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U.S. agriculture is prepared to grow both food, fuel

Agriculture.com Staff 05/19/2009 @ 8:53am

The controversy over whether farmers can grow enough crops to provide both affordable food and increasing government mandates for biofuels has died down a little from last year, when speculators pushed commodity prices much higher. But it hasn't disappeared.

The concept is behind the so-called indirect land use calculation that California and the Environmental Protection Agency are using to make biofuels appear to have big carbon footprints. If more acres go into fuel production, tropical jungles and savannas will have to be torn up to grow food to replace it, goes the reasoning of environmentalists and some scientists. When that happens, more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.

Key leaders in the nation's food and technology industries are meeting in Atlanta, Georgia this week at a Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) conference to tackle such weighty issues.

Monday, John Pierce, vice-president of technology for DuPont Applied Biosciences, told conference listeners that he's confident that U.S. corn and soybean farmers can dramatically increase production, even without a big jump in crop acreage.

"I was basically trying to make the point that we're looking to include agriculture in a variety of things, continuing to grow the food that we need, along with biofuels," Pierce told Agriculture Online after his panel discussion.

"We're looking at some pretty serious production increases," Pierce said. "It puts me in a pretty optimistic mood about American agriculture specifically, and -- over time -- agriculture worldwide."

Over the next 10 years DuPont, which owns the seed company, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, expects yields for both corn and soybeans to increase by 40%, Pierce said. For corn, that means average U.S. production will move from about 150 bushels an acre to 210 bushels.

One of the new technologies will be Pioneer's Optimum AcreMax I in-the-bag corn seed refuge system, which upon regulatory approval, would eliminate the requirement to leave a separate corn rootworm refuge. Pioneer officials say they are also working on Optimum AcreMax 2, which completely eliminates the need for separate refuges, combining seed with different modes of action to achieve the same goal of extending the life of the insecticidal traits.

The refuge-in-the-bag technology has gotten a favorable review fom a panel of science advisers to the EPA, Pierce said, and DuPont expects regulatory approval that will allow Pioneer to sell the Optimum AcreMax seed for the 2010 growing season.

DuPont is also moving into cellulosic ethanol production. In a joint venture with Genencor, a division of Danisco, and the University of Tennessee, it expects to open a pilot plant this year in Vonore, Tennessee. The plant will use corn cobs and switchgrass as feedstocks. It will have a 250,000 gallon capacity.

The controversy over whether farmers can grow enough crops to provide both affordable food and increasing government mandates for biofuels has died down a little from last year, when speculators pushed commodity prices much higher. But it hasn't disappeared.

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