With rapid world growth and changing consumer demands and attitudes, sustained economic and social development will depend upon a secure supply of raw-material inputs for manufacturing needs. Continued depletion of limited global natural resources supports the concept of supplying industrial production and energy needs through the use of renewable, or biobased, resources. The United States has a highly productive agricultural system, which, in addition to providing basic food, feed, and fiber, can produce significant plant- and animal-based resources for use as basic building blocks in industrial production. There is an opportunity for agriculture to become a major source for production of energy, chemicals and materials in the twenty-first century.
The widespread use of plant- and animal-based inputs for fuel and industrial uses will require research and development efforts to address modifications in current processing systems, modifications to plant- and animal-production systems, and integration of fossil-fuel/biobased approaches. Major plant and animal production areas are not geographically suited to traditional processing facilities. Transportation issues and location of processing facilities near plant and animal production areas must be addressed. Successful progress toward addressing these and other challenges facing biobased industrial production will be achieved by an integrated, multi-disciplinary approach to research and development that combines talents from traditional agricultural disciplines with those from engineering, health, information technologies, and many others.
Providing sufficient food for the world’s people is one of the great challenges of the twenty-first century. There is now real concern that global warming, with its potential for affecting the climate regimes of entire regions, will exacerbate the world’s food-production problems. Interactions of agriculture and the natural environment under a changing climate will have large-scale reverberations: altering rates of soil erosion, increasing competition for water resources, expanding the use of agricultural chemicals, and affecting wildlife habitats. However, many good farm-management practices buffer against climate changes and reduce greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere.
Resource constraints may make a biobased economy impossible if it is expected to continue at the pace and consumption level of the fossil-based economy in industrial and postindustrial societies. While the world economy will not suddenly run out of land to produce food and materials for the biobased economy, progression toward the ultimate limit to growth will be incremental, marked by increased pollution of air and water, declines in productivity of degraded soils, and reduced availability and access to fossil-fuel-derived inputs to production.
The organization and culture of agricultural R&D is insufficiently attentive to a wide range of social, environmental, legal and ethical issues that are part of any significant technological innovation. Biotechnology provides an important case study and object lesson for some of the questions that we should be debating with respect to the ecological meaning of agriculture, and the impact of technical change on our social institutions. Scientists, educators and administrators must institutionalize continuous critical reflection on their activities, and they must find some way to make that reflection effective in shaping the agenda for research and the deployment of technology
We have an obligation to make public investment in biotechnology and bioprocessing in order to achieve economic advancements and to develop “no-regrets” responses to problems like climate change. Without technology, we cannot support 6 to 10 billion people in anything like a prosperous world with only a moderate impact on the environment. Technology is essential. However, in devising ways of minimizing climate change, for example, we must not incur other risks.
There has been restructuring that has in the traditional agricultural research and development complex, and some new funding paradigms have developed to support a new industry. Partnerships and alliances are of great importance as technology moves from universities through these new paradigms to be commercialized by the larger companies
The challenge to the land grant universities relative to their role in the biobased economy is to provide the innovation, evaluation, and education that will help ensure that society will reap the potential benefits of the biobased economy with minimal exposure to the possible risks. This is a grand challenge that will require additional resources. Each voting member of the public and each public action group has the opportunity to press for a clear mandate and funds for these universities to carry out their role.
The US Office of Energy Policy and New Uses will identify market opportunities for developing new biobased and bioenergy products to meet. The very ambitious goal of tripling the nation’s use of biobased products and bioenergy by 2010. When evaluating the cost of biobased products compared to other inputs, it is important to do a life cycle analysis to obtain a comprehensive energy and environmental analysis
Multiple opportunities exist for energy production from renewable sources such as wind and solar power. Currently, there are also active solicitations to apply to the Department of Energy(DoE) for grants to work on biobased products, co-firing research, analytical tools, and biorefineries. The DoE has increasing interest in working with state universities and land-grant colleges in this area. There are great opportunities for research into bioenergy and biobased products as well as increasing market interest.
The vision of the structure of the biobased economy of twenty-first century agriculture is, at best, a fuzzy picture of how genetics, production, processing, distribution, and marketing to consumers will integrate. Several important political and social implications must be addressed before specific roles of the players in the biobased agriculture game will become clear.