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Steps to a bio-economy

My colleague at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, Nick Jordan, is lead author on an important Environment Policy Forum in the June 15, 2007 issue of Science, entitled "Sustainable Development of the Agricultural Bio-Economy". The other authors are from Louisiana, Kansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and California; from a range of disciplines; and from research and policy institutes both inside and outside the academy.

The paper begins by noting that "A 'bio-economy' based on agricultural biomass is emerging in the United States that offers an avenue toward energy independence and a more 'green' economy." Focus is currently on very large-scale farming of monocultures such as corn and soybeans, but this approach suffers from various unfavorable environmental impacts, requirement of large subsidies to close the gap between low commodity prices and cost of production, and growth of farm size precluding entry of new farmers thus "harming rural communities socially and economically". The potential large-scale conversion of corn to biofuel is only exacerbating these problems.

Jordan and his coauthors advocate instead the potential virtues of "multifunctional production systems". They write "Agricultural multifunctionality is defined as the joint production of standard commodities (e.g., food or fiber) and 'ecological services.' Examples of the latter include increased recreational opportunities in agricultural landscapes and protection of biodiversity and water quality."

They propose creation of a network of research and demonstration projects, in watersheds of medium size and "managed by groups that encompass multiple stakeholders and levels of government" , to investigate tradeoffs between such factors as biomass production and wildlife habitat, and to provide a basis for revised federal farm legislation that will best support both biomass production and other desirable outcomes.

What impresses me about this work is how it exemplifies the best of engaged scholarship: a crucial societal issue, addressed in a highly multidisciplinary way, using expertise both within and outside the university.