Biodiesel Does Not Compete with Food
Half of the biodiesel produced in the US is made from soybean oil. The other half is produced substantially from animal fats, used cooking oil, and other recycled or waste oils.
It is easy to see how using wastes and byproducts to make biodiesel is a good thing, but some people have trouble understanding that using soybean oil works the exact same way. Biodiesel uses excess oil that we don’t use in our food supply. In doing so, biodiesel improves the economics of providing a healthy mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fat that we do use in our food supply.
Let’s start with soybean basics. Soybeans are the most efficient crop for producing protein. Protein demand drives the planting of soybeans. Soybeans are crushed to separate the protein meal from the oil. Every soybean is approximately 20% oil and 80% protein meal. Protein meal is fed to livestock and consists of approximately 50% pure protein while also containing significant amount of carbohydrate energy and dietary fiber. From this meal, livestock receive a balance of required nutrients. This diet may be supplemented with some fat. However, the soybean oil produced with every bean is far in excess of the fat that is fed to livestock.
Approximately 70% of the soybean oil produced in the US (not counting the oil exported in whole beans) is used in livestock feed or various forms of food including frying oil, baked goods, salad dressing, and that gooey stuff inside Twinkies. Even with all these uses, we simply cannot consume all of the soybean oil that is co-produced with soy protein meal.
This goes back to an earlier post in which I described nature’s blueprint for storing solar energy in plant seeds. Domestication of food crops optimized total yield, while natural selection gave us a head start by designing plant seeds that store excess solar energy in seeds as an insurance policy for survival of the species. This excess energy is evident when we grow protein to feed the world. If we grow more protein, we get even more excess energy in the form of soybean oil.
Biodiesel is not made from whole soybeans. There is no biofuel which is produced from protein. Biodiesel uses only the oil that is left over after feeding livestock and which is also left over after we consume soybean oil through direct human consumption. Without biodiesel, this excess oil would languish on the market. Without biodiesel producers paying for the cost of producing this oil, the consumers of protein would have to pay more. In this way, biodiesel reduces the cost of the protein, carbohydrates, and fiber that go into our food supply.
Biodiesel cannot increase food prices no matter how large the demand for biodiesel becomes. It is not economically feasible to grow soybeans just for their oil. Hypothetically, if we grew more soybeans for biodiesel, we would oversupply the protein market, which would cause a drop in protein (and soy carbohydrate) prices. Because soybeans produce protein meal in a 4-to-1 ratio with oil, protein meal prices would drop four times faster than any hypothetical increase in oil prices.
In addition to supplying our domestic needs for livestock feed, vegetable oil for food uses, and biodiesel; nearly half of US produced soybeans are exported to foreign markets as whole beans. Just as nature designed seeds to store solar energy, nature also designed seeds to be easily stored and transported. This favors exportation of whole beans over processed soy products. Foreign importers also prefer to crush beans in their own facilities for the value-added economic benefits. In short, foreign importers of US soy products find the best value proposition in buying whole beans. They make more money buying US beans and crushing them than they stand to make importing only oil or meal. International trade of whole soybeans satisfies international demand for protein and oil, but it also leaves processed soybean oil stranded in the domestic market. This is another reason why it makes sense to use our excess soybean oil for biodiesel.
Nature has done us another favor when it comes to soybeans. The high protein yield of soybeans is in direct correlation with their ability to capture nitrogen from the atmosphere. While all plants capture carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen from the atmosphere, the ability to fix their own nitrogen is a trait unique to legume plants, like soybeans. Biodiesel is a powerful tool for mitigating climate change, because plants take carbon out of the atmosphere instead of extracting carbon from fossil fuels. The carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen elements that make up biodiesel are the same elements that plants harvest from the air. This cycle is what makes biodiesel totally renewable. None of the nutrients from the soil end up in vegetable oil or biodiesel. Nutrients, like nitrogen end up in our protein food supply. If we can harness plants like soybeans to sustainably meet our food demand, biodiesel is a byproduct with absolutely no downside.
If that bold statement, “absolutely no downside” gives you pause, it’s because most things in this world have a downside. Most things that sound too good to be true, often are too good to be true. That expectation is why the food versus fuel myth has stuck. If you didn’t know that every gallon of biodiesel was coproduced with 30 pounds of protein and 22 pounds of carbs and fiber, you might be inclined to believe the myth that biodiesel competes with food. In reality, the only downside to biodiesel is that powerful forces want to stand in the way of change. They want to keep you addicted to petroleum and extinguish hope that any viable alternatives exists. Now you know that nature does not make us choose between food and sustainable fuel. Nature provides both.
Don Scott serves as the Director of Sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board.