A Perennial Bioeconomy?

This month, the USDA announced that the amount of U.S. land planted to corn had increased an incredible 18.5 percent, up to 92.9 million acres. The corn boom is directly tied to the ethanol boom, which in the U.S. is almost exclusively dependent on corn. Most believe that an ethanol system built entirely on corn is unsustainable in the long run. And we're already seeing some environmental fall-out with government officials predicting the so-called dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico will be the biggest ever this year, due to increased runoff from nitrogen fertilizer used to grow corn entering the Mississippi River.

An article in the June 15 issue of the journal Science points toward a solution. Researchers, led by the University of Minnesota's Nick Jordan, conclude that an expansion of perennial energy crops to feed the bioeconomy will diversify Midwest farms and bring a series of economic and environmental benefits. They found that many of the environmental problems in agriculture are associated with commodity program crops (particularly corn and soybeans), including the degradation of water quality with sediment, nutrients and pesticides, disruption of wildlife habitat, emission of greenhouse gases and degradation of air quality.

Perennial cropping systems on the other hand are more resilient because they actually reduce soil and nitrogen loss, and have greater capacity to sequester greenhouse gases, while improving wildlife.The authors propose a $20 million annual federal investment in the 2007 Farm Bill to look at policy approaches to compensate farmers for the production of environmental benefits in growing perennial energy grasses.

When considering the size of the Farm Bill, $20 million isn't much to ask to help push the bioeconomy toward long-term sustainability.