Documentary-style film, produced for POET by BBC StoryWorks Commercial Productions, premiering in June.
Steve Sinning comes from a long line of farmers.
His father was a farmer. His grandfather was a farmer. Even his great-grandfather was a farmer.
“I’ve been farming since the mid-’70s,” Sinning said. “But it’s really been all my life. I grew up on a farm—the same farm I’m on today. Dad grew up here, too. I’m a fourth-generation farmer, and my son will be the fifth.”
For decades, Sinning’s family has played a vital role in putting food on America’s table. But today, they’re helping meet America’s energy needs, too.
“Almost all my corn these days goes to the POET ethanol plant,” Sinning said. “We need to do everything we can to save our climate and promote agriculture, and the best way to do that is through bioethanol.”
Bioethanol is a biofuel—a clean-burning, renewable alternative to fossil fuel—and its benefits are tremendous. Sinning said that being able to pump more gallons of affordable, higher-octane fuel made from American-grown corn is a benefit that can’t be beat.
But what many people don’t realize is that the environmental benefits of biofuels extend far beyond the pump.
“We need to do everything we can to save our climate and promote agriculture, and the best way to do that is through bioethanol.”
That’s the message behind a short documentary-style film produced for POET by BBC StoryWorks, the commercial content division of BBC Global News, and presented by the International Council of Biotechnology Associations as part of its Nature’s Building Blocks series. Sinning is featured in the film, along with Bill Gibbons, the Associate Dean for Research at South Dakota State University’s College of Agriculture, and Jeff Broin, Founder and CEO of POET.
The Nature’s Building Blocks series explores the ways in which biotechnology is helping to heal, fuel and feed the world and promotes public understanding of the continued innovation in the human health, agriculture, industrial and environmental sectors while examining the role of biotechnology in solving some of the world’s greatest environmental and health challenges.
“The short, documentary-style commercial films for Nature’s Building Blocks are solutions-focused,” said Gemma Jennings, Head of Global Partnerships for Programme Partnerships BBC StoryWorks. “It starts by contextualizing the problem, or need for a solution, before exploring how that solution works and who could benefit. Within this storytelling approach, it’s important that the challenges and limitations are presented, and the scale of the solution considered. At the center of each film is an interesting human story that would be engaging to audiences and shine a light on new technologies.”
Biofuels, POET’s film explains, are a real catalyst for sustainable agriculture, and the biofuels industry is also an outlet through which agriculture is helping to solve global problems like climate change. Simply put, POET’s philosophy is that everything you can get from a barrel of oil you can get from a bushel of corn—it’s simply a matter of biotechnology and economics.
“Think of a cornstalk,” Broin said. “The leaves act as the solar panel, and energy is transferred from the sun into the corn kernels and the biomass, which can be stored indefinitely—so they become nature’s battery.”
Years ago, people argued that it took more energy to produce bioethanol than the amount of energy you’d get from the bioethanol itself. But that’s wrong, Gibbons said. “Energy is never created or destroyed. It just changes form.”
Bioethanol production is very sustainable.
“When the fuels are made from biomass and the fuel is burned and the carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, the next year that same carbon dioxide goes back into producing the next crop of plants that are used,” Gibbons said.
That’s the opposite of what happens when petroleum is extracted from the earth and burned to generate energy, Gibbons said.
When carbon is added back into the soil, it helps improve the water holding capacity of the soil. Doing so helps optimize crop production. “Ag production is greatly improved and crops have improved leaps and bounds,” Gibbons said. “We’re continually improving the system as we’re using the system.”
On top of that, there’s virtually no waste from producing bioethanol.
“We use the starch to produce the bioethanol portion, and then we still have remaining the protein, oil and micronutrients,” Broin said. “The protein goes mostly to animal feed all over the world. We have renewable carbon dioxide that ends up in soda; it ends up in beer; it ends up in welding gas. And in addition, we have corn oil, which today goes mostly to biodiesel and in the future will go to renewable diesel fuel. How’s that for exciting? We now have biofuels as a byproduct of biofuels.”
It’s about working in sync with the system, not against it—and the potential is virtually untapped.
“We’re making as much as we can out of what nature provides. Mother Nature has things figured out a lot better than we do,” Gibbons said. “We can go in there and tinker, and we can screw things up. But Mother Nature had it figured out all along. It’s better to work with nature than to force our way of thinking onto nature.”
Looking ahead, there’s no question that society will be able to replace everything it gets from fossil fuels or hydrocarbons with products from the surface of the Earth, Broin said. And bioethanol is the best place to start.
“The great thing about bioethanol is it’s available today, and it’s affordable. It’s certainly a solution for every car that’s on the road,” Broin said. “While others are working on solutions to fight climate change, this is one that we use today that everyone can afford.”
For farmers like Sinning, being a part of that is something to be proud of.
“Ethanol is a renewable energy that’s tied together with agriculture and corn and good for our carbon footprint and good for the climate,” he said. “It’s important for all of us.”
How to Watch
POET’s short film in the Nature’s Building Blocks series will be launched as part of BIO Digital 2021, the world’s largest gathering of the biotechnology community. All films will be available to watch on June 16 on www.naturesbuildingblocksseries.com.