Biodiesel – Creating a Sustainable Future for Food

Posted on August 26th, 2019

Headshot of Don ScottA recent editorial, “We have no idea how to feed the world…,” highlights the challenges of feeding a growing population that is more prosperous than ever, creating demand for more protein. However, the piece incorrectly finds fault with farmers and biofuels, the very industries in the forefront of feeding the world and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

It’s been projected that the world’s population will reach close to 10 billion by the year 2050. With issues including food waste and food scarcity, it is no wonder that consumers are nervous about the world’s food supply in the coming years. Working in an industry created to reduce waste, I think about it too.

As global population and protein demand are rising, farmers are producing more food on fewer acres due to a combination of modern trends – including planting more efficient crops, such as soybeans, which produce more protein per acre than any other crop.

While the bioeconomy of the future may create new opportunities for renewable products of all kinds; no crops are currently grown solely for biodiesel production. Today’s commercial biodiesel is produced almost exclusively from the byproducts of food production. Specifically, biodiesel is a byproduct of protein production.

Every human being – as well as every animal – requires a diet balanced in calories from protein, carbohydrates, and fat. It so happens that protein is the limiting factor in our food supply. Protein is the macronutrient most lacking in the diets of the undernourished and protein calories are the most expensive for the common consumer.

As farmers produce more food per acre, the economics of food demand also drive them to optimize protein production. This is where soybeans come in as the most efficient way to produce protein. Not only do soybeans produce more protein per acre, but they do so with less inputs and fewer environmental impacts. For example, soy captures its own nitrogen from the air, which means nitrogen fertilizers are not required.

While soy is excellent for satisfying protein demand, soy also happens to produce more fat calories than we can eat. Recalling that our diet requires a balance between calories from protein and fat; the surplus fat from soy is not beneficial to the net, global food supply unless those fat calories are also accompanied by protein in the proper ratio. Producing additional protein from plants will result in further excess production of fats and vegetable oils.

Photo of Soybean Plant

Plants evolved to store solar energy in seeds to ensure the survival of fledgling plants. However, when we collect those seeds for protein, we inadvertently harvest more fats and vegetable oils than we can consume as food. This creates a virtuous cycle where producing efficient protein for the food supply nets us an overproduction of fat. And what is fat, but nature’s way of storing solar energy?

Through biodiesel, we can turn this carbon-neutral solar energy into valuable fuel that displaces petroleum and keeps fossil carbon in the ground. About half of the biodiesel produced in the US is made from soybean oil. Argonne National Laboratory has quantified that the carbon benefit of using excess soybean oil for biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 72 percent compared to petroleum diesel. The other half of U.S. biodiesel production uses used cooking oil, animal fats, and other waste greases. These are also byproducts of food production with GHG benefits up to 85 percent compared to petroleum. Together, biodiesel use in the U.S. can reduce net emissions by the equivalent of 25 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

The significant carbon benefit of biodiesel is a good reason to promote its use over petroleum fuel. However, the strongest driver for veg oil production is protein demand for the food supply. Thirty pounds of protein and 22 pounds of carbohydrates and dietary fiber enter the food supply with every gallon of biodiesel produced from soybean oil.

Some consumer trends are shifting toward more sustainable forms of food but growing populations and increasing affluence add dual pressures to this ever-changing system. Farmers are increasing food production while decreasing the net area of managed farmland as they respond to consumers’ choice for the food people want to eat. Biofuels will be part of future food production due to the fundamental nature of plants to store excess solar energy in ratio to the protein needed for the food supply.

Don Scott serves as the Director of Sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board. His previous experiences in protecting water resources include eleven years as an Environmental Engineer for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Chief of Surface Water for the Missouri Water Resources Center. He can be reached at dscott@biodiesel.org.

Leave a Reply