At Kean, conference details ways to convert waste products into sustainable energy to spur environmental justice

Farmers from Midwest, South discuss potential efforts of biodiesel as clean energy source — and its potential impact on society

A gathering of soybean farmers, biofuel industry experts and environmental justice advocates may seem like an unlikely group, but their potential collaboration could have an unexpectedly large impact.

That was a takeaway when Clean Fuels Alliance America and Groundwork Elizabeth recently cohosted a conference of this makeup at Kean University’s Union campus.

The event was part of a three-day trip to the New York metropolitan area by 35 farmers from 10 Midwestern and Southern states to learn about biodiesel advancements that can convert waste products from soy crops into fuel for everything from cars to airplanes.

Such an effort not only could create a sustainable energy solution, but impact the environment in many ways.

Daniela Shebitz, the chair of the Department of Environmental and Sustainability Sciences at Kean, said there is an inextricable link between food, health and the environment.

“The farmers at this event are taking an essential sustainability step by using the waste products of soy crops and turning them into biofuels,” Shebitz said. “Biofuels offer a lower emission option than fossil fuels and can help protect our health by limiting the amount of pollution in our air.”

In his opening remarks, Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage said urban areas like Elizabeth are leading the way on environmental justice with initiatives to combat pollution.

“The city appreciates the farmers from the Midwest who chose to visit Elizabeth and learn about some of our urban works of sustainability,” Bollwage said. “The planting of trees, microforests and vegetable beds — even planting milkweed to stimulate monarch butterflies — is taking place at many of our schools, and our students are being taught about the importance of having a healthy environment.”

Kean students attending the event took part in a sustainability group discussion with the farmers. Topics ranged from the environmental impact of growing crops for biodiesel to the consequences of relying on genetically modified organisms, such as corn and soy, as well as the future prospects of careers in agriculture.

Lauren King, a Kean senior from East Brunswick, said she appreciated hearing from people on all sides of the issue.

“As an environmental biology student, it was enlightening to meet such a diverse group of people with different perspectives on environmental justice and sustainable farming,” she said.

Tom Verry, director of outreach and development at Clean Fuels Alliance America, said the conversations were helpful.

“Our farmers had the opportunity to collaborate with Kean students on the urban-rural divide and how sustainability can connect the two, and they enjoyed the discussion very much,” Verry said. “I don’t think they get these types of questions very often, especially directly. It was a great opportunity for our farmers to hear from their customers regarding their sustainability concerns. I was very impressed with Kean’s students.”

DESS has a longstanding relationship with Groundwork Elizabeth and has invited members of the Clean Fuels Alliance to speak to environmental science classes. Kean students also are growing and experimenting with soy in the university’s hydroponic greenhouse as a means to better understand the importance of biodiesel and other products that come from soybeans.

Jonathan Phillips, executive director of Groundwork Elizabeth, participated in a panel discussion at the conference with farmers from the United Soybean Board.

“Groundwork Elizabeth’s goal is to build a more sustainable and equitable community here in Elizabeth and in surrounding urban communities. We are looking for practical solutions to improve air quality for our residents,” Phillips said. “Advocating for replacing diesel products with biofuels and renewable diesel offers our community a chance to benefit immediately as even more clean technologies, like electric-propelled engines, become more available.”

The farmers invited Kean’s students to their annual conference in Kansas City in April and encouraged them to apply for the Beth Calabotta Sustainability Education Grant, which aims to support student scientists dedicated to sustainable research. In addition, Shebitz said DESS, Clean Fuels Alliance and Groundwork Elizabeth are discussing partnering on future sustainability grants.