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"The Graduate" revisited

Fri, Jun 22nd, 2007
Posted in Commentary

"Benjamin...I just want to say one word to you...just one word...are you listening......switchgrass. There's a great future in switchgrass...think about it. Will you think about it?" Imagine if Mr. McGuire had uttered "switchgrass" into Benjamin Braddock's ear instead of "plastics" in the classic movie, The Graduate.

If "plastics" was the visionary investment of the 1960s, I contend that the visionary investment for Minnesota in the 2000s is switchgrass. "Switchgrass" is the new "plastics." Switchgrass, a major component of the perennial grasslands that once covered parts of this U.S. has exciting potential to help reduce our dependence on foreign oil. U.S. energy dependence is intricately tied to the military situation in the Middle East as Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and economic/foreign affairs correspondent, Thomas L. Friedman, has elegantly described.

"We are financing the U.S. armed forces with our tax dollars, and, through our profligate use of energy, we are generating huge windfall profits for Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan, where the cash is used to insulate the regimes from any pressure to open up their economies, liberate their women or modernize their schools, and where it ends up instead financing madrassas, mosques and militants fundamentally opposed to the progressive, pluralistic agenda America is trying to promote." [New York Times, February 2005]

Extricating ourselves from the Middle East energy-wise may help give the U.S. the position of detached impartiality that restores us to our role as an effective world leader. Minnesota has the economic and agricultural potential to aid in this extrication through the production of biofuels. Increased production of domestic biofuels would have an immediate geo-political and environmental benefit along with the potential for local financial benefit. Corn ethanol, Minnesota's current leader in biofuels, has proven itself as a successful contributor to domestic energy needs and as a profitable local investment. While corn may always be a major ethanol component, cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass has greater promise to benefit Minnesota.

Switchgrass is a native grass that can be planted on land unsuitable for other crops. It has a high carbon sequestration capacity; meaning it can absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, a known contributor to global warming. With an extensive root system pushing 10 feet into the ground, switchgrass reduces erosion aiding soil conservation and even after harvesting still continues to capture carbon in the remaining root mass. It is a perennial with a life span of 15-20 years that does not need to be replanted year after year as corn does, eliminating the need to purchase large amounts of seed. Switchgrass requires no new equipment investment to the farmer as it can be harvested with existing machinery. Savannah sparrow, bobolink, Grasshopper sparrow, and meadowlark populations have been found to benefit from both the planting and harvesting of switchgrass. Lastly, switchgrass has shown the potential to produce up to 1000 gallons of ethanol per metric ton, well over the estimated 400 gallons for corn. [Sources: npr.org, ABC News]

Concern has been expressed about how increased ethanol production, whether by planting more corn or replacing corn with other crops like switchgrass, will result in increased food prices. According to Joachim von Braun, the director of the Food Policy Institute in Washington, it is more likely that the "instability of energy prices will be translated into instability in food prices" rather than the increase in ethanol production. [NY Times, January 2006]

So what will it take to make the switchgrass vision a reality? Investment in a local cellulosic ethanol plant along with a concerted large scale transition to growing switchgrass or a combination of prairie grasses. Oh, and a belief and commitment that with a little time the investment will literally pay off. 15 years ago Brazil began using cellulose from sugar cane to create ethanol and it now uses 50 percent less gasoline. In addition, the price of its ethanol is half that of gasoline.

So in the words of the other famous quote from The Graduate... "Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?"

Well...hopefully I have seduced you into thinking about the vision of switchgrass as part of the future of Minnesota. And one day you will be buying biofuels at the pump. Think about it...switchgrass.

Sara Sturgis is the Education Director at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center.

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