Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Can American Farmers Feed The Growing Biofuel Industry?

Nov 21: The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) released a report entitled, Achieving Sustainable Production of Agricultural Biomass for Biorefinery Feedstock, 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. Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of BIO said, "...Americans should feel confident that U.S. farmers can produce both abundant supplies of food for people and animals and environmentally responsible biofuels for transportation."

The report examines considerations for sustainable harvesting of agricultural residues – such as corn stover and cereal straws -- expected to be the near-term feedstocks for biorefineries. It also discusses the expected economic benefits for individual farmers who invest in the practices and equipment needed for sustainable harvests of these feedstocks. It further points out the need for infrastructure to deliver feedstocks from farms to biorefineries.

James Hettenhaus of CEA Inc., author of the report stated, “For the biofuel industry to expand, biorefinery operators must be confident that the supply chain for cellulosic feedstocks is robust, and farmers must be assured that they will benefit by adopting sustainable harvesting practices. As the biorefinery industry creates markets for crop residues, farmers will be more motivated to adopt practices that allow them to collect these residues while maintaining soil quality and controlling erosion. Recent successes have spurred an increase in adoption of no-till cultivation, but improved information is needed to convince farmers of the benefits.”

According to the report, ethanol production has more than tripled since 2000, with annual U.S. production expected to exceed 7 billion gallons by 2007. Sales of biobased plastics are also expanding. In order to meet the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) goal of 60 million 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.

The report indicates that corn stover [the stalks that remain after the corn has been harvested] has the largest potential as a near-term biorefinery feedstock, given its high per-acre yields. Current cropping practices require that most or all stover remain on the field to maintain soil health. As biorefinery construction creates markets for crop residues, farmers will be more motivated to adopt practices that lead to economic and sustainable removal. 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. The benefits of converting to no-till cropping may justify the time to learn new methods and the $50,000 to $100,000 investment in new planting equipment. For instance, a 1,000-acre farm could expect to recover the additional costs through revenue from residue sales in as little as two years. With no-till cropping, sustainable collection of 30 percent of current annual corn stover production would yield over 5 billion gallons of ethanol and reduce net U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 90 million to 150 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually if burned as E85 fuel. To realize these benefits, additional infrastructure in collection, storage and transportation is needed to supply biorefineries.

The report concludes with a number of recommendations and says 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.

Access the complete 28-page report (click here). Access an Executive Summary (click here). Access a Fact Sheet (click here). Access a 48 minute press conference video (click here). Access the BIO website for additional information (click here). Access WIMS 8/25/06 article, A Critical Look At The Future Of Bio-fuels, for additional perspective (click here). [*Energy]