By Don Scott, director of sustainability, National Biodiesel Board
Special to The Digest
EPA’s recently published Second Triennial Report to Congress on Biofuels and the Environment provides no meaningful conclusion on the net environmental benefits of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). What EPA’s report unfortunately does provide, however, is fodder for political pundits wishing to attack the program through selective quotes and perpetuation of myths.
As EPA acknowledges, the report does not include a comparative assessment of biofuels and the environmental impacts of other transportation fuels, including fossil fuels. Nor does the report address lifecycle GHG benefits that were previously quantified by EPA.
A significant failure of the report is that EPA cannot separate impacts due to the RFS or biofuels from the impacts of other policy and market drivers. Those other drivers are stronger than the RFS, so it is inappropriate to report causality only to the RFS.
EPA also fails to recognize real trends in agriculture that have the opposite impact on conservation and biodiversity. For instance, the real trend in agricultural land use is that farmers are doing more with less, producing more food on fewer acres.
In 2015, USDA determined that the total area of managed farmland in the US had declined by 23 million acres compared to 2007. This parallels global trends where farmers worldwide were managing 60 million less acres in 2011 compared to 2004. During the same period, 19 million acres of previously unforested land returned or were converted to forests. Farmers are farming less land. This means more land is available for wildlife habitat if conservation policies are in place to recognize this opportunity.
EPA fails to recognize this net decrease in agricultural land. Instead, EPA focuses only on the increase in acres of cropland. These trends are related, but not necessarily due to biofuels. Farmers are optimizing their production to produce more protein per acre. Protein is the limiting factor in our food supply. While we have developed biofuels to utilize the excess fats and carbohydrate byproducts of protein production, all of the protein that farmers produce goes into the food supply. Crops produce more protein per acre than grass. Therefore, some farmers have switched from grazing pasture and forage crops to high protein crops like soy and corn where they can.
Also, the trend away from eating beef toward eating more poultry means that farmers must change the way they grow livestock feed. Chickens don’t eat grass. They lack the complex digestive system of cows and other ruminant animals that can digest fibrous, insoluble carbohydrates in grass. The demand for protein and switch in consumer preference toward increasing consumption of poultry are major contributing factors toward increased acreage of corn and soy.
This trend is also reinforced by investments in seed and equipment technology that make planting these efficient crops more economical in wider climactic zones. The ability to insure these well-understood crops; streamlined logistics for storage and distribution; and fluid commodity markets are other factors that increase the business case for planting crops.
Congress has also de-funded conservation programs. The number of acres mandatorily disenrolled from the Conservation Reserve Program exceeds any increase in acres needed to satisfy RFS volumes.
Without considering these factors, which are far more influential than biofuels markets, EPA cannot correctly summarize the true trends in agricultural production. A true assessment of land use trends would recognize the confluence of factors that are resulting in farmers increasing yield on a shrinking footprint of land. This optimization creates net benefits for conservation, biodiversity and water quality.
There is always room for improvement. These impacts must be measured against the benefit to society of increasing protein production to meet growing population needs as well as improvement of nutritional quality and standards of living. When measured on a per-unit-of-food basis, one will find that modern agriculture has significant environmental benefits over past practices. With this realization, we can appreciate biofuels as a bonus benefit. When farmers grow protein to feed the world, they harvest more fats and carbohydrates than we can eat. These fats and carbs contain carbon-neutral solar energy. We will reap economic and environmental benefits when we use the solar energy in biofuels to supplement the fossil fuels needed to drive our economy.