January 29, 2007

Food vs. Fuel? U.S. Farmers Can Produce Both

The Biotechnology Industry Organization has released a study that addresses the question “Can American farmers feed the growing biofuel industry?” The report details the potential of cellulosic biomass as an energy resource and the promise of no-till cropping for greater residue collection. It also proposes guidelines and incentives to encourage farmers to produce, harvest and deliver sufficient feedstock to the growing biorefinery and biofuels industry in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.

Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO’s Industrial & Environmental Section, said, “Industrial biotechnology has enhanced the efficiency of biofuel production and made possible production of a range of polymers and chemicals from agricultural starting materials. The next challenge facing the biorefinery industry is producing, harvesting and delivering abundant feedstocks in an economically and environmentally sustainable fashion. This report begins to address that issue.”

Here are some statements from the report's Executive Summary:

Food Plus Fuel, Not Food or Fuel: U.S. Farmers Can Produce Both
The potential of cellulosic biomass as an energy resource and the promise of no-till cropping for greater residue collection.

In order to meet the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) goal of 60 billion gallons of ethanol production and 30 percent displacement of petroleum by 2030, new feedstock sources will be required to supplement high-efficiency production from grain. A robust sustainable supply chain for cellulosic biomass from agricultural residues and dedicated energy crops will be needed within a few years. Nearly 1 billion dry tons of cellulosic biomass could be supplied by U.S. agricultural lands in the form of crop residues and dedicated energy crops.

A growing list of companies has announced intentions to begin construction of cellulosic biorefineries. One challenge for the emerging cellulosic biomass industry is how to produce, harvest and deliver this abundant feedstock to biorefineries in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.

An environmental and economic ‘optimum’ removal will balance sufficient retention of residues to avoid erosion losses and maintain soil quality while using excess residue as biorefinery feedstocks.

Ultimately, growing demand for crop residues will likely prove a strong additional driver for the transition to more widespread no-till cropping. Once a market for agricultural residues develops, individual farmers or groups of farmers may elect to adopt no-till cropping to attract biorefineries to their area. Residue collection may also enable notill cropping in wetter regions, such as the northern Corn Belt, where excess residues currently hamper germination and reduce yields.

In addition to economic benefits for farmers, sustainable production and collection of agricultural residues has the potential to deliver substantial benefits for the environment, such as reduced runoff of soil and fertilizers. But the greatest environmental benefits may be to the global climate through reduced emissions of fossil carbon and enhanced sequestration of soil carbon.

Congress should consider adopting supportive policy measures in the 2007 Farm Bill, including:
• Funding for accelerated development and production of one-pass harvesting equipment;
• Development and distribution of simple-to-use soil carbon models to allow farmers to compute how much crop residue can be collected without degrading soil quality;
• Assistance to farmers to encourage the transition to no-till cropping for biomass production;
• Incentives for the development and expansion of short line and regional rail networks;
• Funding for demonstration projects to streamline collection, transport and storage of cellulosic crop residue feedstocks;
• Development of a system to monetize greenhouse gas credits generated by production of ethanol and other products from agricultural feedstocks; and
• Funding for programs to help farmers identify and grow the most suitable crops for both food production and cellulosic biomass production.

Cellulosic biomass from agricultural residues and dedicated energy crops represents a highly promising new source of feedstock material for the production of ethanol, renewable chemicals and a range of commercial biobased products. Residues from existing crops can be utilized to greatly expand current biofuels production. American farmers are poised to deliver.

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