The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is tasked with the big challenge of developing and executing federal laws related to farming, agriculture, forestry, and food. A key focus for the department is to meet the diverse needs of the farmers and ranchers they represent, along with promoting issues that include food safety, the protection of natural resources and hunger in the US and around the world.
David Babson is senior advisor at USDA and the federal lead for the organisation’s waste-to-energy and advanced carbon commoditisation efforts. He is also the subject of the latest Bio-Based World News’ 5 Minutes With… David has built up his extensive knowledge of biofuel engineering through roles at the University of Minnesota, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the Union of Concerned Scientists and he speaks to Dave Songer about the great potential of biofuels, the importance of thinking big and also gives a glimpse into what he’ll discuss at this year’s World Bio Markets.
Dave Songer (DS): Hi David, can we start with how you got involved in the bio-based industry – what is it you most like about working in it?
David Babson (DB): What I like best about working in the bio-based sector, and the bioeconomy more broadly, is its implicit drive to become more sustainable and its ability to offer more sustainable solutions for addressing our most pressing global challenges. The bioeconomy, in its most ambitious vision, is a circular carbon economy that can be expanded sustainably to create tools for managing land and carbon resources more efficiently. This will allow us to simultaneously maintain and grow a carbon-based economy while meeting future resource demands and addressing tough challenges such as climate change. Ultimately, it’s the positive implications for my work that make it enjoyable.
(DS): What have been the most significant changes in bio-based since you began studying and working in in it?
(DB): It has been great to watch the rapid growth in the overall bioeconomy. Beyond the expansion of first generation corn- and soy-derived biofuels, it is fantastic to see an ever-growing list of biomass feedstocks, conversion pathways, and products – not just fuels – entering into the mix. With this growth, the vision for the bioeconomy itself has expanded to a point that I view it to be the basis of an entirely circular carbon economy in which all fuels, chemicals, products, and materials can be renewably and sustainably produced.
(DS): What advice would you give someone looking to get started in the industry?
(DB): Focus on the future and think big. Specifically, try to imagine what our economy and society will look like in 2050 or beyond, and then attempt to incorporate your products and processes into that vision. If what you plan to produce is not a fuel or product suited for that future vision, don’t pursue its production. If the feedstock or production process is not sustainable or resilient to expected resource limitations, a changing climate, and a growing population, then rethink how you plan to source your feedstock and engineer your process. If the bioeconomy is to be the basis for a future circular carbon economy, it can’t rely on unsustainable inputs or old ways of thinking, it must be designed conceptually and then engineered to meet those specifications – the imagined specifications for a future economy and society.
(DS): What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
(DB): I would have to say that is thinking too small and too short term. It’s difficult though, because in the federal government we need to think about one-year budget cycles as well as two- and four-year political cycles. This can be challenging because the time horizon for needed R&D is much longer than this and the future economy we’re hoping to realise through our investments and efforts is several decades off. Thus, it is a challenge professionally to balance the day-to-day requirements of my job with the long-term goals I have for the work.
(DS): What would you say is the biggest challenge facing the bio-based industry?
(DB): Access to capital on the front end and inadequate valuations of ecosystem services on the back end are some of the greatest challenges in my mind, but as more and more players are getting into the bioeconomy and more bio-derived products are coming online, these challenges are being addressed.
(DS): And the opportunity?
(DB): Of course, the biggest opportunity is realising an entirely circular carbon economy in which the economy itself becomes a tool for managing carbon instead of an excuse for not managing it, but beyond that of course, the bioeconomy has the potential to create more valuable products and millions more jobs up and down the biomass supply chain – from forest managers and farmers through the biotech sector and into the consumer space.
(DS): You’re due to speak at this year’s World Bio Markets. What can the audience expect, and what are you most looking forward to, at the show?
(DB): I plan to discuss the history, the successes and some of the potential future directions for the USDA’s BioPreferred labeling program. I don’t want to give away too much here, but I will discuss how the addition of new sustainability metrics for labelling could serve to enhance its overall brand and also incentivise bio-based producers to make better – and more valuable – products. Stay tuned for the show!
(DS): What is your favourite bio-based product and why?
(DB): Ethanol, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. Ethanol is a great example of a bio-based product that can be produced on a huge industrial scale. Nearly 15 billion gallons of ethanol was produced in the United States last year and it plays an integral role in the US transportation system. But, beyond its specific utility, the established supply chains and production processes offer lessons on how to structure new bio-product pathways and they provide examples of both unsustainable and sustainable practices. The most heated debates around ethanol are actually around the feedstocks used to produce it, and these can be addressed. More importantly, the knowledge that can be gleaned from studying the growth and continue evolution of the ethanol industry and its production will be essential for designing and building more sustainable biorefineries in the future, regardless of which product suites they are generating.
(DS): Thanks so much for your time, David. We hope you get a lot out of the show.
Read the last 5 minutes with… Virginia Klausmeier, president and CEO of Sylvatex.
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