Putting Ag to Work in the Bioeconomy

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Industrial agriculture has made farming into a bit of a one-trick pony. Here in the Midwest, the majority of cropland produces monocultures of corn and soybeans, and not much else. This narrowly focused agriculture has produced record yields of raw commodities, but these yields have come with some steep environmental, economic and even social price tags attached. A paper in the June 15 edition of the journal Science argues that we can make farming more multifunctional, and thus more sustainable. By adding perennial plant systems such as grass, for example, agriculture can produce multiple benefits, maintain the paper’s 14 coauthors. The researchers examined the results of numerous studies that have been done in farm country in recent years and concluded that diversifying agriculture could produce many benefits for our rural communities.

For example, establishing more pasture-based livestock production systems would keep soil in place and protect water quality, while providing wildlife habitat. In addition, since pasture-based livestock systems have proven to be low-cost, profitable ways of producing meat and dairy products, this type of farming can help build and maintain wealth in local communities. Finally, grass-based livestock systems are creating a buzz in the health and nutrition community because of their ability to produce a healthier food product.

That’s one example of multifunctional agriculture.

The Science paper’s authors argue that it is imperative we take a serious look at the role perennial plant systems can play in a multifunctional agriculture as society increasingly looks to annual row crop agriculture to fulfill its energy needs. Corn ethanol is all the rage these days. And although biofuel made from annual crops such as corn can be a good interim step, focusing exclusively on this as the answer to our energy needs will likely exacerbate the environmental, economic and social problems associated with all-out production of one or two row crops.

Even the USDA is beginning to ackowledge that there are some drawbacks to the wall-to-wall ethanol school of rural economic development. For an eye-opening look into some concerns that are being raised by the Agriculture Department’s own economists, see “An Analysis of the Effects of an Expansion in Biofuel Demand on U.S. Agriculture.” One potential outcome, according to the analysis: “…increases in soil erosion and nutrient loading….” That’s the USDA talking, not LSP.

But, the Science paper concludes, perennial plant systems could help us develop a sustainable bio-economy. One option that is being explored is using diverse stands of prairie grass to produce cellulosic biofuels. Since these grasses don’t have to be replanted, and can be grown year-after-year with few inputs, they could produce energy quite efficiently. Meanwhile, they could produce many other benefits, such as cleaner water, wildlife habitat, trapping of greenhouse gases and cheap livestock feed.

As one of the authors of the paper, LSP’s George Boody, recently said on Ear to the Ground No. 34, we keep treating agriculture like it’s an industrial system. That’s a risky misrepresentation and a prime example of sticking a square peg into a round hole—you spend so much time pounding away at the peg wondering why it won’t perform an unnatural act that all that’s produced is a lot of sound and fury.

Agriculture is fundamentally a biological system, says Boody, and once we recognize that and treat it as such, this one-trick pony can mature into a multi-tasking workhorse.

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