With the US drought, food vs fuel has returned as an issue. What alternatives are scientists, entrepreneurs developing to take us beyond the old debate?
In the past week we published a report that the chairman of Nestle, Peter Brabeck-Lemathe, has called anew for a ban on making biofuels from feedstocks that can also be used in food production.
The backdrop for Brabeck’s comments is the US drought, which is causing sharp falls in corn yields.
Now, there are bound to be those who shrink from taking direction on how best to feed the world from the makers of Chocapic breakfast cereal, Wonka bars and Hot Pockets – who will regard the Nestle message as self-serving and transparently aimed at shifting product margins.
But many others agree that food producers should have the first (or only) call on these feedstock – a popular meme this week on Twitter has been “why should people go hungry so rich men can have fuel for their cars?”
It’s an intuitive concern for most Westerners, who are highly urbanized, and exposed to agriculture via the grocery store. They experience the impact of rising prices in terms of their costs, not their returns on investment.
Not so, for the least developed countries. There, the most exposed portion of the global population, in terms of nutrition and all the ills of extreme poverty, tend to be subsistence farmers who are driven into misery not by low US crop yields, but low commodity prices.
What has driven many of them off the land, and into the cities where they are badly exposed to US grain cycles, is the poor returns from subsistence farming that low producer prices bring, by making technology improvements difficult if not impossible to make cost effective.
As a result – we are usually at an impasse. Agriculture pointing to the benefits of rising prices for key feedstocks, consumers pointing to the pitfalls. Hence, the food vs fuel debate.
And so the debaters debate, and debate, and debate. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs and scientists are giving us something even more precious than resolution of that debate. Which is to say, options and alternatives.
Today, we look at 6 technologies and strategies that address food vs fuel, and offer alternatives.
1. Feedstock diversification
In biofuels, it is more talked about – the push beyond corn starch and cane sugars into corn stover, sugarcane bagasse, woods and forestry residues, animal wastes, algae, municipal solid waste, and energy grasses as well as new inedible oilseed crops such as jatropha, carinata and camelina.
But there are opportunities for food manufacturers as well.
Take for instance Solazyme Roquette Nutritional’s whole algalin flour. According to the makers, it provides “an outstanding solution for improving nutritional profiles in many applications, such as bakery, beverages and frozen desserts. Acting as a whole food ingredient, Whole Algalin Flour is very low in saturated fat, is trans-fat free, cholesterol free, and considerably reduces calories, as well as provides fiber and protein, while providing the same overall mouthfeel and consistency as a full fat food.”
Much of the underlying problem of food vs fuel is that multiple sectors have fallen in love with the same feedstock – frankly, that’s Nestle’s problem, and the problem of many biofuels producers. If the US is addicted to oil, many producers are addicted to corn or cane, and both sides benefit from diversifying where possible.
2. Increasing yield per ton
There are low-yield biofuels technologies – and high-yield, in terms of productivity per ton of biomass. At the high end, consider for example Coskata’s 105 gallons per ton, and ZeaChems 135 gallon per ton yields. Compared to a technology that yields, for example, 60 gallons per ton (and they are out there), that can reduce feedstock requirements by half.
But there is more than just picking the right technology. Great technologies are those that optimize their yields. For example, the US ethanol industry used to have yields in the 2.5-2.7 gallons per bushel range. Today, 2.9 gallons per bushel is state of the art at many facilities, and POET has found ways to increase that to 3.0 gallons in some cases.
Continuous improvement is what has analysts excited over KiOR, too – when first deployed at demonstration scale, the technology was yielding in the mid-60 gallons per ton, based on Southern Yellow Pine. But the company expects to reach 92 gallons per ton by mid-decade – nearly a 40 percent improvement.
3. Reducing water intensity
When drought comes, water is more precious than ever. That’s why it wasbig news this week when Syngenta announced that it has signed trial agreements with Golden Grain Energy (GGE) of Iowa and Siouxland Ethanol of Nebraska to demonstrate the value of Enogen grain. Both ethanol plants will complete a three-month trial with the specialized corn grain bio-engineered to allow ethanol production to be more efficient, cost effective and better for the environment.
