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How might the production of agricultural feedstocks for biobased materials affect the environment?

Production impacts of agricultural feedstock vary significantly, depending on the practices and inputs used by the farmer. In general, conventional corn and other annual crops utilize high levels of fertilizer and other inputs. Widespread use of GMO varieties can result in increased herbicide resistance in weeds and pollen drift. Production practices can result in soil erosion and chemical and nutrient run-off that degrade water quality, soil health, and wildlife habitat.

On the other hand, corn can be produced in a manner that conserves soil, provides wildlife habitat, and does not impair water quality. Farming approaches that minimize commercial inputs and tillage, utilize crop rotations, and maximize soil cover and biodiversity are successfully used by many farmers. Most corn production in the US falls somewhere in between these two examples, with the majority of farmers working to minimize their environmental impacts without reducing their overall production.

Are the feedstocks genetically modified?

Approximately 52% of corn acres in the US were planted in 2005 with genetically modified varieties, with a higher percentage in Nebraska and Iowa, where most of the corn used to make PLA is grown. GMO traits in available corn varieties are focused on insect resistance (Bt) and herbicide tolerance. Therefore, while much of the corn currently used to produce PLA is genetically modified, the traits are not specifically focused on PLA production and GMO corn is not required for PLA production. There has been discussion of specifically modifying corn and other crops to produce biopolymers or to increase convertible materials for biopolymer production, but to date these have not been introduced.

Are there sustainability standards for agricultural feedstocks?

Organizations such as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) are developing and promoting the use of sustainability standards for biopolymer feedstock production. For more on IATP’s Sustainable Standards, see their website. Agricultural and rural policies proposed by broad coalitions could encourage sustainable feedstock production and economic development.