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Dec. 8, 2006

Bioeconomy summit spotlights Iowa's future

by Diana Pounds

Theodore Crosbie

As Iowans seek to increase biofuels production, Theodore Crosbie urged lots of research to address erosion issues and help create environmentally sensible crop and livestock systems. Crosbie is chief technology officer for the state of Iowa and a vice president of Monsanto Co. Photo by Bob Elbert.

In the biofuels race, Iowa leads the pack. Superior corn-growing attributes and entrepreneurial farmers have propelled Iowa to the No. 1 ethanol-producing state in the nation.

Can the state hold that front-runner position? That was the question Nov. 28 when representatives of academia, industry and government joined other state leaders on campus to talk biofuels.

Their task, as laid out by President Gregory Geoffroy, who called the summit, was to begin anticipating changes on the biofuels front and lay the groundwork for continued Iowa leadership in the field.

"We should feel very good about where Iowa is now," Geoffroy said. "But we must not be complacent because bigger changes are coming and Iowa needs to get ready for those changes."

The day-long summit on "Ensuring Iowa's Leadership in the Bioeconomy" drew a crowd. Approximately 450 participants spent the morning learning about bioeconomy issues from several experts and the afternoon brainstorming about ways to maintain Iowa's leadership in the field.

Following are some of the issues discussed:

Future of ethanol

Experts tend to agree that corn-based ethanol eventually will be supplanted by other biofuels. For one thing, there's simply not enough corn. If all the corn grown in the U.S. were converted to ethanol, it would replace only 15 percent of transportation fuels, according to one estimate. However, ISU economist Bruce Babcock predicts corn-based ethanol will be the primary biofuel for the next 10 years.

The next big thing

"We're doing starch right now," says ISU biorenewables expert Robert C. Brown. "The future is cellulose."

Cellulose, also referred to as biomass or plant fiber, is the stalks, stems and other fibrous parts of plants. Scientists are eyeing a number of potentially good biomass candidates, such as switchgrass and corn stover. If the total U.S. biomass potential were realized, the resulting biofuel could supply 66 percent of transportation fuel, Brown said.

Not ready for prime time

The cellulose-based biofuel industry is in its infancy and much more work needs to be done. Scientists must find better ways to break down the tough cellulose fibers. Farm equipment must be adapted for biomass processing, and transportation systems must be developed for transporting biomass and biomass fuels.


Any state with significant agricultural or forestry resources can compete in the cellulose fuels industry. "Many states are lining up and beginning to position themselves to try to take the lead," Geoffroy said.

Brown added that California is developing policies to encourage cellulose biofuel growth. California folks who "two years ago would not accept a drop of ethanol now say, 'We are going to be the cellulosic state,'" he said.

Iowa benefits

Among benefits to Iowa of increased biofuel production are increased state income, higher-paying rural jobs and a more dynamic economy with greater focus on high-tech industry.

Remember the environment

Increased biofuel production raises some environmental concerns. Over-use of biomass could remove land cover, leaving soil more vulnerable to erosion. More land in production means less land in the Conservation Reserve Program -- a program that has promoted wildlife habitat, lessened chemical and nutrient loads in water and reduced erosion, Babcock said.

"There are significant erosion issues to address," said Theodore Crosbie, chief technology officer for the state of Iowa and Monsanto Co. vice president. "It's doable, but we need a lot of research."

What's next

Summit-goers developed numerous suggestions for promoting Iowa leadership in the bioeconomy. Among those suggestions: Invest in all kinds of biofuels research. Build the infrastructure (roads, utilities, storage) to support biofuel production. Encourage local investment in biorefineries. Develop an energy policy that includes tax credits and other incentives for producers.

The suggestions will be compiled into a detailed report that will be posted on the ISU Web site for public viewing and distributed to those who attended the summit. It also will be sent to state lawmakers and agency heads and other Iowa leaders, and it is expected to be the basis for discussion during the next legislative session.

Summit presentations online

Presentations from the Nov. 28 summit are available online.

What they said

"We now not only feed the world, we fuel the world. But everybody here realizes that we're only in the Model A phase of the new world of energy. And that's why we're here today. To make sure that Iowa maintains its leadership in the bioeconomy."

-- Michael Gartner, president, Board of Regents, State of Iowa

"We currently have more faculty experts and more faculty resource teams working in biorenewables and renewable fuels, I think, than any other university anywhere in the world."

-- Gregory Geoffroy, ISU president

"We've got to make sure that we sustain a structure that allows people in Iowa to be the beneficiaries of the wealth created here. Otherwise, we'll have more of the same. And that's population loss and wealth creation that doesn't stay within the state."

-- Craig Lang, president, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation

"The bioeconomy will be enabled by American agriculture here in the United States. We will not be dependent on imported sources of biomass, but indigenous sources."

-- Robert C. Brown, director, Office of Biorenewables Programs

"Make Iowa the preferred place to grow the feedstocks that companies want. That means having companies, having scientists and having farmers get together and figure out what are those preferred feedstocks and make sure that Iowa has a comparative advantage."

-- Bruce Babcock, director, Center for Agricultural and Rural Development

"It's possible to get Iowa corn yields of 350 bushels per acre by 2030. And it's possible Iowa can produce five billion bushels of corn a year.

-- Theodore Crosbie, chief technology officer for the state of Iowa and vice president of Monsanto Co.


Iowa State hosted a Nov. 28 summit, bringing leaders together to discuss maintaining Iowa's leadership in the bioeconomy.