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Food, fuel debate part of Bioscience Conference

WORTHINGTON -- Growing more food on a finite amount of land to feed an increasing global population will undoubtedly require more scientific research and technological advancement, but can American farmers do it all without compromising quality of life and environment?

Substantiality and biotechnology -- two buzz words in the world of agriculture today -- will be the focus of the "Innovative Strategies for Food & Fuel Replacements" session at 11:30 a.m. Friday during the eighth annual Regional Biosciences Conference in Worthington. The event takes place at the Biotechnology Advancement Center, 1527 Prairie Drive, and is coordinated by Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp.

Among the speakers during the hour-long session are Dave White, chief of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Larry Wackett, a professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology Institute.

"We've kind of reached a pivotal juncture -- the path we choose today is going to determine the future of American agriculture and our environment," White said from his Washington, D.C., office Monday. "How do we still have the bounty we enjoy today? How do we keep (the land) sustainable and keep our water clean and still have (habitat) for wildlife?"

With forecasts estimating the world's population will exceed 9 billion people by 2050 -- roughly 2 billion more people than there is today -- White said it isn't just food demand that will increase, but energy demand as well. Southwest Minnesota is already seeing a boom in wind energy production, and is home to both biodiesel and ethanol plants. Ongoing research is directed at churning out everything from algae and woody biomass into fuel.

Wackett contends that while there is much focus placed on- second generation biofuels, perhaps the better fuel is made from octane -- hydrocarbons -- that he said "ideally is a better fuel and better for your engine."

"It's different from alcohol," Wackett said, adding the U of M group he's working with is researching ways to make hydrocarbon. The research is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

"There are biological reasons this could work better, but it requires more fundamental research," Wackett said. He began researching the idea four years ago after reading a paper published by researchers in Japan.

Several U.S. companies are also researching hydrocarbons and have raised nearly half a billion dollars to construct facilities, he said.

"These companies would like to make an economical process out of it," Wackett said. "There's a lot of economic incentive to do this. Petroleum is becoming harder and harder to get. We need to find alternatives."

Wackett, who said ethanol plants are challenged to remain competitive because fuel from petroleum works so well, explained his group is asking the question, "Can biological systems, instead of ethanol, make hydrocarbons?" During Friday's session, he will talk about the research his group has conducted to make hydrocarbons, including the biochemistry process and graduate student work at the university.

White is scheduled to wrap up the session by speaking about agriculture's need to remain sustainable and resilient during this time of change.

"We need to ensure we're helping our farmers and ranchers continue to provide food and fiber," White said. "We've got to really focus on science, technology and innovation."

He plans to speak Friday about some of the research taking place across the country, from an agroforestry project at the University of Missouri that is studying the impact riparian buffers have on removing chemicals from ag land runoff to collecting algae for potential use as a biofuel.

The NRCS is working with a scientist in Maryland who is pumping drainage ditch water, which is high in phosphorus and nitrogen, onto black plastic with wire mesh structures to grow algae.

"If we can find a commercial use for the algae -- if we could use that as a biofuel -- oh my gosh," White said.

Another study he plans to discuss with conference attendees is the use of slag, a byproduct of steel, to create filters for drainage ditches.

"This is sucking out phosphorous like crazy, and it's a waste product from steel production," White explained.

The technology is being used at a site in Maryland, where it is catching runoff from four poultry houses. The phosphorous-covered slag can then be buried in fields, where the phosphorous can break up in the soil and act as a fertilizer.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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