Monday, 13 May 2013 10:00

World production of crops allows use for biofuels

Improving crop productivity contributes to lessening our reliance on fossil fuels.

Domestic biofuel production has increased substantially in the past few years in response to market demands and public policy. In 2012, the United States produced approximately 14 billion gallons of ethanol (mostly from corn grain) and 1 billion gallons of biodiesel (mostly from soybeans), nearly a 50 percent increase since 2008. Growth in the biofuels sector has created additional demand for feedstock, especially corn and soybean.

The American farmer has ramped-up crop production to meet demands for food, fuel, feed and fiber. One management tool that has been implemented by growers is the use of genetically engineered (GE) crops. According to “The realized yield effect of genetically engineered Crops: U.S. maize and soybean,” by Zheng Xu et al., “By 2012, 88 percent of the maize crop and 93 percent of the soybean crop were accounted for by GE varieties.” The genetics inserted into these crops have “emphasized insect resistance, herbicide tolerance and stacked traits that combine these attributes.”

This tool is one in a long line of technological advancements that began with selectively cultivating wild plant species to increase their production of the plant parts that we desire, such as seeds, leaves, stalks, roots, etc. One single technology, on its own, can’t be credited for long-term productivity gains. According to Xu, “engineered crops have increased yields for corn, but have not done so for soybeans.

However, we must not settle here and rest on our laurels. Xu’s article reports that “continued improvements in agricultural productivity are critical to pursuing the goal of global food security when facing the challenges of a sizable expected global population growth, climate uncertainties, environmental stress and land degradation, and the expansion of land used for nonfood production.” While biofuels derived from grain reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, it seems clear that we will need to manage our resources to further increase yields and meet competing demands.

Research and development in crop production is being funded by private industry and public universities. The adoption of these tools is supported by the farm supply chain as well as agencies like Michigan State University Extension.

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