Kevin Lucke and Mac Marshall
Food and fuel
January 11, 2024 | Jeff Hutton
The argument that agriculture is a food vs. fuel proposition is antiquated. Rather, it’s about how agriculture, energy and food security can co-exist — feeding and fueling the world simultaneously.
That was at the heart of a recent discussion in Des Moines during the Borlaug Dialogue.
The discussion “Food and Fuel: Where Agriculture, Energy and Food Security Intersect,” showcased the conversation, which is of particular interest to farmers, policymakers, agribusinesses and consumers.
Innovation and technology
Kevin Lucke, president of the Chevron Renewable Energy Group and a southwest Iowa farmer, says there should be no division between food and fuel.
“If I look back, it used to be a food vs. fuel discussion,” he says. “But with the ethanol business and biodiesel business … those 20 years of technology has changed a lot.”
He noted that today’s biodiesel and renewable diesel products rely on various sources of feedstocks, including used cooking oil, distillers’ grain oil, animal fat, and soybean and canola oils.
“Technology has changed a lot to using different sources of raw materials to make fuel,” Lucke says. “Many of those are actually byproducts of the agriculture industry.”
Jennifer Ozimkiewicz, senior vice president and head of global corn and soybean crop strategy for Bayer Crop Science, says innovation has been key in serving both food and fuel needs.
“We’re really dedicated to ensuring farmers can meet the needs of food, fuel and fiber for the world and largely it is through innovation and technology,” she says.
Ozimkiewicz says productivity is key, including investments in products and platforms that help farmers improve the productivity and profitability of their farm while helping reduce the environmental impact.
“That’s important as they protect their soils and want to sustain their land and reduce emissions on their farms,” she says.
While demand for biofuels is increasing, Ozimkiewicz says it’s important that producers continue to grow enough to feed a growing planet.
“When we think about agriculture, we certainly believe that it’s capable of delivering on both,” she says, adding that new technologies and adaptations to agronomic practices will help in making that happen.
The power of soybeans
Mac Marshall, vice president of market intelligence for the United Soybean Board, says soybean producers, in partnership with researchers, agronomists and business, all have a role to play in feeding and fueling the world.
“First and foremost, this ecosystem of innovation that we have — whether it’s companies bringing agricultural solutions to the farm or farmers implementing their agronomic knowhow and continuous improvement — that’s why we’re able to continue to produce more,” he says.
Marshall says everyone needs to look at the issue as not an intersection of food and fuel, but rather a co-existence. Soybeans, he insists, is perfectly suited for that effort.
Consider soybean processing, he says. When processors crush a soybean, they get 80% meal, which goes into producing animal protein and provides essential amino acids. The remaining 20% is oil — fats and lipids — that are used in traditional food spaces and for energy.
“It’s one of those intrinsic fundamental qualities of soybeans that you’re producing both for food and for fuel,” he says.
Everyone in the supply chain and agriculture has to solve for both food and energy solutions concurrently.
“With U.S. soy, we’re doing that starting with the work on the farm,” Marshall says.
From a soy checkoff standpoint, renewable diesel and biofuels have created new market drivers that were predicated on investments and activities decades ago.
“Once upon a time, soybean oil was an afterthought,” Marshall says. “Farmers got together and said we need to make a market for this. Now we’ve gone from being a non-commercial market to a commercial market and we have advanced policies that are geared toward helping decarbonize the economy.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Greg Jaffe says the marriage of food and fuel is imperative.
“We support the co-existence of both food and fuel using agriculture and farmers to produce both types of products,” he says. “It creates revenue streams for agricultural producers and ensures that wealth and other economic benefits such as jobs stay in rural communities.”
Jaffe, who serves as a senior advisor to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, says balancing the production of food and fuel is helping address environmental challenges and climate change.
He points to the past several years of feedstocks that have produced billions of gallons of ethanol and biodiesel without a demonstrable increase in agricultural acres or a reduction in food production.
Jaffe says Vilsack and the USDA wants to have a “circular agriculture” and food economy with many different income opportunities for farmers and a sustainable production system.
Lucke says the challenges ahead are daunting but not insurmountable.
“Feeding the world is very complex, fueling the world is very complex, and reducing greenhouse gases is very complex,” he says. “But you can’t solve any of those three challenges without collaboration. It’s going to take teamwork and it’s going to take innovation.”