GMO for Biomass?

/* Originally posted on December 14th, 2009 */

1) Do we want to optimize growth for harvestable biomass? If so, GMO may
help.

2) Do we want to optimize growth for carbon sequestering in the root
system? If so, then THIS branch of GMO research may not help, but others
could.

3) Do we want to mono-crop biomass to optimize productivity of a single
species? I believe that to be THE key question.

Most of modern agriculture is designed around mono-cropping and driving
towards maximum yields for that crop. Our equipment is tuned for it, our
mindsets are fixed on it. I think we all are a bit guilty. Who hasn’t
looked at a recently hayed field and think “Isn’t that pretty!” – it looks
like a big lawn! How many of us see that field and think “OMG – that’s a
wildlife disaster!”???

As long as we are in a mono-crop/use artificial fertilizers to replace the
nutrients we harvest/maximize production and economic yield mindset,
things like GMO are going to have a play. The use of GMO to tweak
fermentablility of corn is proof of that: monocropped, specific target
usage, premium price for farmers, ethanol craze – you bet there was
acceptance of GMO “highly fermentable” corn seed. Of course, you have to
buy that seed every year, so there was economic incentive for the bio-tech
companies to create the seed in the first place.

When we talk about using Prairie fields for bio-mass we have a couple of
problems.

First, its bio-diverse. That means our equipment isn’t as well
suited to harvest it as a highly tuned mono-culture tool would be.

Second, its bio-diverse. That means that some species are likely to be at
their prime for harvesting and fermentation at different times than other
species.

Third, its bio-diverse. That means that any fixed harvesting schedule is
going to favor some species over others, eventually changing the mix in
the fields, which would require retuning our processes. People don’t like
such variability.

Fourth, its bio-diverse and those raising it are
wildlife conservation oriented. That means that optimal harvest type and
techniques may well be in conflict with wildlife goals. Think GRP – you
can’t harvest until July 15th, but most hay grass peaks in
nutrition in June. July hay is still good (I have many, many bales of
it!), but its not as good as June hay (lower protein content, less
digestibility, etc.).

Fifth, its not sustainable. You can’t remove plant
mass and the associated nutrients on a regular basis without replacing
those elements not associated with rain and air. Every good farmer knows
you want to bring hay to your fields for your cows to eat, not sell it to
your neighbor. The first improves your fields, the second, however
slightly per year, degrades it.

So what to do? Two options occur to me:

1) Create a sustainable program where items like mulch are added to fields
on a regular basis to replace nutrients removed as bio-mass. NPR ran a
report on that option, as part of mulching to sequester carbon and
generate revenue (some industries would pay to dispose of their waste, our
mulch, on our fields), last week. This would be key. Perhaps it could
even be closed cycle, with the fermenting plants returning their waste
material to the farmer (which I think they currently sell as cattle
feed?). In any case, some source of nutrients would be required, and
would have to be provided in a balance with nutrient removal for
sustainability. That’s just simple chemistry.

2) Shift from Biomass generation to meat generation. The trick here is
providing equal grazing pressure to avoid the cattle favoring one species
over another. Management Intensive Grazing would do that… but as the
name implies, is manpower intensive. Supplemental mineral blocks and the
like would go a long way to replacing the nutrients taken off the land
when the cattle are sold. Again, recycling the cattle waste, in the form
of bone-meal and similar products, would be required to make this practice
sustainable.

I do believe sustainability is the key: having a system in place where all
material going out is balanced with new material being added back into our
environments. The good news is that the primary elements – CO2, water,
sunshine, even some nitrogen (bacterial nitrogen fixation and compliments
of lightening storms), come to us for free. The rest (trace elements,
phosphates, calcium, potash, etc.) needs to be balanced or eventually our
fields will fail.

Currently there is a grant proposal pending that will form the Nature
Friendly Meat Producers Organization if approved. It is my hope, as board
president of that organization, to consume some of its energy addressing
this issue as well as its primary goal of creating a value add marketing
label.

Please share your thoughts!

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