Agriculture is challenged to establish an equilibrium that will enable the needs of traditional markets—food, feed and fiber—to be met while also serving the needs of new markets—energy, chemicals and materials, A biobased economy, balanced with a reduced fossil-based economy, is projected to contribute to national security, sustainability, minimization of global climate change, expanded farmer-market opportunities, and rural development. The presentations and discussions at this conference helped to identify significant questions and to pose relevant perspectives to an emerging land-use issue in which energy generation and food production—two critical issues for society today and for the foreseeable future—will need to be considered by all as we seek to maintain a precarious balance in a world with increasing population and the concomitant accompanying pressures.
Canadian interest in the bioeconomy isn’t driven primarily by energy-related considerations. Canada is a net energy exporter, producing many forms including hydro, nuclear, oil and natural gas. The main reasons for interest in bioenergy are environmental and social, with the development of rural economies and improvement of farm incomes as desirable outcomes.
The world is intellectually rapidly changing and two of the larger human needs—providing adequate nutrition and an ample energy supply for the world’s expanding population—seem to be in conflict. The potential for political instability caused by scarcity of food is very real in many corners of the world. Even the United States is not immune to the problems of hunger. At the same time, the earth’s supply of fossil fuel is dwindling and we face an additional crisis with similar result: political turmoil brought about by diminishing resources.
The establishment of the GLBRC on university campuses represents a new model for large-scale research and development with a federal partner. Achieving the objective of removing bottlenecks from the bioenergy pipeline is a monumental national goal. One of the unique elements of the center is its sustainability thrust, emphasizing practices throughout the bioenergy-production pipeline that focus on environmental and resource issues and sustainable practices.
Corn is being blamed as responsible for global food shortages. Although the United States has consumed significant amounts of corn for biofuel, this usage is unconnected to shortages of rice, wheat and fruits and vegetables. At most, corn may account for 20% of the current food shortage. Corn is less efficient than sugar cane or sweet sorghum in terms of its biofuel-energy content, but it’s a good starting point on which we can build.
Ohio has a promising economic future. Investments in areas of growth will lead research to new and better products capitalizing on the fact that Ohio has a diverse economy with a thriving agricultural industry and an emerging biopolymer industry.
Development of the bioenergy industry offers multiple benefits, including reduced risk of global climate change through reduced production of greenhouse gases, increased national security, and improved national and local economies. Grasses in particular, but possibly legumes as well, will play a vital role as feedstocks for this emerging industry. Commercial cellulosic biofuel plants can be expected to be in production within the next 3 to 5 years, and initial expansion of the industry will begin in 5 to 10 years.
Humanity is in a race against time to ensure global food security on a planet with limited supplies of arable land, water, and low-cost energy resources, and a rapidly growing human population. Biotechnology and plant molecular sciences provide critical tools for meeting the challenge of food security, but they are not silver bullets. Achieving food security and protecting natural resources will require scientific breakthroughs and technology developments from a large number of basic and applied disciplines.
The science and engineering of developing biobased energy alternatives comprise known capabilities, highly plausible conjectures and problems yet to be solved. But scientists and engineers need to pay attention to the timeline implicit in this simple statement, for it suggests that we should think of biofuels in terms of a trajectory that begins in the past and arrives at some not-fully-determined point in the future.