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A Look at the Potential for Alternative Crop Investment and Growth

By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, Women in Agribusiness Media (May 7, 2024)


We hear plenty about the crops that make the world go round – wheat, corn, and oilseed crops such as soybeans, canola, cottonseed, sunflower and more – but alternative crops are proliferating at boutique farms around the U.S. and the globe and becoming more and more prevalent in new foods. They also are stretching the boundaries of alternative protein choices.


We’re talking versatile choices like mushrooms, Camelina, and hemp.


The Magical Mycelium from Mushrooms


For centuries, mushrooms have had a place in food history… from being consumed for strength in ancient Greece, to being the “Food of the Gods” in Roman times, to being used to heal disease in Chinese culture. There are approximately 14,000 different species of mushroom, many of which are inedible.

Today, mushrooms are most valued for their mycelium, the root-like structure that supports the fungi. These filamentous fungi fibers are quite unique and versatile and can be used to create foods that mimic the texture of animal meat with a much lower impact on the environment. Mycelium has been harvested for a variety of uses – as a promising material for foods, buildings, packaging, and even clothing – and has always been a source to aid in decomposing matter, hence for use in agriculture waste.


Following along with the trend for new alternative proteins to keep pace with the increasing worldwide demand for protein, and to mitigate the toll that animal food production takes on the world – such as contributing to global warming and being the leading cause of deforestation, species extinction, and ocean dead zones – mycelium-derived protein is gaining much attention.


Alternative protein sources have increasingly been on the radar of both consumers and investors. Global protein consumption is expected to climb at a CAGR of 1.7 percent, reaching 943 million tons by 2054, according to Lux Research. Over this same time period, alternative protein sources are forecast to command up to one-third of the protein market as consumers push back against the environmental effects and animal welfare concerns connected with animal protein production. 


And mycelium protein is distinctly recognized for its filamentous fungi fibers that are similar to the muscle fibers in animal protein, a huge benefit compared to some plant-based proteins, which are isolates that require extraction of the protein. Ultimately, the mycelium protein provides an ideal amount of body and structure to the end product and the taste is like a blank canvas, ready to take on any added flavors.


Investors are taking notice. Just last week, Maia Farms secured $2.3 million in Pre-Seed funding in the form of private capital and matching grant funding to support their goal of transforming the global protein supply with mycelium. In 2023, plant-based deli and charcuterie meat company Prime Roots announced it had secured $30 million in funding through a Series B backed by an extensive roster of investors, while the first fine mycelium mass-production plant – to produce the world’s highest quality, leather-like material – went online in Union City, South Carolina, in 2020, supported by a MycoWorks fundraise of $125 million.


And there’s definitely more to come, as according to Straits Research, the global mycelium market was worth US$2.85 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach US$5.61 billion by 2030, growing at CAGR of 7.8 percent during that period. While still a very niche market, there is growing interest, with mushroom-picking robots in development and increased demand for the product in Australia and the EU.


Camelina – Versatile Cover Crop with Low GHG


While canola is one of the most important oilseeds globally with a large domestic U.S. market – the global canola oil market is forecast to grow 3.7 percent between 2023-2030 to reach a value of $43.3 billion by 2030 – camelina, another winter oilseed, offers a good alternative. Though it is lower yielding than canola, it is more compatible with a shorter rotational window and later planting, as well as a greater tolerance to low soil temperatures. Additionally, demand for camelina in the 2023-2030 forecast period is expected to grow at a CAGR of 6 percent to a market size of $500 million by 2030.


Camelina oil is not currently considered edible, but it has great potential as a biodiesel. Driving research forward with this alternative oilseed for use in biofuel is the low-carbon fuel standard in California, where over 50 percent of the fuel is now bio-based. At the national level, the Federal Renewable Fuel Standard for bio-based diesel is helping to grow the canola oil market and is driving the need for alternatives, such as Camelina. 


In February of this year, Cargill provided a grant of $2.5 million to the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota to study winter camelina and domesticated winter pennycress, known for producing seed-based oil for low-carbon transportation fuels while also protecting soil, improving water quality, and providing new revenue streams for farmers.


“Winter camelina and pennycress could be truly transformative for farmers, the environment, rural communities, and the economy of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest,” said Mitch Hunter, associate director of the Forever Green Initiative, a research platform in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. “We are extremely excited to have this support from Cargill, which will greatly advance our research and help make these crops a reality for farmers.”


And in February 2023, a joint venture between agricultural company S&W Seed Co. and Equilon Enterprises (Shell) was announced for the development Camelina and other oilseed species in order to process the resulting oil and meal into animal feed, biofuels, and other byproducts. 


Healthy Soil with Hemp


When the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 authorized the production of hemp and removed hemp and hemp seeds from the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) schedule of Controlled Substances, there was rapid growth of the industry. Valued at US$5 billion in 2022, the global industrial hemp market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 19 percent from 2023 to 2032.


Hemp is used to make a variety of commercial and industrial products, including rope, textiles, clothing, paper, bioplastics, insulation, biofuel, and of course food. Much of the interest has focused on producing hemp for cannabidiol (CBD), however, there is great potential to produce hemp as a fiber or grain crop in making hemp seed oil, flour, coffee, and for use in livestock feed.

In this already niche market – in 2022, there were 28,419 U.S. crop acres planted in hemp compared to corn, the largest crop planted in the U.S. at nearly 90 million acres – hemp production has decreased recently. This is because of a lack of clarity from the federal government on the regulation and use of hemp products – particularly those containing CBD and other hemp-derived cannabinoids.


Nevertheless, farmers do use hemp as a cover crop as some varieties can produce 5,000-6,000 pounds of biomass per acre in the relatively short time period of 60-90 days. In this same timeframe, it also can produce 120-140 pounds of nitrogen. Additionally hemp provides the benefits of erosion control, soil improvement, and the potential to naturally suppress weeds, noted Tara Caton, hemp specialist with the Rodale Institute, where studies are being done on using hemp in crop rotation.


The investment door opened for hemp in 2019 as Australian agtech leader CropLogic raised more than A$9 million (US$6.2 million) to fund the development of its Industrial Hemp Trial Farm in Oregon, followed by Front Range Biosciences (FRB), a leading agbiotech firm and breeder of advanced seed varieties of hemp, coffee, and cannabis, raising $8.5 million through an oversubscribed Insider Round.



- Michelle Pelletier Marshall is contributing editor and author for HighQuest Partners’ GAI News and managing editor for its WIA Today blog. Additionally, she is the company’s Senior PR/Media Manager. She can be reached at






Do you have a story you'd like to contribute to WIA Today? Or a suggestion for a story, or comments about an article? Please reach out to Michelle Marshall at and share your thoughts. We'd love to hear from you.

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