Biodiesel Complements the Food Supply

Posted on February 28th, 2017

How Biodiesel Decreases the Cost of Healthy Food

When we grow protein to feed the world, we get more fat than we can eat.

Biodiesel is made from used cooking oil, animal fats, and a growing diversity of waste greases and vegetable oils, like soybean oil. The US has a large supply of these excess fats and oils as a byproduct of food production. Using these excess fats and oils reduces the cost of protein for the food supply.

The food we eat should provide 30% of our calories from protein, 50% of our calories from carbohydrates, and 20% of our calories from fat.

Dietary Requirements Pie Chart

Protein is the most expensive part of our diet and protein is the macronutrient in which most people are deficient in ratio to the fat and carbs consumed. Americans are likely to spend $1-3 for 1000 Calories of protein from the grocery store, while spending only $0.15-0.50 for 1000 Calories of carbohydrates or fat. The key to lowering the cost of a healthy food supply is to lower the high cost of protein.

Protein in our food supply begins with plants. Plant protein can be consumed directly or fed to livestock.

Plants store solar energy in fats and carbohydrates. Seeds contain dense amounts of stored solar energy to help seeds grow into new plants. Every plant species is different, but all plants contain a much larger ratio of fats and carbohydrates relative to the protein needed for human or animal consumption.

To collect enough protein for the food supply, we end up harvesting more fats and carbohydrates than we can eat.

Soybeans produce more protein per acre than any other food source. They are unique not only for their dense production of protein, but also for their ability as a legume to capture nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it in the soil for plant nutrition. Nitrogen is key to building protein. If a crop cannot fix its own nitrogen, nitrogen fertilizer must be added in proportion to the protein harvested. Soybeans require relatively little nitrogen fertilizer.

Soybean Contents Pie Chart

Protein demand drives crop production. About half of US produced soybeans are exported to other countries as whole beans. Domestically, soybeans are crushed to separate the protein meal from the oil. The protein meal is fed to livestock. Some of the oil goes into food like salad dressing and deep fried foods. The leftover oil stranded in the US market has no use without biodiesel. Importers do not want US-produced oil, because they make more money importing whole beans and crushing them.

When oil is oversupplied, the price falls. When the price falls below the cost of production, then consumers of the protein must carry that burden and pay more for protein, or else valuable protein production falls.

Soybean PlantThe US grew nearly 50 billion pounds of soybean oil in 2016.i About five billion pounds of oil are used for biodiesel.ii By creating market value for this unwanted oil, biodiesel reduces the price of protein by $20-$40 per ton.iii

The US soybean crop produced 167 billion pounds of protein meal in 2016.iv,v Biodiesel helped reduce the cost of protein consumed in the US by $837 million and could reduce protein costs by as much as $1.6 billion annually if stronger demand for biodiesel is encouraged.

As the world population grows, more protein must be produced to meet growing food demand. As affluence and standards of living increase around the globe, we can expect people to eat more protein than in the past. We cannot grow protein without also growing fats and carbohydrates. These trends in rising demand for protein will result in rising surpluses of fats and oils. We must make responsible use of these fat surpluses to optimize the economics of healthy food production.

For every gallon of biodiesel produced from soybean oil, 30 pounds of protein and 22 pounds of carbohydrates and dietary fiber are added to the food supply.

Fats and oils are nature’s most elegant way of storing energy. Plants like soybeans provide a bounty of stored solar energy as a byproduct of food production. It makes sense to use this liquid solar energy to displace fossil fuel. Because plants are capturing solar energy, for every unit of fossil energy used to convert and transporting biodiesel, 5.5 units of renewable energy are produced. Using this renewable solar energy to displace petroleum reduces greenhouse gas emission by 80% compared to petroleum dieselvi and supports 64,000 US jobs and $11.4 billion in economic impact.vii

For a more detailed presentation about biodiesel’s positive impacts on the food supply and agricultural production, watch the following video:

Don Scott serves as the Director of Sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board. He can be reached at dscott@biodiesel.org.


i United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service
ii U.S. Energy Information Administration
iii Impact of the U.S. Biodiesel Industry on the U.S. Soybean Complex; Informa Economics; Dec. 2012
iv Protein meal refers to livestock rations consisting of the protein, soluble carbohydrates, and fiber in soybeans.
v United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service
vi Pradhan, Shrestha, Van Gerpen, McAloon, Yee, Haas, Duffield; Reassessment of Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Soybean Biodiesel; American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers; 2012 | ResearchGate
vii The Economic Impact of the Biodiesel Industry on the U.S. Economy; LMC International; June 2016

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