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BIO Releases New Report on Sustainable Agriculture to Support Growing Biofuel Industry

Producing cellulosic ethanol. Click to enlarge.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) today released a report, Achieving Sustainable Production of Agricultural Biomass for Biorefinery Feedstock, that details the potential of cellulosic biomass as an energy resource and the promise of no-till farming for greater residue collection.

It also proposes guidelines and incentives to encourage farmers to produce, harvest and deliver sufficient feedstock to the growing biorefinery and biofuels industry in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.

As we approach the Thanksgiving travel season, Americans should feel confident that US farmers can produce both abundant supplies of food for people and animals and environmentally responsible biofuels for transportation.

—Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of BIO

The report examines considerations for sustainable harvesting of agricultural residues such as corn stover and cereal straws—the most likely cellulosic feedstocks for commercial-scale production of ethanol in the near term. These two sources could potentially supply more than 200 million dry tons of feedstock annually within three to five years, enough to triple current ethanol production.

Corn stover has the largest potential as a near-term biorefinery feedstock, given its high per-acre yields, according to the report. Dedicated energy crops such as switchgrass will follow as a feedstock supplement once a market for cellulosic biomass develops further.

The vision of cellulosic biomass as a source for fuels is only achievable, the report notes, if feedstocks are sustainably produced, harvested and processed.

Current cropping practices require that most or all stover remain on the field to maintain soil health. As biorefinery construction creates markets for crop residues, farmers will be more motivated to adopt practices that lead to economic and sustainable removal. An environmental and economic optimum removal will balance sufficient retention of residues to avoid erosion losses and maintain soil quality while using excess residue as biorefinery feedstocks. The impact of varying levels of stover and straw removal will depend considerably on local conditions and practices.

BIO makes a number of recommendations for Congress to implement in the 2007 Farm Bill to help facilitate development of the infrastructure necessary for sustainable production and collection of cellulosic agricultural feedstocks and achieve the Department of Energy’s goal of 30% displacement of petroleum with renewable bio-based feedstocks by 2030. These include:

  • Fund research and development and provide incentives for the development of one-pass harvesting equipment and other new harvesting equipment for collection of cellulosic agricultural feedstocks;

  • Develop and make available simple-to-use soil carbon computer models to allow individual farmers to compute how much crop residue can be collected without degrading soil quality;

  • Provide assistance to farmers to encourage the transition to no-till cropping for biomass production;

  • Provide incentives for the development and expansion of short line and regional rail networks for transport of cellulosic feedstocks;

  • Fund regional demonstration projects to streamline the collection, transport and storage of cellulosic feedstocks;

  • Develop a system to monetize greenhouse gas credits generated by production of ethanol and other products from agricultural feedstocks; and

  • Fund programs to help farmers identify and grow the most suitable crops for both food production and cellulosic biomass production.



Mark A

While micro-managing corn stover as feedstock for cellulosic biomass for ethanol is deemed do-able on paper, in regards to stover left on fields to be reincorporated into the soil humus, in practice it will be unmanageable. Soil conditions within a single field, much less than from field to field or even state to state, are different. There is alot of room for mismanagement leading to depleted soils. And unpredictable weather plays a big part in the breakdown of the stover. Unnatural strong winds on stover-less fields in a drought would create a new "dust bowl", as occured in the '20s and '30s. Micromanagement of our breadbasket in this sense, especially involving Washington polititans and lobbyists, would be a disaster.

Rafael Seidl

Mark A. -

I'm no agriculture expert but a few years ago I saw a report on TV about harvesting machinery equipped with differential GPS receivers. Together with information from the machine itself, an on-board computer generated a detailed map of specific yields for each field. The idea was to apply fertilizer more judiciously in the next growing season, to reduce both expenses and nitrate run-off.

kent beuchert

Continuing to promote antique technologies like the internal combustion engine is a total waste of time.
The electric vehicle is the future. Use your biofuels to produce electricity and eliminate an entire wasteful infrastructure at the same time. We don't need two transportation energy infrastructures. We only need one.

Mark A

Rafael, I value all your inputs and comments and feel you are one of the most insightful on this site. As far as the GPS farming system, this is true. This works to some degree on fertilizer application to some degree, discounting runoff due to rain. But harvesting the primary money crop is one thing, much less the leftover "stover", as a secondary "harvest". Too much chance of abuse. Almost like harvesting only a percentage of your cahs crop, when its all there to be taken. I realise that studies are that only, studies. All the long term effects need to be taken into consideration. Farming is such a gamble as it is, much less putting more equations into the final outcome. Too many variables to make general recommendations.

Rafael Seidl

Kent -

BEVs are coming, but there are still significant technological, economic and cultural hurdles yet to overcome before they can be profitably mass-produced. Most likely, we will see far more HEVs and perhaps a few PHEVs well before the shift to true BEVs actually happens. Therefore, we need a fuel solution to keep existing ICE technology viable during the transition, which I expect will last at least 20-30 years. Rome was not built in a day.

Mark A. -

perhaps I'm misunderstanding you but if it's sufficiently profitable for a farmer to harvest the stover that's what he'll do. In that calculation, he'll include any new expenses that result from not tilling the soil to let it rot anaerobically. Farmers are a conservative bunch, so they'll want someone to give them a high comfort level that changing their business process will both increase their income and not harm the future productivity of their land.


The U.S. government states that there is 1.3B tons of biomass that can be harvested every year in the U.S. from Agriculture and Forest wastes. This excludes any amount of corn stover required to be left in the field.


The report states that no-tilling agricultural practice is critical to allow collection of agricultural cellulosic residue. However, this practice is not without drawbacks. Effectively it means use of GM crops (round-up tolerant) with massive use of herbicides to control weeds. It poses some environmental problems and requires serious consideration.

In addition, all numbers presented in report presume that 1 gallon of ethanol displace 1 gallon of gasoline. It is not correct. Due to lower calorific value of ethanol compared to gasoline, substitution of 1 gallon of gasoline requires 1.5 gallon of ethanol.

Othervice, very encouraging report. I hope cellulosic ethanol (and butanol) technology will be widespread as quick as possible.

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