By Tom Still
MADISON – Dr. Chuck Rice of Kansas State University believes a byproduct of biofuels production in the Midwest will be better farming methods that allow the soil to retain more carbon dioxide, thus reducing greenhouse gases.
Brendan Jordan of the Great Plains Institute for Sustainable Development says production of ethanol and other biofuels from “cellulosic biomass,” which includes everything from switchgrass to corn stover, will make a long-term difference in the region’s energy supply without dramatically affecting food prices.
Mark Lindquist of the Midwest Agriculture Energy Network insists the right combination of federal and state policies can produce more renewable energy while building new wealth and capacity for rural communities.
Those are just three examples of how experts from across the Midwest are comparing notes on the science – and the economics – of biofuels and bioproducts. Through a combination of best practices, demonstration projects and model policies designed to work across the “Bio-belt,” Midwest policymakers are struggling to stay in front of the next rural revolution.
Scientists, university extension specialists and policymakers from about a dozen states came together in Madison last week as a precursor to a meeting of the Midwest Association of State Departments of Agriculture. The group examined “regional bio-industry partnerships” and asked how states can swap ideas about what works – and what doesn’t work.
They concluded that there’s some strength in numbers, especially when it comes to reviewing the science, exploring markets, setting standards, helping farmers learn new practices and generally getting the most out of available resources.
Kansas State’s Rice is director of the Consortium for Agricultural Soil Mitigation of Greenhouse Gases, a 10-institution organization that conducts research on the potential of farmland to sequester carbon dioxide while providing benefits to producers. He also serves on the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Rice and his colleagues are demonstrating how different farming methods, such as “no-tillage” practices, can restore soil carbon, save fuel and labor, reduce erosion, conserve moisture, improve wildlife habitat and more while still allowing farmers to produce the yields they need to remain competitive.
What’s that have to do with biofuels production? Critics say biofuels production won’t do much to improve the environment, but Rice maintains the right practices can reduce greenhouse gases by allowing the soil to hold more carbon.
“Carbon is the heart and soul of soil,” Rice said, and keeping it in the soil helps production as well as the environment. Soil has the potential to offset 30 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, he said.
Jordan took on the notion that greater biofuels production will diminish food production, raising prices for consumers and even leading to shortages of some market basket items. “Long-term, that’s not a problem. Short-term, it is,” Jordan said.
While conventional ethanol production could, at some point, divert too much corn from food production and feedstocks, production of cellulose-based ethanol will yield far more energy and not interfere with food supplies. Jordan noted that farm production is rarely static: In the 1930s, 30 bushels of corn per acre was the national average; today, most farm average 200-plus bushels per acre and some achieve 300 or more bushels per acre.
Lindquist said the federal Farm Bill is working effectively to provide access to technical assistance and build rural capacity to produce biofuels and bioproducts. Specific programs within the federal bill target incentives to farmers and investors alike, making it easier for projects to get off the ground.
Lindquist said the farm bill also helps farmers get advice when and where they need it. “It is the Farm Bill that funds the experts who sit down with the farmers,” he said.
And with most of the nation fretting over higher gasoline and energy prices, the Farm Bill may finally have allies in other urban states, where policymakers often ignored or even opposed farm policies.
Midwest states such as Wisconsin are pioneers in the new bio-based economy, and they will learn from mistakes as well as successes. Learning together might help avoid some of the costlier mistakes and more quickly move the best ideas into the marketplace.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.