Biodiesel benefits 'global food system' as GHG profile improves

By Ron Kotrba | February 01, 2017

The food and livestock industries have railed against biofuels for years, based on the argument that corn ethanol and soy biodiesel raise food prices. More recently, some have suggested that soy biodiesel emits more greenhouse gases than petroleum diesel, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. These two topics were of central discussion during a recent session at the National Biodiesel Conference & Expo in San Diego Jan. 16-19.

“Protein is more expensive than carbohydrates or fats,” said Don Scott, the director of sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board. “So to decrease food prices, one could argue that the way to do this is to increase protein supply.”

Protein supply increases when crops such as soybeans, which are rich in protein compared to their fat and carbohydrate content, are crushed for animal feed. The more protein meal available for animal feed, the cheaper the feed becomes and the cost savings goes down the line to the livestock producers and, theoretically, to the consumer. “To produce the required protein we need, we over-produce carbs and fats,” Scott said. “We can’t possibly eat all the fats and carbs in ratio to the protein we produce.”

Scott cited a study by Informa Economics that demonstrates by creating a market for excess soybean oil, biodiesel helps lower the cost of soy protein meal prices by $20 to $40 a ton. “If we’re growing corn and soy for protein, we have no choice but to find industrial uses for the excess fats and carbs,” he said. As global population increases and affluence spreads, the need for protein and the desire for meat will result in growing supply of biodiesel feedstock such as soybean oil and animal fats, Scott said.

Stephen Kaffka, an agronomist at University of California-Davis, said anywhere agriculture productivity increases, people want bioenergy. “Future expansion will be in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America,” Kaffka said, “as bioenergy improves food systems.”

Kaffka brought the audience’s attention to news articles and reports that surfaced over the years as food prices rose—a market phenomenon coinciding with biofuels expansion—headlines from which indicated the “global food system” must be broken. “Is there a ‘food system?’” Kaffka asked. There is, sort of, Kaffka conceded, but as he poignantly suggested, this system is highly decentralized and certainly spontaneous.  And it is very manipulatable. “It is not of human design, but of action—societal and economic interactions,” he said. “These reports are critical of a system that doesn’t exist.”

If one focuses on the big picture and isn’t entrenched in anomalies of price spikes that occur for various reasons, what one sees is an historic long-term decline in food prices, even as population rises—without a centralized design, Kaffka said. The results, he added, are phenomenal: lower prices and higher productivity. “It’s a stunning increase in productivity,” Kaffka said, demonstrating this with data showing an eight-fold growth in corn yields and a four-fold uptick in soybean yields per acre since the early 1900s.  

Kaffka pointed to the wealth built in the U.S. Midwest over the past 10 years in terms of land values, net worth and profit, which farmers have reinvested into machinery, crop storage and other assets. “It’s a virtuous cycle to increase productivity and wealth,” he said. “U.S. agriculture has always been in the position of chronic surplus. And it’s still in that position of chronic surplus, even with biofuels.” Kaffka said sustainable intensification is decreasing inputs and increasing outputs. “Under these scenarios, it’s hard to argue biofuels are bad.”

While the world still faces real problems in food, farming and nutrition such as regional scarcity and shortages from natural, economic and societal forces, Kaffka said as an agronomist he believes significant improvements will continue globally—and biodiesel expansion will be a strong means to this end.

Rui Chen, a scientist with Argonne National Laboratory, provided an update on preliminary results from a recent revisiting of soy biodiesel’s lifecycle analysis by reanalyzing fossil energy use in production and well-to-wheel greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. He noted a 20 percent yield increase in soybean farming from 2012-’15, from 40 to 48 bushels per acre, and also noted that energy use increased from 2006-’12. Despite an increase in energy usage, Chen said intensification has helped lower GHG emissions.

“For fossil fuel consumption, there was a slight increase in farming but a decrease in biodiesel production,” he said. Chen said the biodiesel portion of the analysis was, in part, based on respondents from a survey NBB solicited in 2016. While 64 surveys were sent, only 27 responded.

The preliminary results showed soy biodiesel can reduce well-to-wheel fossil fuel consumption by 72 to 80 percent, depending on whether energy or hybrid allocations are used, respectively. He said the GHG emissions profile from the lifecycle analysis showed a slight improvement from previous findings. Soy biodiesel can reduce well-to-wheel GHG emissions from 51 to 65 percent, depending on the model used, including calculated impacts from the controversial theory of indirect land use change.

“We would expect reality to be better than the numbers showed,” Chen said, “considering only 27 of 64 responded to the survey.”

Biodiesel Magazine will cover this new lifecycle analysis of soy biodiesel in further depth once Argonne National Laboratory publishes its official results from this study.

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