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Published May 27, 2014, 09:42 AM

Conference addresses ag opportunities

FARGO, N.D. — Fascinating opportunities to provide biobased industrial products exist, but they probably will need to provide price, utility and environmental benefits, especially if they want to compete at a premium to petrochemical substitutes.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Fascinating opportunities to provide biobased industrial products exist, but they probably will need to provide price, utility and environmental benefits, especially if they want to compete at a premium to petrochemical substitutes.

The Future of the Bio-Industry Inaugural Action Summit — with the theme Feed, Fuel, Heal and Build the World — was held May 21, at North Dakota State University, hosted by the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department, as well as the Red River Valley Research Corridor and the Bioscience Association of North Dakota.

Neil Doty, a Fargo-based consultant focused on corn, told conference attendees that about 5 percent of North Dakota corn is fed to livestock and about 40 percent of the corn is run through ethanol plants to produce distillers grain and corn oil. Most is exported.

Doty said the global markets for fermentation products from corn amount to $22.3 billion, including $7.8 billion in amino acids, $4.9 billion in enzymes, $4 billion in organic acids, $2.3 billion in vitamins and $2.6 billion in antibiotics.

New uses for corn include new biopolymers, nanotechnology from corn protein, fermentation chemical building blocks, bio-oil production from corn stover, ethanol as a prime chemical feedstock, distillers grains as a source of feedstock, and corn with ethanol nutrient content. Polymers from corn include new polyesters, polyester film, fibers, foams, resins, new nylons and polylactic acids.

Marvin Duncan, a retired agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Chief Economist, cautioned that simply developing a company and calling it biobased won’t make it successful in the marketplace.

To be truly successful, bioproducts offer price, performance and measurable environmental benefits. Still, he said the U.S. must invest in research because the nation’s renewable biochemicals could reach 3,200 tons by 2022, compared with 165 tons in 2012 — an “absolutely mind-bending” opportunity. He said value could reach $3 billion annually (and as much as six times that) by 2022, with a one-time capital investment of $6 billion. He said public-private partnerships appear necessary to “de-risk” innovations.

Skeptics, critics

The conference keynote speakers focused on the impact of biotechnology on bioproducts, and the biotechnology industry’s effort to meet skeptics and critics.

Cathy Enright, executive vice president for food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said vocal opposition to genetic modification technology in the U.S. started about eight years ago, and has stepped up in the past three years, fed by digital and social media — largely without effective rebuttal. Experts from Monsanto, DuPont, Dow and others answered company-specific questions.

In recent months, news media have increased positive tones about biotechnology and reduced the negative, Enright said.

“By being open and transparent — talking about what you do, why you do it, what it doesn’t mean, what it does mean — people respond to that,” she said, noting that the industry needs to use plain, understandable language.

One participant asked Enright why her organizations oppose the state-passed genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling laws. She said the state rules often are “meant to scare people” by improperly conveying a “skull and crossbones” message that food made from GMO seed is less nutritious, less healthy and less safe.

Fights over food

“We’re all in the same boat for food security,” Enright said. “It will be the U.S., Canada and Russia that have the ability — if our policies are right — to feed this world in 2050. We’d need every tool in the toolbox — organic, conventional, biotech, and the new technologies that are coming — the synthetic biology … We need everything. If folks don’t have enough food — fat, protein — wars begin. Fights over water, fights over food.”

Beth Calabotta, Monsanto Bioenergy and Renewable Strategy lead, said biotechnology will play a role in meeting increased calorie needs. She noted yields have doubled since 1970, while reducing energy use, fertilizer and greenhouse gas impacts. The total value of North Dakota crops increased 350 percent from 2000 to 2012.

World population grows at 1.1 percent per year, with increased incomes translating into increased food demand at 1.75 percent per year. Sixty-five percent of the water is used for agriculture, and energy demand is projected to grow at 2.5 percent per year through 2050. The energy market is 23 times bigger than the total food market on a calorie basis, she said.

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