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Mid-South bioeconomy vision taking shape

Five years ago, it would have been somewhat unpleasant to mention “green revolution” in the same breath with Mid-South agriculture. But today, most of agriculture seems to be embracing it, from Cotton Incorporated’s promotion of cotton as a natural fiber to the excitement surrounding biofuel as a renewable replacement for petroleum.

If you’re still a little reluctant to accept green, consider the perplexity it’s created for members of the Organic Trade Association, those longtime critics of conventional crop production who claim that ethanol demand has driven up farmer-received prices for conventional crops, in some cases to levels higher than organic crops, thus making farmers less likely to convert to organic methods.

But the real problem for the OTA, as you will see, is the danger of being steamrolled by the growing role of agriculture for developing sustainable energy. There is a new, more compelling definition of green, and it has legs.

In the Mid-South, the green revolution will take shape in a new bioeconomy based on the production of biomass, according to Randy Powell, a consultant for a new initiative called AgBioworks, which hopes to jump-start the process in the Mid-South.

There are three things farmers should know about this bioeconomy. One, although this process is unfolding now, it could be decades before we see tangible results. In fact, most of us shouldn’t expect to see a complete transition in our lifetimes.

Two, the new bioeconomy is not likely to displace agricultural crops. But it will make better use of crop residues, and in the winters, we could see new crops and biomass covering our croplands.

Three, as we all know, Mid-South farmers can produce biomass in abundance.

In 50 years or so, the Mid-South landscape might look a little different if the bioeconomy comes to be. For one, it won’t be centralized at the Gulf Coast. According to Powell, the bioeconomy of the future “is going to be scattered out in our rural farmlands where we can grow sustainable resources as the new raw materials. We’ll be feeding the factories 10 miles down the road to make our fuel products. We’ll have a lot more security of supply because we won’t be dependent on regimes in other parts of the world that don’t like us anyway.

“The dollars we’re not sending overseas will circulate around in our own communities because we will be more self sufficient in fueling our cars, farm equipment, trucks and creating energy for our homes.”

It’s a promising future for Mid-South agriculture, and for America, especially if farmers can invest in the new ventures. “If we have one success,” says Powell, “we can duplicate it over and over again wherever we have the biomass. And we have plenty of that. Everybody wins from this.”

The bioeconomy will produce more than biofuels. Products that could be manufactured from biomass include plastic, dyes, polymers and pharmaceuticals that for the most part have come from petroleum.

The bioeconomy will be a work in progress, so farmers need to proceed with forethought and patience. “If we do it right, we will have all the sustainable materials ready to take the place of petroleum in four or five decades. That’s how technology advances,” says Powell. “You roll it out. It’s not perfect, but you keep improving it and you’ll eventually have a superb product.”


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