The sports section of the Sunday Star Tribune included a short article with some big ramifications when it comes to creating a sustainable landscape while developing real energy security. It turns out some key agricultural leaders in Congress are realizing that focusing soley on corn ethanol as our energy savior is economically and environmentally short-sighted.
Specifically, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson told a gathering of outdoor enthusiasts that the 2007 Farm Bill should include a call for planting 5 million acres of grasses or other perennials that could be used to make biofuels. Such plantings would have the added benefit of producing prime wildlife habitat while protecting our soil and water, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by trapping carbon. In addition, since the plantings would be perennial, energy would be saved by not having to till, replant and fertilize the land every year. Peterson suggested that 25 percent of our current corn and soybean acres could be replaced by grass. Hear that? It’s the sound of a panicking herd of lobbyists for multinational grain companies, corn ethanol firms and factory farm livestock producers chasing Peterson down the halls of the U.S. Capitol.
The Congressman’s comments have implications closer to home as well. Members of the 2007 Minnesota Legislature have some real opportunities to make this state a leader in cellulosic energy production by supporting the Clean Energy Minnesota initiative being put forth by the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.
It’s clear Rep. Peterson, who is the Chair of the House Agriculture Committee, has been paying attention to the concerns of outdoor groups that are wondering what the future holds for the Conservation Reserve Program. Even more importantly, Peterson’s comments reflect the influence of some cutting-edge research going on at the University of Minnesota. David Tilman and his colleagues are showing that diverse stands of grasses and forbs could serve as the basis for a cellulosic revolution in biofuels production. We could see prairie ecosystems that provide numerous ecological and economic services to society. Such systems could even allow farmers to derive other economic benefits from that land other than energy production—such as livestock grazing.
Tilman’s groundbreaking research, long recognized by the scientific community, now has real potential to influence public policy and create solutions to some everyday problems. It’s an example of why the land grant research system was created in the first place.
But land grants are also home to scientists who sometimes can’t see beyond current paradigms. That became clear in the same Star Tribune article, when University of Minnesota economist Steve Taff was quoted as saying: “We haven’t a clue how to grow prairie grass on an industrial scale. Not a clue.”
Professor Taff is an excellent applied economist, as anyone who has followed his work on Minnesota land values knows. But expressing doubts about the viability of cellulosic biofuels because we don’t know how to make factories out of stands of prairie is missing the point. The current corn-based ehtanol system is heavily subsidied, and intensely industrial. It may be a good interim step to energy security, but in the long-term it is not sustainable. Our soil and water cannot produce corn for fuel indefinitely. And as communities surrounded by fields of corn have discovered, our rural Main Streets aren’t faring too well in a monocrop economy either.
Like any good industrailized machine, our corn system is good at producing one thing, and one thing only: lots and lots of corn.
The cellulosic system Tilman and others are promoting would be based on diverse stands of prairie plants—about as far from the single-mindedness of “industrial agriculture” as you can get. As a result, such a diverse system could produce multiple benefits beyond biofuels: clean water, better soil, wildlife cover, fewer greenhouse gases, pleasant-looking landscapes.
Yes, such a system will need to be subsidized in some fashion. A system that has the potential of producing so many multiple benefits for our communities and the landscape isn’t necessarily going to attract investment dollars from Archer Daniels Midland or Cargill. No wonder: such firms make money off a narrowly-focused industrial product. But that doesn’t mean something that requires diverse stands of perennial plants on the landscape is worthless. Quite the contrary: it’s a “public good” that is hard to put a price tag on, but which in the end is invaluable to society. That’s why the government subsidizes cancer research: it’s to no single corporation’s financial advantage to invest the time and resources needed to do the basic science.
Minnesota is in an enviable position these days when it comes to the promotion and support of sustainable biofuels. On the federal level we have key lawmakers who are in a position to create a cellulosic-friendly Farm Bill. On the state level, we have legislative proposals that could help push cutting-edge technology to the next, practical level. We are also home to some of the most exciting research being done in this area. And providing a solid foundation to all of this are some of the most innovative farmers around—just champing at the bit to prove our land can produce more than corn and beans.