As Mid-South states continue to lose much of the traditional manufacturing-based industries that migrated to the areas beginning in the 1950s, new bio-based opportunities are emerging, says Pete Nelson.

“We’re among the best in the world at producing and moving a wide variety of products,” he said at the annual meeting of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at Memphis. “As we’re losing these older manufacturing operations, there is tremendous potential for high value bio-based business.”

Nelson, who is director of the AgBioworks program for the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, is a principal in BioDimensions Inc., a company involved in a wide spectrum of activities, including regional strategic planning, crop diversity research, new farmer relationships, and the deployment of green technology with industrial partners.

“Sustainably grown and harvested crops can support at least an $8 billion local agriculture industry without affecting the food/feed supply chain,” he says.

This could support 25,000 jobs in the Mid-South states within a decade and 50,000 by 2030 and open markets for new crops, he says.

Among the opportunities are production of ingredients for cosmetics/personal care; green chemistry; and plastics — all with properties superior to petroleum-based products and with lower manufacturing costs.

Cotton bio-based products, Nelson says, could include solar panel backsheets, insulation and packing materials to replace Styrofoam, along with new cottonseed oil and specialty cellulose products, all of which could help to sustain the region’s cotton base.

“When we lose cotton acres, we're not just losing a crop in the ground. We’re also losing a lot of downstream industries and an infrastructure that is very unique and provides an extensive value-added complex. This cotton infrastructure can play an important role in development of a biomass supply chain.”

There is also bioenergy potential for manufacturing as much as 3 million tons of pelletized fuel from cotton gin trash, hardwoods, and other biomass materials that can be produced in the region, he says.

“There are opportunities for crops that can be rotated with cotton to offer additional options to farmers and as a potential method for limiting weed resistance. For example, studies have shown a 20 percent to 25 percent yield increase for cotton following grain sorghum.”

Studies also indicate “a lot of local customers” for bio-based products, Nelson notes, which would reduce transportation costs.

Other opportunities exist with new oilseed crops, sweet sorghum, various grasses, sawdust and other wood byproducts, and advanced cellulosic crops, he says.

“Sweet sorghum is a crop with high yield potential that is drought tolerant and can be grown with minimal inputs. The process for conversion of sugar to ethanol is a proven technique.”

The bioeconomy is one of the fastest growing economic sectors in the world, Nelson says, and is projected to be a $125 billion global market within a few years. It has received billions of dollars in public and private investments, which have dramatically accelerated the commercialization of bio-based products.

The days of inexpensive petroleum are coming to an end, he says. “The consumption and reliance on finite fossil resources has significantly impacted domestic energy security, the environment and rural economies. These factors, coupled with global climate change and new innovations in science, have caused a resurgent interest in materials produced from sustainable agriculture and forestry.”

Companies such as BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, DuPont, Ford, General Motors, Nokia, Shell, Volvo and many more are making unprecedented investments in agriculture and bio-based materials, Nelson says.

As part of a global trend of significant public sector support for developing the bioeconomy, the state of Tennessee and U.S. Department of Energy have funded over $200 million in projects at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee to develop next generation biofuels.

“The Mississippi Delta region has productive farm land, ample supplies of biomass, and excellent logistics that will help position the region to deploy technologies to convert plants into many useful bio-based products,” Nelson says. “This transformation will promote rural development, provide new opportunities for farmers, increase biodiversity, decrease pollution, reduce our impact on global climate change and establish many new green jobs.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com