Photograph by Geography Photos/UIG via Getty Images
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Operations like this one, where machines harvest a crop of rye for biofuels in Suffolk, England, may become more common.
Photograph by Geography Photos/UIG via Getty Images

Italians Show Energy and Food Can Grow in Harmony

As global food demand rises, so does the controversy of growing crops for biofuels on arable land. But it’s not really as cut and dried as some critics make it out to be. The food versus fuel debate just might miss the fact that there are people practicing ways to create greener energy and produce the same amount of food all while improving soil health. 

To be fair, conventional biofuel production is frequently in conflict with growing food. Farmers that raise only biofuel crops could instead be using the land to grow food for people. And, biofuel production may increase food prices by competing for space with crops intended for human consumption: The increase in U.S. corn production to make ethanol was linked to the 2007 food price spikes in Mexico.

Fuel crops don’t always have to threaten food production, though, and some farmers in Italy are proving that it can work.

In the last five years, around 1,200 biogas operations, known as anaerobic digesters, have been installed on farms in northern Italy. Termed the “BiogasDoneRight” model, this on-farm biogas production doesn’t hinder food production but rather enhances it, according to the Italian Biogas Council.

“To put it simply, you can say farmers do one harvest for the food market and one for the biogas plant,” says Fabrizio Sibilla, scientific advisor to the IBG. So, after food crops are harvested, the otherwise fallow land could be planted with cover crops.

Here’s how on-farm biofuel production works: Unwanted byproducts and inedible crops are transformed into energy through anaerobic digestion. Organic materials such as livestock waste, agricultural byproducts like fruit and olive pits, and second harvest crops like winter rye and silage corn are all tossed into the digester. There bacteria slowly turns it into methane-based biogas that can power the farm or get sold back to the power grid for a profit.

Producing biogas directly on the farm can be a boon for soil health, too. Once the biogas is made, a nutrient-rich biomass is left over. That organic material is brimming with soil fertility enhancing elements like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Spreading this biomass on fields makes them more productive, less prone to erosion, and helps farmers cut down on fertilizer costs. (See The Brown Revolution: Why Healthy Soil Means Healthy People.)

With one-third of the world’s soil already damaged by water and wind erosion, deforestation, pollution, and nutrient depletion, adding biomass to the ground could reap benefits.

This method may also help curb climate change, since biomass is essentially stored carbon. According to Sibilla, fields with more carbon have higher yields and are more resilient to the effects of climate change, including desertification. And, energy independent farms aren’t far off: CNH Industrial, a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles brand, is currently collaborating with CIB to develop biogas-powered tractors.

So why has this method caught on so well in Italy? The government has played a vital role in incentivizing farmers to build the digesters: It’ll buy back the extra electricity that’s not used on the farm at a secured price for 15 years. That makes the digesters safe investments, since they can take around a couple million dollars to build. The guaranteed buy-back market for the biogas can also help farmers prepare for price fluctuations of the food goods they grow, says Sibilla.  

What’s unique is that Italian farmers still want to produce food. Sibilla says they’re tied to the traditions and quality of the artisanal foods they grow, like farro and cannellini beans.

But American farmers aren’t jumping on the biogas bandwagon just yet.

With the second harvest approach, farmlands could be managed more efficiently. The midwestern U.S. is a prime example of where cover crops could thrive, says Bruce Dale, Associate Director for the Office of Biobased Technologies at Michigan State University. “In the winter, early spring, and late autumn, we have an artificial ecology of brown earth–if we let the fields go back to nature, cover crops would eventually be growing in fields anyway,” he says.

“Food versus fuel should never even be a debate,” says Wei Liao of the Anaerobic Digestion Research and Education Center at Michigan State University. Only about 20 percent of a grain plant is edible, while the rest is all non-edible lignocellulosic materials–think woody plant parts. With the the right technologies and government policies, Liao says these crop residues, along with wasted food, could become an abundant source of energy.

Right now, the U.S. bioenergy market is dominated by starch-based ethanol that’s produced from corn. And, according to Liao, there aren’t strong incentives for farmers to plant cover crops. Farmers don’t want to invest in expensive digesters if the payback periods are unreasonably long because of low energy costs and a lack of incentives.

Critics of biofuels say that Italy’s success would be difficult to replicate elsewhere where farmers lack incentives and Italy’s obsessive dedication to the quality of its food. And then there’s the larger debate over whether biofuels are worth the carbon they create (see National Geographic’s extensive coverage of carbon and biofuels.) Plus, there’s the age-old farm problem: working with manure can lead to increased ammonia emissions that decrease air quality and threaten human health.