Biofuels must be part of the solution to attaining energy security and in reducing potential for global climate change, says USDA Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics, Gale Buchanan.

Buchanan, who spearheaded efforts to create an international forum to consider sorghum as an integral part of the renewable fuels equation, opened the International Conference on Sorghum for Biofuels in Houston with an admonition for countries to work together to find solutions to a worldwide problem. Cooperation and collaboration among countries, he said, will “help solve one of the nation’s and the world’s most pressing problems — sustainable energy.”

Buchanan’s remarks were echoed by Liu Yanhua, vice minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology for the Peoples Republic of China, who said the United States and China face common challenges, but also have common opportunities to “develop bioenergy through collaboration. We encourage scientists to develop mutual understanding and to establish platforms for exchange of ideas and to share research and development,” Yanhua said.

Buchanan and Yanhua signed an agreement pledging the United States and China to collaborate on biofuels research.

“There is a lot we can learn from the Chinese,” Buchanan said. “And a number of other countries represented at this conference are in the same boat. We can all learn from each other because the world must become more energy secure.”

He said the United States and China already collaborate on bioenergy and other agricultural research. “We’re also working with Brazil,” he said. He and others in government, academia and industry expressed hope that the conference would serve as a springboard for future cooperative efforts.

“Energy security is a major challenge and climate change is something else we need to be concerned about.

“We need to limit our reliance on petroleum and not have the world population be at the whim of the market.

“Renewable energy will be part of the solution and will help limit global climate change and reduce greenhouse gases. This also represents an opportunity for agriculture, forestry and rural communities.”

Buchanan said corn is currently the number one fuel crop in the United States.

“Every part of the world grows something that will convert to biofuels. We have the means to empower farmers in the poorest countries and improve their quality of life.”

Sorghum is “an all-purpose crop with a lot of possibilities.” Some 12 percent of current U.S. grain sorghum production goes into biofuel production, but Buchanan said sweet sorghum may offer even more opportunity. “It’s almost the perfect feedstock (for ethanol). It’s drought tolerant, grows in 99 countries, and has a high energy output.”

He said sweet sorghum offers both sugar and cellulosic potential. Through cooperative research with USDA and the Department of Energy, researchers are looking for better sweet sorghum hybrids with drought tolerance, pest resistance and low lignin content.

“The more we can work among agencies in our government, the better,” Buchanan said. “Science is the key to making that happen and agriculture has the opportunity to make tremendous contributions to the planet.”

Yanhua said in China a clean energy source and improved farmer incomes are important, but said balancing biofuel production with food production will be crucial. He agreed that science and technology will be keys to success.

“We must improve the utilization rate of biomass and develop crops that grow in less arable soils to prevent bioenergy from competing with grain for land.”

Yanhua said Chinese goals for developing a renewable fuels industry include:

• Avoid using arable land.

• Avoid competing with grain.

• Avoid environmental disruption.

“Sweet sorghum will be a good option with many advantages. It will grow on less desirable land,” he said.

“We have a opportunity to make a step forward to address one of the most pressing challenges in the world — energy security,” said Mark Hussey, acting dean, AgriLife Texas A&M.

Making sorghum a leading feedstock for ethanol and other biofuels is a “logical part of the discussion on energy possibilities.”

email: rsmith@farmpress.com