Will future farming be able to replace petroleum products in the fields of
chemistry, materials and energy?
Jean-François Morot-Gaudry et Jean-Claude Pernollet,
the Academy of Agriculture of France (AAF)
Will future farming be able to replace petroleum products in the fields of chemistry, materials and energy? Jean-François Morot-Gaudry and Jean-Claude Pernollet, honorary Research Directors at INRA and members of the Academy of Agriculture of France, attempt to answer this ambitious question in a report which we recommend reading1.
As these two researchers show, plants, these “extraordinary chemical laboratories” are powerful catalysts which will ultimately contribute to the fight against food insecurity, the improvement and preservation of the balance in living standards while taking environmental constraints into account. However, the connection between agriculture and chemistry, and the issues behind it, is complex. Bioproducts may become formidable substitutions to fossil fuels creating many opportunities, provided that various criteria are met, especially in a context of sustainable development.
In this regard, note that the European Union aims to increase the share of renewable energy in energy consumption by an average of 20% by 2020. As for France, during the Grenelle de l’environnement, they committed to increasing its proportion of organic carbon chemistry currently at 7% to 15% in 2017. Most other developed countries plan proportions of 30% organic carbon in 2025-2030.
With their kind permission, we will regularly publish various publications by the Academy of Agriculture of France whose aim is to reflect on technical, economic, legal, social and cultural themes in the medium and long term in the domains of agriculture, food and environment.
momagri Editorial Board
Green chemistry has become a priority in research and development around the world. America was right; the American Academy of Sciences declared in 2005 that biological sciences are likely to have the same impact on the formation of new industries that the physical and chemical sciences had in the twentieth century. Emerging countries (Brazil, China, etc.) are aware of this new revolution and are engaged in the development of plant biomass. If, in 2011, 90% of chemicals were still petrochemicals, in 2030, 25% to 30% of the main basic molecules should be derived from renewable carbon. These opportunities must be considered in the overall context of agriculture, forests, landscapes, not to mention the preservation of biodiversity.
A major difficulty for the development of green chemistry is the competition for arable land which is limited: the use of land for bioproducts cannot be at the expense of food. Though the production of fibres and wood does not pose a crucial problem in this regard, on the other hand when it comes to the use of grain and seed, particularly for the production of oil (bio or agro-fuels) the situation is more delicate and needs more investigation. For example, the extraction of vegetable oils leaves a by-product, protein rich oil cakes sought for feeding livestock. (...)
What are Bioproducts? They are defined as “energy and industrial products derived from plants beyond food and health and whose applications relate to energy (biofuels), organic chemistry and biomaterials manufactured directly or indirectly from biomass. They can be new, innovative or traditional products” (ARP-Vega INRA 2009 Think Tank).
These molecules will need to be matched with plants able to synthesize them, either plants that already exist (field crops, wild and possibly exotic) or plants to be defined in the future through standard genetics or by transgenesis.
Finally, we therefore need to acquire more knowledge about the ways of synthesizing certain molecules, their storage and their feedback effect on the major physiological functions of the growth and development of plants. We also have to improve our knowledge on the development of large cellular structures, wall, fibre, storage organs (oleosomes, protein bodies and plastids). There is still much to learn on gene expression and the development of the macromolecular structures in a given organ. Basic research must be pursued to better understand and control metabolic systems in a given environment at specific periods of plant development. Producing energy, molecules and materials from non-food agricultural resources is a major issue in the context of sustainable development.
Plants are amazing chemical laboratories, capable of synthesizing all the molecules we need. However, in practice, the problem is more complex than it seems because biomass production is irregular and conversion efficiencies obtained through this biomass are so far not always compatible with current economic requirements. However, new technologies undoubtedly provide support for this new business, lowering the cost of production and processing, but much remains to be done, which requires efficient multidisciplinary research combining biologists, chemists, agronomists, technologists, etc., to address these challenges in the coming decades. Moreover, profound behavioural changes in our society, agriculture and industry are needed, taking into account the environmental and societal constraints. Globally, the challenge of a green economy is to improve the standard of living in developing countries by not increasing their environmental footprint while maintaining a standard of living in developed countries.
France has the intellectual, agricultural, and industrial potential to meet the challenges of connecting agriculture and chemistry. Let us remember that the percentage of carbon used in chemistry represents only a few percent (5 to 15% of the total carbon) of the carbon chemistry used for energy production. Under these conditions if the total replacement of fossil carbon by green carbon is currently inconceivable, partial replacement (20-30%) of the carbon necessary for chemistry is quite possible in the coming decades (2030 for example). It is necessary to realize this potential; it is a matter of political, economic and social courage.
1 Extracts from reports on the potential of science for the future of agriculture, food and the environment by Think Tanks and proposals by the Academy of Agriculture of France. To read the full report on the Academy’s website or by following this link