Golden Grain Energy and Siouxland Ethanol will begin their trials in the spring of 2013 with Enogen grain harvested from acres planted this past growing season. Following the trial, each plant will analyze data to discover the efficiencies created from Enogen trait technology. Pending trial results, each plant will then enter into negotiations with Syngenta to sign a commercial agreement.
As we wrote last year in profiling the technology:
“So, you get around a 10 percent lift in total capacity (from the speed-up), plus energy, water and carbon savings.
For example, in a 100-million gallon plant, efficiency improvements enabled by Enogen grain can save 450,000 gallons of water, 1.3 million KWh of electricity and 244 billion BTUs of natural gas, and carbon dioxide emissions by 106 million pounds.
That works out to around 8-10 cents per gallon in savings – that can be shared by the grower, the plant, or the customer.
4. Supertraits and super yields
As we pointed out in 7 paths of the New Agriculture:
If new crops are unavailable, and residues exhausted, why not try to get more productivity out of the overall plant. In the old agriculture, there was double-cross hybridization to put more vigor into a plant, and there have been additional inputs such as added nitrogen, to assist with the growing cycle.
But in the new agriculture, there are traits that confer drought-tolerance, heat-tolerance, pest- or pesticide-tolerance.
Just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture deregulated MON 87460, Monsanto’s first-generation drought-tolerant trait for corn. Drought-tolerant corn is projected to be introduced as part of an overall system that would offer farmers improved genetics, agronomic practices and the drought trait. Monsanto plans to conduct on-farm trials in 2012 to give farmers experience with the product, while generating data to help inform the company’s commercial decisions. The drought-tolerant trait is part of Monsanto’s Yield and Stress collaboration in plant biotechnology with Germany-based BASF.
In specific bioenergy crops, companies such as Ceres (switchgrass, energy cane in the Blade energy crop family) and Mendel Biotechnologies (miscanthus) have been garnering the most attention as they bring new traits forward for the new integrated biorefineries utilizing energy crops.
5. Utilizing Waste Lands
If all the above strategies are already used, or unavailable, why not bring lands into production that have previously be un-productive. This is closely related to the “super traits” pathway – in fact, many of the same companies, such as Ceres, are hard at work on traits such as salt-tolerance that will open up lands with previously unsuitable soils or water sources. But there are also companies such as SG Biofuels, working on developing non-food, extremophile crops like jatropha that can better handle poor soils and low rainfall, through its JMAX portfolio.
And, there’s microalgae from the likes of Sapphire Energy and solar fuels from the likes of Joule Unlimited. Yields in the 3,000 to 15,000 gallons per acre range – compared to around 400 this year for US corn ethanol yields (or closer to 500 in a normal rain season).
As we profiled in Natural Gas and electrofuels: one-stop shopping for energy independence:
Electrofuels use microoganisms — typically bacteria — to directly utilize energy from electricity and do not need solar energy to grow or produce biofuels. ARPA-E’s Electrofuels program is seeking to take advantage of those properties to create processes that are up to 10 times more energy efficient than current biofuel production methods. Back in 2010, they funded 13 projects that will attempt to bring a feasible technology forward to achieve those productivity levels.
The gallons per acre range – the numbers could be truly astronomical given that these can be produced them in three-dimensions to achieve efficiencies of acreage. Given that they utilize electricity rather than photosynthesis, production units can be stacked. The limiting factors are in the costs of engineering and constructing stacks, not in available light per acre.
6. Improving results from photosynthesis
One of the more exciting entries in recent years is the recent class of technologies funded in the ARPA-E PETRO project.
PETRO aims to create plants that capture more energy from sunlight and convert that energy directly into fuels. ARPA-E seeks to fund technologies that optimize the biochemical processes of energy capture and conversion to develop robust, farm-ready crops that deliver more energy per acre with less processing prior to the pump. If successful, PETRO will create biofuels for half their current cost, finally making them cost-competitive with fuels from oil. Up to $30 million will be made available for this program area.
The bottom line
Food vs fuel, for most, comes and goes with price cycles. We see it as a transitory debate, usually focused on a handful of feedstocks that producers of food or fuel have become overly dependent on. We see it in oil, too. To us, diversity is the solution – and diversification the strategy, and scientists and entrepreneurs must ultimately solve the debate by ending the need for it.