How We Can Have Our Corn and Eat It Too

This blog post by By Troels Yde Toftdahl, Danish Agriculture & Food Council appeared on the Reuters Alternet blog Climate Conversations. Reuters Alertnert is the Agriculture and Rural Development Day 2011 media partner.

Inbicon biofuels facility in Kalundborg, Denmark, 2010. PHOTO/Inbicon

Biofuels are not just biofuels. Today, most of the world’s biofuel production is based on so-called first-generation crops, including sugar cane, wheat, corn and rapeseed. Residues from agriculture, forestry and food processing, however, can also be used – for so-called next-generation biofuels.

Residues make it possible to have biofuels and food, biofuels and rural development, biofuels and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In short, with next-generation biofuels we can have our corn and eat it. This is the case in Denmark, where cars and buses already run on biodiesel made from slaughter-house residues and bioethanol made from straw. 

It is no coincidence that Denmark is a first-mover in the use of residues for biofuels. Denmark is a country that has near perfect natural geographic conditions for farming, but also a very critical and concerned public. This means Danish farmers have been faced with the avant-garde in environmental regulation for several decades.

That has left its mark, not only on the resource efficiency of farming (which is among the best), but also on how farmers approach new challenges. Neglecting problems is not an option, so why not see new business opportunities instead?

The energy crises of the 1970s posed a big problem for energy supply, and thus the very foundation of our economies. Where other countries opted for nuclear power, anti-nuclear protesters and legislators agreed this was not an option in Denmark.

Instead wind was first promoted by grassroots in the countryside. Now it is big business, making up 10 percent of Danish exports. Another, less high-profile resource was also experimented with: straw.


Farmers have always used straw for animal fodder and litter, and for maintaining soil fertility. But they started using surplus straw for boilers in small, decentralised heating plants.

Later on, it became a fuel for combined heat and power plants, and today even the big centralised plants are using straw. For farmers, this means new customers and access to new output markets. And just as windmills have become big business, straw for energy is now on the brink of becoming a real business opportunity for Danish farmers.

It’s one thing burning straw, another turning it into liquid fuel. Humans have turned wheat into ethanol for millennia, using simple digestion and fermentation processes.

Straw, however, is harder to digest, due to the molecular composition, making ethanol production impossible without pre-treatment. That is exactly what is done at the ground-breaking Inbicon facility in Kalundborg, Denmark.

Straw is boiled and treated with enzymes, turning it into a brown “soup”, where the sugar needed for ethanol production becomes available. After pre-treatment, the brewing process is the same as with conventional biofuels.

Additional products, such as lignine and molasses are also extracted from the pre-treatment, and can be used for biogas, fodder and heating, generating additional income.

Next-generation biofuels not only have big potential in terms of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, but also in terms of transportation and rural development. This is not to say that first-generation biofuels do not offer possibilities for farmers, but with next-generation biofuels, the novelty is that there is no substitution of markets.

When using straw, the edible crops are sold as such, and the residues can be sold for biofuel production. This way, food production is maintained and additional income is provided.

Land is one of our scarcest resources (up there with water, money and peace). The task, therefore, is to optimise land use without increasing greenhouse gas emissions and resource consumption. We need to get more out of less and residues are the answer.

For farmers and policymakers across the globe, this means that rural development has a new face – namely residues. Demand for sustainable biofuels could help farmers diversify their income and permanent jobs could be created in the collection and transport of agricultural residues in rural areas – just as it happened in Denmark when utilities started using straw for energy.

Next-generation biofuels have the potential to turn biofuels into something truly profitable for the climate, environment, rural development and, not least, farmers. In this sense, agriculture can become a driver of sustainable development while boosting farmers’ incomes. Sustainability can be both wealth-creating and green.

Troels Yde Toftdahl is advisor on bio-energy and the green economy at the Danish Agriculture & Food Council. The council represents the Danish agricultural and food industry, and is the country’s largest industry and innovation grouping, employing some 150,000 people and exporting agricultural products and equipment to a value of around €15 billion.

  • yudhvir singh chaudhary December 4, 2011 at 6:26 am

    Good article. Please send details of technology that can be used for making biofuels at the village level from forest residues and wood chips and Prosoposis Juliflora. This is needed in the Indian village context.

  • yudhvir singh chaudhary December 4, 2011 at 6:28 am

    And from agricultural wastes such as paddy (rice)husk and rapeseed stalks.