“What is also distinct about castor is the ricin,” said Calvin Trostel, agronomist with Texas AgriLife in Lubbock.

He and most scientists say ricin is one of the most poisonous organic compounds in the world.

Opposition to the plan comes from farmers groups in the state.

“If they were trying to produce this way out in Timbuktu where there was no elevators and nothing else was grown that’s a different story,” said Joe Neal Hampton, President of the Oklahoma Seed and Grain Association. “But they’re proposing to produce this in the heart of Oklahoma’s grain producing areas.”

There’s that same level of concern coming from Oklahoma City. Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese has met with the tribe.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to really comfortable with it. I think that growing a product with ricin is a concern.”

Yet coming into fatal contact with ricin takes some work. As Calvin Trostel told me, he and his workers touch the castor beans every day.

“It’s just common sense that we would say ‘Well, okay we were working in the lab’ or somebody walked in the field and didn’t know it was castor plants. I think that really is very minimal in terms of risk.”

The real concern? That by some fluke accident, a couple castor beans somehow slip into a pile of wheat or sorghum, ruining the whole batch. Oklahoma House Majority Leader Dale DeWitt has proposed legislation banning production and transportation of the beans.

“We cannot afford that contamination and get a load turned down. I think it just creates a tremendous marketing problem for us here in Oklahoma,” said DeWitt.

DeWitt says the state’s agricultural industry could be in danger if that happened, with a lack of confidence in its products.

On the other side, the Otoe Missouria Tribe is largely silent about the project. They acknowledge the plan exists, and say they’re taking all the necessary regulations and safety concerns into consideration.

Someone was willing to talk, just not on tape. Christian Fleisher’s taking a behind the scenes role in the tribe’s proposal. He says as owner of Red Rock Bioenergy he will supervise the operation. He says equipment will only get used on castor beans.

Another castor bean farmer would talk. Mike Fothergill is in charge of thousands of acres in Florida.

“There is seed people and other lobbyists are trying to squelch castor as a crop yet they’re going to keep it as an ornamental where it grows along the streets where children can simply pick it up off the ground next to an elementary school.”

But there’s a certain stigma about the crop. Every castor bean proponent I talked to held back in some way. Fothergill would only give me the name of one company he works with, another family rushed me off the phone, and Fleisher wouldn’t go on tape.

With the proposed legislation, there’s a potential roadblock for the tribe. According to Majority Leader Dewitt, he hasn’t spoken with the Otoe about their plan. Still, they say they’re developing a plan to move forward.

8 Responses to “Groups Fight Over Castor Bean Plan”

  1. Hugh says:

    There seems to be an issue in the rights of private land owners to grow what they want as juxtaposed with public safety. I am curious about how the growing of castor beans elsewhere has been dealt with, as this is not a new practice world-wide.

  2. Jim Richards says:

    If we banned every product because a toxic ingredient is required in manufacturing we would have to ban all paper products, soap, synthetic fibers, plastics, pretty much everything. I have a feeling this has nothing to do with the danger of castor beans and more to do with infringing upon the old money that controls energy in this country.

    • Jim, Congrats! You have won the book, This is NPR: The First 40 Years, for commenting on this story. Please contact Jenny Mae at 1.800.228.4678 so that we can get your prize to you.


  3. Chase says:

    Castor beans can't be the only crop to be labeled "dangerous" if its mixed with others. With the highly-advanced farming technology of today, I think there should be a way to safely grow the beans without endangering other crops. Oklahoma needs to be a leader in fostering new agricultural practices like these instead of creating laws to ban them.

  4. Scott says:

    We need to safelyt allow the production of this product to further wean us from our mid-east oil dependency. The challenge shouldn't be beyond our technology…

  5. Randy M. says:

    I agree that this very commonly grown plant should be commercially produced locally. These plants can be found all around Stillwater in yards, gardens, etc for pest repellent and for ornamental use. The ricin "cake" smells very good (like a food) so could be tempting to eat or chew. As I understand it, this "cake" is the remains of pressed seeds after the oil is pressed out for castor oil production. This cake would be produced in a processing plant & may possibly be de-toxified by steam heating it—then has various safe uses. Toxic plants are everywhere; I've read that even carrots (beta carotene?) can be toxic if excessively consumed. Mistletoe is highly toxic; oleander in southern states & the tropics is widely used as an ornamental & screening/high-hedge plants.

  6. Helen Clements says:

    The castor bean has been a cash crop in Oaxaca, Mexico for generations, and a quick look on Google will get you to a number of references. Apparently the bean is the part that's poisonous. They have been a small market commodity, sold to vendors for their oil. It seems to me that if the Otoe-Missouria want to use this, they will have the presence of mind to study the crop carefully and guard well so that it doesn't become a problem. There are likely many other substances–for instance, rubbing alcohol–that are also toxic but are much more easy to obtain and possibly ingest. Another consideration is that if the nation use this crop to improve their overall welfare, perhaps the benefits will outweigh the risk. Helen

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