by Joanne Ivancic* (Advanced Biofuels USA) Biofuels Digest's Advanced Bioeconomy Leadership Conference started with an afternoon ABLC Feedstock Summit at the US Department of Agriculture. Three points jumped out. The value of the farmers/growers perspective of biofuels; rethinking the value of using dedicated crops as compared to a focus on residues and waste; and the weakness that uncertain policy poses.
With regard to the need to see the bioeconomy from the farmers'/growers' view: again no farmers or growers presented on the panels. About 8 years ago David Eid, a farmer from Minnesota, was on a panel and gave insightful observations about what was important to him in making decisions about what to grow. Issues he raised about crop insurance, crop financing and such have not received much attention at these conferences. Yet, we hear about lack of feedstock where producers need it and bottlenecks related to feedstock.
Pesentations from companies who are actually interacting with growers provide some insights on the kinds of issues Eid raised. For example, Daphne Preuss, CEO of Chromatin, talked about the day-long meetings they have with potential farmers, bringing experts not only about the crop (in her case, sorghum), but also about financing, land use, policy and such. READ MORE
John Pieper of DuPont Industrial Biosciences talked extensively about working with farmers on soil health if they want to become a corn stover provider who meets DuPont's sustainability criteria. The recognition that farmers have problems brought on by high yields of corn and residue management enabled a pivot from farmers seeing DuPont not only as a customer who was asking for product that was going to require more work and new equipment and more headaches to a partner who could help alleviate some residue management challenges. The collaboration has been so successful that Pieper remarked that a question he often gets is if their sustainability assessment, monitoring and process could also be applied to acres that are not part of DuPont's feedstock.
Dedicated Energy Crops
The farmers' perspective was also key to the discussion of the value of dedicated energy crops. Anna Rath, CEO of NexSteppe, listed the following important considerations, arguing that we shouldn't automatically
value wastes and residues over dedicated energy crops. We need to be more thoughtful and look at the specific circumstances.
So often people equate crops with unsustainability. This ignores the possibilities that some crops can provide solutions to environmental problems. Or that they can be grown as an integral part of an ecosystem that provides for food, feed, fiber, fuel and other needs.
Sorghums such as those developed by Chromatin's and NexSteppe might prove quite sustainable under the right conditions.
Carinata, as described by Steven Fabijanski, CEO of Agrisoma Biosciences, with its high oil biofuel feedstock, high protein animal feed co-product and "best in class" life cycle assessment, could be a beneficial choice for some parts of the globe.
And think of pongamia. Naveen Sikka, TerViva's CEO, described the potential benefits of this oil seed-bearing tree being tested on 2500 acres, each, in Florida and Hawaii. In Florida, its replacement of diseased citrus and in Hawaii its provision of home-grown oil that avoids transportation financial and environmental costs give food for thought. For farmers, he focused on profit per acre from multiple co-products and with an eye to the future of integrating livestock grazing among established trees.
And Maine forests. The demise of US pulp and paper industries has left stranded industrial assets and forests. The Born Global team, a slew of presenters from Maine, starting with Governor Paul LePage's keynote the following day, urged new thinking about how to make existing assets more productive. In Maine, they are not relying first on venture capital, but concentrating on project financing. They are making feedstock suppliers part of an equity context. They want to realign and do better, as described by Kimberly Samaha of Synthesis Venture Fund Partners, with the concept of innovation insurance.
Bringing the same insights about how a community together can look beyond quarterly returns and take a longer view is the board of farmer-investor-owned Quad County Corn Processors. They looked at what they had and saw not limitations, but unique incentives. They reinvested their money (profit), experience and talent into developing a successful process for converting corn kernel fiber into cellulosic ethanol.
Although the challenge of shifting policy priorities in the US often raises its ugly head when discussing investment and financing, it also was blamed for some reluctance of farmers/growers to take an interest in trying new crops for the bioeconomy.
It goes without saying, because it was repeated over and over throughout the conference, that policy uncertainty spooks investors. The scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs who work on these innovations know that they can benefit the world. A system of capitalism that focuses on short-term benefit to individuals lacks a way to put value on innovation that takes years of research and development. Thus the importance of policy that takes a longer view with a greater community of state, nation, region or world in mind.
Farmers who are asked to change what's been working for them to experiment with new crops and techniques are no different.
Without clear and enthusiastic government leadership to take us into a bio-based future of low carbon emissions, innovation will be stymied by reluctance of private entitites to take personal risk for the possible benefit and value, not for individuals or even co-ops, but for the Earth in general.
In reaction to perceptions about US policy, one fellow from the Port of Amsterdam offered, if you don't like what's happening in the US, the Netherlands wants to talk to you about other options.
From the many people from other parts of the world at the ABLC, and from an increase in investor representatives attending, innovation is being invited to follow the money away from these shores. Is that a wise US policy investment? As another phrase heard lately, repeatedly at this conference and other events, goes, "We'll see."
These are troubling times--and exciting times as thoughtful, bright and engaged scientists, advocates, and financiers look to the future believing that the promise of the feedstocks, technologies and philosophies discussed at conferences like ABLC will take root and provide a sustainable, renewable, Earth-kind living for everyone along the value chain that grows from this integrated feedstock system. In the US and around the globe.
*Joanne Ivancic serves as the executive director of Advanced Biofuels USA.