Agriculture at a Crossroads: Energy Biomass Standards and a New Sustainability Paradigm?

Bioenergy policy through the past decade has increasingly emphasized combustion and conversion of biomass as a means to combat greenhouse gas emissions, ease dependence on foreign energy sources, and create jobs in rural areas. As demand for biomass increases due to laws such as the Energy Independence and Security Act and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, questions have arisen as to how “green” biomass cropping really can be if production merely follows an agricultural status quo that has arguably led to environmental problems such as Gulf hypoxia, widespread monocultures with little species diversity, and decreased water quality and quantity. Further, if new biomass cropping replaces food production on the same number of acres, food security issues arise due to increases in commodity prices. If expanded to new lands, native habitats may be destroyed. To address these concerns, many sustainability standards recently have emerged, or likely will issue in the near future. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued regulations that require conservation planning in order to receive a BCAP subsidy. California is in the process of developing sustainability standards for biomass used in transportation fuels as well as the generation of electricity. The Council for Sustainable Biomass Production has issued a provisional voluntary standard for the U.S. market. And the Environmental Protection Agency must report to Congress in 2010 on the environmental ramifications of the renewable fuels mandate.In addition to achieving consistency among biomass sustainability standards, a main challenge moving forward is ensuring credibility and ease of implementation. Existing agricultural conservation programs in the United States contain planning and assessment protocols, practice-based modeling, and program evaluation procedures that can greatly inform efforts to consistently define “renewability” in biomass-specific mandates and subsidy programs. Government agencies, the scientific community, and stakeholders in the process must, however, strengthen their collaborative efforts so that biomass’s potential to significantly improve the agro-environmental landscape through standards is better understood. Most significantly, a rethinking of existing agricultural conservation programs in the energy biomass context has the real potential to create an entirely new sustainability paradigm for the entire agricultural sector.

The full text of this Article is available to download as a PDF.