Iowa State University Agronomy Professor Richard Cruse believes an integrated approach to the national biofuels policy will help solve some of the "food vs. fuel" debate while protecting and sustaining at-risk land and water in the state.
Cruse has joined 22 other scientists and researchers from around the country to ask for a new policy direction in an article titled "Sustainable Biofuels Redux," published two weeks ago in the journal Science. Science is a magazine that's published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and this magazine is one of the leading science journals in the world.
Biofuel-producing methods that focus on converting biomass to liquid fuel using a single type of plant do not serve our production and conservation needs very well, especially in the Corn Belt, says Cruse. The current technology using enzymes to break down biomass for fuel production is best-suited for a single biomass type, he says.
Can use 10% to 15% of land to grow perennials
Cruse advocates more research on flexible platforms -- methods used for converting different types of biomass into usable liquid biofuels. Currently these flexible platforms are dominated by thermochemical methods that may allow for multiple types of biomass to be converted simultaneously to liquid fuel, he says. By allowing a variety of different inputs, Cruse believes there will be a positive effect on soil and water quality. "We want to have a chance to use the landscape in a way that allows us to produce the maximum amount of corn or soybeans," he says. "And we can use 10% to 15% of the land area to grow perennials that compliment row crop production by better preserving soil and water." He adds, "That 10% to 15% of land around waterways and other places is marginal for growing row crops, but is very suitable for other plants that produce biomass. If we can harvest and sell perennial grasses grown in these sensitive areas for biofuels, we have a market for conservation."
Different crops can provide the needed benefits
Currently, Cruse says, producing thermochemical liquid fuel is not cost-effective.
Cruse says the country should look at investing more in this technology and other research that is good for soil, water and also fills the need for energy. "We can't look at farming alone, and we can't look at the energy industry alone," he says. "We have to look at the two of them together." Part of that process is being aware that different crops can provide benefits for food, fuel and conservation needs. "A platform that is sensitive to a variety of species growing on the landscape would help open doors for biofuel production and conservation that otherwise will remain mostly closed," he says.