Food and fuel required to meet global challenges, say ag leaders

Aerial view of farm overlaid with graphic of loops.
Illustration based on drone view of Sievers Family Farm near Stockton, Iowa, captured by Omar de Kok-Mercado, Iowa State University. Graphics by Lisa Schulte Moore. Used with permission from Springer-Nature.

AMES, Iowa — Food and fuel -- not food versus fuel -- is the focus of a hopeful new commentary in the peer-reviewed scientific journal “Nature Sustainability,” authored by innovative thought leaders in agriculture from Iowa State University and around the world.

“The original inspiration for the perspectives paper,” said lead author Lisa Schulte Moore, professor of natural resource ecology and management and associate director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State, “was to emphasize that we need to think in terms of agricultural solutions that produce both food and fuel. Despite how they are often presented, food and fuel can complement each other in important ways that both improve environmental sustainability and farm prosperity.”

The perspectives piece started out as a collaboration between MacArthur Fellow Schulte Moore and Bruce Dale, a colleague at Michigan State University’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. Their conversation soon expanded to include colleagues at Iowa State, and other universities and industries in the U.S., Italy, Brazil, and Argentina.

They were also inspired by entrepreneurs creating working models at home and abroad that exemplify these types of systems.  

The resulting article, “Meeting global challenges with regenerative agriculture producing food and energy,” calls for integrated thinking to refocus conversations toward building coupled, climate-resilient food, energy and wealth-producing systems. It urges that pursuing such approaches should play a central role in policy recommendations currently taking place in the United States and around the world.

Not theoretical

Such systems are not just theoretical, the paper emphasizes. It presents examples from Italy and Colombia built on diverse arrangements in developed and developing countries. These models have goals to profitably produce food and energy while also delivering outcomes like climate resiliency, biodiversity and community well-being.  

One real-life example of an integrated food and energy system that has inspired Schulte Moore and her team is located in eastern Iowa. The Sievers Family Farm, though not named in the paper, is represented in an illustration showing an aerial view of a diverse farmscape overlaid with multiple loops that connect crops, livestock, energy, soil and water – and community. 

Bryan Sievers (‘82 agricultural business) manages the century-plus farm operation with other family members. They have 2,300 acres of row crops, cover crops, perennial crops and hay, and a large cattle confinement facility. Their “closed loop” system has been developing for more than a decade, with ideas gleaned from sources like a Nebraska biofuels company and European digesters he visited with a son.    

An anaerobic biodigester is a cornerstone of the farm’s operation. It converts livestock manure and bedding, perennial grasses and cover crops into electricity and heat. It also uses organic waste from West Liberty Foods and other local industries, keeping those materials out of landfills. The Sievers use the energy generated to power and heat farm buildings. Excess energy feeds into their utility lines for use by neighbors and others. Digestate from the anaerobic digestion process provides valuable soil amendments and fertilizer used on the crops and biomass produced from the farm. 

Soon, the farm will have a new income stream from expanding into renewable natural gas production through a partnership with Roeslein Alternative Energy, headquartered in Missouri. This will allow the farm to earn low-carbon fuel credits through the federal Renewable Fuels Standard and potentially from industries in places like California.

“I have a deep appreciation for the many resources we’ve been blessed with,” Sievers said. “That includes air, land, soil, water, people and community. Building an enterprise that considers all of these resources and connections continues to be exciting and rewarding.”

Compensation is key

“A key theme of our paper,” said Schulte Moore, “is that if we want farmers to provide food and energy sustainably, they have to be compensated at levels that allow them to maintain their livelihoods and reinvest in their farms.”

One of the models referenced in the paper is the Italian Biogas Consortium, a large group of farmers whose goals include making more efficient use of their diverse resources including sunlight, cropland nutrients, carbon, water, labor and equipment. Stefano Bozzetto, a co-author of the paper and an advisory board member for the multi-institutional C-CHANGE “Grass-to-Gas” project led by Iowa State, has been directly involved in the Italian biogas effort. He identified feed-in tariffs as a policy lynchpin that is helping the consortium farmers gain greater long-term security and favorable prices for their biorenewable energy.    

The consortium focuses on “ecological intensification,” or multi-cropping -- growing crops during periods when cropland would otherwise be left unplanted. On-farm anaerobic digesters produce energy from the second crop along with other organic wastes, and the unconverted residue from anaerobic digestion is returned to fields as a carbon- and nutrient-rich soil amendment.

Tom L. Richard, with Penn State University’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, another paper co-author, can point to similar, exciting examples on dairy farms in his region.

“Agriculture’s value to society can be made much greater by proactively integrating food ‘and’ fuel production,” Richard said. “Ongoing scientific research and advances in farming practice can create a circular economy of carbon and nutrients that helps protect our climate, clean our water, and provide many other ecosystem services for current and future generations. These benefits to society often far outweigh the benefits to the farm. To accelerate progress, we need to do more to reward farmers who use such practices and adopt other smart policies that support this direction.”

The group’s paper is one step in a five-year project supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

Additional co-authors are: from Iowa State, Matt Liebman, recently retired professor of agronomy; Robert C. Brown, the Bioeconomy Institute; and J. Gordon Arbuckle, professor of sociology; along with Glaucia M. Souza, the Instituto Química, Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil; Nick Haddad and Bruno Basso, Kellogg Biological Station and Michigan State University; and Jorge A. Hilbert, Ingeniería Rural Centro, Investigación Agroindustria INTA, Argentina.