ForumBiobased Products: America's Second Green Revolution
The great increases in wheat and other grain yields that occurred in
the 1960s are often referred to as the Green Revolution. But America's
second agricultural green revolutionunder way todaycan be
traced back almost 100 years to the work of noted botanist George Washington
Since Carver's death in 1943, generations of schoolchildren have learned
about his finding hundreds of uses for peanuts in the early years of
the last century. But few realize that this visionary was also helping
farmers and his country by making biobased productsindustrial
products made from renewable resources rather than from finite petroleum
In the process of laying the groundwork for a future plant-dependent
economy rather than a petroleum-dependent one, Carver also contributed
to rural economic improvement. His products offered farmers alternative
crops that were beneficial for them and their land. Today's accelerated
shift towards a plant-dependent economy also holds that promise. This
time, the soil-building legume is not peanuts, but alfalfa, which is
also being used to produce industrial products and considered as a source
of ethanol. And ARS' work with
guayule, a native shrub, to produce hypoallergenic latex for surgical
gloves and other products promises to help farmers in the American Southwest.
Work on biobased products has been carried out at four ARS regional
research centers since Congress authorized their construction and operation
over 60 years ago, and charged them with finding new uses for farm commodities.
The story on page 16 cites some examples of their accomplishments, including
a compound made from citrus peels and pine tar that works better than
a petroleum-based chemical for making rubber. The article also mentions
soybean ink; Super Slurper, a cornstarch-based product used in everything
from batteries to baby powders; and improvements in vinyl plastics with
the use of animal fats and vegetable oils.
The need to improve rural economies is still of concern today, as it
was in Carver's day. Biobased research promises to spawn new industries
that need to be near their raw-material sources in rural America, where
jobs are desperately needed. Each region of the country offers its own
The article on biofuels on page 4 shows that while corn and soybeans
are the dominant sources of ethanol and biodiesel, respectively, and
will almost certainly remain significant players, other possible sources
include alfalfa and switchgrass. Up to now, ethanol has been made from
crops with high sugar and starch content that are usually used for cattle
and human food. Scientists are looking at making ethanol from cellulose,
which is found in grasses, shrubs, and trees.
Use of wastesrural, urban and industrialis increasing in
importance in biobased product and fuel production. They may be used
in combination with each other or with fossil-based fuels. An example
is ARS' partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to test
the generation of electricity from methane given off by manure. Carver's
main motivation for finding industrial uses for peanuts was to create
new markets for crop surpluses, so creating new markets for waste would
not surprise him at all.
The 1960s brought up new environmental concerns that created a climate
favorable to development of alternative fuels. The 1973 oil embargo
gave more momentum to this shift.
But in this century it may be biotechnology that furthers the shift
beyond even Carver's vision. Besides making the biobased-products manufacturing
processes more efficient, biotechnology is also creating new byproducts,
or coproducts, that further lower costs.
Still, technology is only about 10 percent of the process. The other
90 percent is policy. To that end, Executive Order 13134 calls for tripling
America's use of biobased and bioenergy products by 2010. The Biomass
Research and Development Act of 2000 teams USDA with DOE to promote
biobased products. Executive Order 13149 calls for a 20-percent reduction
in federal vehicular use of petroleum by 2005. The Clean Air Act of
1990 is another prod for biobased fuels. There are a growing number
of tax incentives and public and private subsidies that shrink the price
gap between biobased fuels and petroleum fuels.
The next Farm Bill is likely to have further incentives for biobased
products, including a target for federal agencies to make at least 5
percent of their purchases be biobased products where possible. Congress
recently provided new funding for ARS: $8.8 million for bioenergy research
and $3.2 million for biobased products. ARS has two national programs
that deal with various aspects of developing these kinds of products.
Bioenergy and industrial crops have benefits in addition to providing
more environmentally sound products. They add diversity to America's
rural landscapes, and when grown as buffer strips at field edges, they
provide wildlife habitat.
The debate over plant- versus petroleum-dependent economies is not new; petroleum won it in the 1940s after World War II. Once again, the state of American public opinion is highly aroused, and the debate has been renewed with vigor. This time around, the betting may be in favor of the plants. In this new century, the biological sciences are likely to lead the way to the formation of new industries as the physical and chemical sciences did in the past century.
Donald C. Erbach
L. Frank Flora
|"Forum" was published in the April 2002 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.|