“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” — President John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961.
President Kennedy established this vision for America in response to a threat to our national security. The Soviet Union had already established superiority in space exploration. Fears that our Cold War enemy could control the heavens and focus weapons on our country were very real. The president's bold vision reflected the fact that our nation was vulnerable, but it also recognized that America's mastery of space could be a source of good for all mankind through improved communications, weather forecasting and other benefits of satellite technology.
Today, with mounting risks to our energy security, Americans again sense that we are vulnerable. We long for a bold technological vision to end our dependence on others for our energy needs. The vision this time is not rocket science, and we don't need to go to the moon. The solutions to our energy problems are right here on Earth; in fact, many come from the very soil that makes the Earth. The productivity of our farms and forests — everything from grain and grasses to windmills and waste — can help ensure America's energy independence and contribute to a cleaner environment. A coalition of agricultural interests believes that farmers, ranchers and foresters can provide 25 percent of the country's energy needs by 2025.
This “25 by '25” vision sees clean, renewable fuels and electricity coming from the vast acreage of our country. The coalition envisions improved farm income, increased employment in rural areas, a cleaner environment and less dependence on foreign energy providers.
Now is the time to be visionary. The risks to our energy security continue to grow. As a nation, we import more than 50 percent of our petroleum supply. Two-thirds of the world's oil reserves are located in Middle Eastern countries, while U.S. reserves total only 2 percent. Given the increasing global tensions before and after Sept. 11, 2001, a reliable and uninterrupted supply of oil is no longer assured.
Even if we were awash in oil, there still would be concerns about the health and environmental implications of continued reliance on fossil fuels. America's leadership in developing alternatives to oil could help mitigate global problems caused by the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The technologies that could make this vision real are rapidly emerging. In the past decade, there have been great strides in ethanol manufacturing facilities, substantially improving the efficiency of this fuel source. Seed companies are producing corn hybrids specifically bred for their enhanced ability to produce ethanol. Similar strides have been made in soy diesel production facilities and soybean varieties.
The “25 by '25” vision sees beyond corn-based ethanol and soy diesel. Any form of plant material is a potential energy source — switchgrass on currently unproductive acres, rice hulls and wheat straw, corn stalks, waste from forestry harvests. By turning this vast amount of biomass into liquid fuels, we can produce energy along with food. It's not an either-or choice.
Wind and sun are other realistic energy sources. The American Southwest is an ideal location for vastly improved solar collectors. Many regions of our country can support energy-producing windmills, which have rapidly grown into a major energy resource in Europe. Methane from livestock operations is another largely untapped source.
Imagine the impact that could be made if every farm, ranch and forestry operation in our vast nation were contributing energy in one form or another. And imagine the economic impact that could result. Landowners who produce grain, wood or livestock would have a second crop to sell — energy. Jobs would be created in rural America through the processing of agricultural products and the maintenance of equipment for producing electric power. These increased domestic energy supplies would help reduce the price Americans pay to drive their cars and heat their homes.
This future can become reality if the agricultural community works together with a shared vision and unites to seek federal support for faster deployment of these emerging technologies.
Our country consumes about 25 percent of the world's oil supply. China and India, with their large populations, are becoming increasingly industrialized and will want more oil. Other developing countries will increase demand. Competing for finite resources is not an acceptable scenario. We need to increase our ability to supply ourselves.
We believe the “25 by '25” vision will benefit producers, the environment and the global community. We believe that America's food and fiber producers have an opportunity to once again demonstrate their ability to meet needs and solve problems. We urge leaders from all sectors to join with us, to help us refine our ideas and present a united front that will help see America through the 21st century and beyond.
J. Read Smith is Co-Chair of the 25 × '25 Steering Committee. He raises wheat, small grains and cattle near St. John, Washington and is the former President of the National Association of Conservation Districts.