Even as new industrial platforms involving petrochemicals and electricity were gaining ground in the late nineteenth century, the newly formed United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled its official seal showing a plow with sheaves of maize depicted on the surface of a shield. Below the shield, an unfurled scroll bears the claim: AGRICULTURE IS THE FOUNDATION OF MANUFACTURE AND COMMERCE.
As the 20th century evolved, petrochemicals and their associated technologies displaced agriculture as the economy’s foundation, but the 21st century may see a return of agriculture’s primacy. The vision is of a transformed and transformative agriculture, however, where both input (i.e., feedstock and feedstock processing) and output are tailor-made for particular industrial uses. Commodity crops may no longer be identified in the traditional way; in the future, they’ll be engineered, proprietary products custom-designed to meet the needs of industrial biomass processors – whether for food, energy, materials or pharmaceuticals.