Texas Agricultural Experiment Station scientists are paving the way for new production systems in the bioenergy arena with an aggressive, innovative research program, according to the agency's associate director.
“(The Texas Agricultural Experiment Station) is committed to building a sustainable bioenergy economy that integrates food, feed, fiber and dedicated energy crops,” Dr. Bill McCutchen told those gathered at the 2007 Texas Plant Protection Association Conference in College Station.
Future global petroleum consumption is staggering when evaluating both U.S. and China's needs, he said. By the year 2025, it is projected that China will use more fuel oil than the U.S. due to a rapid industrialization of the country.
Texas is the largest state for oil and natural gas production and a significant producer of grain. But using grain to produce ethanol may not be the best answer long term, especially when it comes to meeting future needs, McCutchen said.
“Texas is a grain-deficit state,” he said, noting that the state's livestock industry consumes a lion's share of what is produced.
Cellulosic plant material is a better solution, McCutchen said, and the Experiment Station already has developed a high-yield sorghum variety that can be made into ethanol. Current crops such as corn stover — the stalks and leaves of the plant — may not be the best solution in terms of cost in producing ethanol, McCutchen said.
Transportation costs weigh heavily in total return, he said. It would cost approximately $60 or more per ton to deliver corn stover yielding 2 tons to the acre to a biofuels production facility, McCutchen said.
“The Experiment Station's high-tonnage sorghum, which can yield 15 to 20 tons under favorable conditions, would reduce the cost to $42-$50 (per ton),” McCutchen said. “It's a simple matter of logistics and economics.
“This designer sorghum is also drought tolerant and can be grown in various regions of the state,” McCutchen said.
Experiment Station scientists Dr. Bill Rooney and Dr. John Mullet have led work to develop the high biomass sorghum, identifying DNA markers that allow for drought tolerance and other favorable traits.
These traits can be transferred without genetic modification, McCutchen said.
Recently, the Experiment Station signed a five-year, multi-million dollar exclusive relationship with Ceres Inc. to expedite the development of these sorghums, he told the audience. Harvest, transportation and storage are other aspects of Experiment Station work, McCutchen said.
Partnerships with Chevron and Ceres Inc. will help accelerate new innovations and get them into the hands of Texas agriculture producers soon, McCutchen said.
“Yes, we are engaging with industry, and we're working with several prominent companies,” he said. “This allows our researchers to work with industry one-on-one and collaborate, and the state of Texas can benefit by getting these new and superior energy crops into the hands of producers in a more timely manner.”
Meanwhile, across-the-board yield increases among major crops has prompted Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples to spread the message about the industry's economic impact statewide.
“We know the tough issues and areas of public policy (facing the agriculture industry), but we need to be able to articulate why it's important to continue to invest in agriculture,” Staples said. “Folks, if you're not telling that story, who is going to tell it?”
Increased yields in cotton, corn, peanut and sorghum production from a year ago have agriculture producers closing out 2007 on a positive note, Staples said. Agriculture's contributions to the state economy have to be hammered home in regional parts of Texas, encouraging continued business investment in agriculture.
“No matter what industry you're in, you have some ties to agriculture,” he said. “We need to be able to articulate why it's important to continue to invest in agriculture.”
Good environmental stewardship was another priority outlined by Staples. The agriculture industry needs to continue to “capture the minds of Americans” when thinking about carbon credits and greenhouse gas emissions.
“Agriculture is going to have to step up to the plate, and I encourage needed support so we can continue to be science-and technology-based in making these decisions.”
Meanwhile, the Texas Plant Protection Association presented Dr. Travis Miller with the Norman Borlaug Lifetime Achievement Award. Miller is the associate department head for soil and crop sciences at Texas A&M University and Texas Cooperative Extension program leader. He was recognized for outstanding contributions and service to the Texas Plant Protection Association and Texas agriculture, according to the award citation.