AURI scientist ponders the future of agriculture and ag processing

Since a functioning crystal ball hasn’t been invented yet, the experience, intelligence and resourcefulness of the human mind is the most valuable resource for identifying new opportunities.

Seeing around corners — looking into the near-term future of agriculture and ag processing — is AURI scientists’ professional responsibility. Technical staff delve into new possibilities while remaining cautiously aware of the potential for failure when trying to predict the future. Nonetheless, there are intriguing possibilities and issues to consider for our state in the next decade …

Fuel from glycerin

Most biodiesel plants use methanol derived from natural gas as a catalyst to produce biodiesel from vegetable oil or other fats — and they produce a glycerin byproduct. Research suggests glycerin could be converted to methanol using chemical or biological systems. Either route would close a loop in the biodiesel production process and reduce the number of non-agricultural materials needed by biodiesel manufacturers.

Biofabrics

New bio-based fabrics may capture the fancy of consumers and the fashion industry and present ag-processing opportunities. Bio-based fabrics are not new — they include cotton, wool, rayon (regenerated cellulose), bamboo, silk and linen. But the appeal of new fabrics made from grown crops like corn, or hemp is unmistakable and eco-labels are likely to start showing up on clothing.

Crops for chemicals

Biotechnology will allow us to grow specialty crops “tailor-made” for the chemical industry to replace petrochemical feedstocks from refineries. If this technology matures, can producers come close to supplying the needed volume of material? Is a replacement for polyethylene more valuable than a replacement for natural gas? Could we have a biofuels versus bioplastics debate in the future similar to the food vs. fuel debate today?

Fungible versus specialty crops

The opportunity to grow a crop variety tailored to a specific use comes with market risks. For example, a high-oil soybean variety would not be good if the market for soy meal increases and the market for soy oil decreases during a growing season. The future will provide more opportunities and risks for crops such as high-oil corn, low-oligosaccharide beans, low-lignin grasses, and high-omega-3 oilseeds. Segmenting commodity markets and relying on specialized processors may change the landscape for producers and processors.

Biotechnology and the food dilemma

Grain production historically matches population growth. But it’s not clear whether the demand for food leads to increased crop production or whether wider availability allows more people to survive. Biotechnology promises to substantially increase commodity grain yields, but will that result in more rapid population growth and more U.S. exports, or will yield increases result in fewer acres used for grain production? The grains and acres not used for food may be available for biobased plastic, fabrics or fuels. Still, there remain a lot of hungry mouths to feed and numerous alternative uses for commodity grains.

It’s a complicated world today and likely to get even more complex. It’s enough to keep us scratching our heads and pondering the future. AURI scientists will keep an eye out for changes that could turn into opportunities for Minnesota agriculture.