Spotlight on Economics: Low-carbon corn

Farm Forum

During the Bio Industry Summit held May 21 on the main campus of NDSU, Beth Calabotta of Monsanto provided an overview of challenges associated with supplying a growing and ever- wealthier global population with the food, fuel and other products it demands.

One point brought up by Calabotta is that increased agricultural productivity typically reduces the environmental footprint of a crop on a per-unit basis. Corn is a good example. New technology and improved practices have resulted in average U.S. corn yields rising from 20 bushels per acre in 1930 to more than 150 bushels per acre today, which has outpaced the corresponding increased use of energy and resulting emissions.

As North Dakota’s bioenergy and bioproducts economist, I spend a lot of time researching the environmental sustainability of products and how they relate to economic profits. The primary tool I use for this is a life cycle assessment (LCA), which is a standardized method to model systems and measure the amount of energy used and greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted. The modeling is very detailed and often provides insights that are not readily apparent.

For example, it’s obvious that today’s corn farmers use energy to power equipment. What might not be obvious is the energy embodied in nitrogen fertilizer or a 560-horsepower tractor. These and many other inputs usually are considered as part of an LCA.

The impacts of biotechnology on agriculture productivity and energy use have been especially significant beginning with the introduction of double-crossed hybrids in the 1930s and continuing to the genetic engineering of today. I’m currently working to shepherd a few new biofuels through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approval process that requires quantifying their environmental footprint.

The EPA asks for expected annual yield increases for each biofuel feedstock. The agency is interested in the energy and resulting GHG emissions from producing a gallon of biofuel. As crop yields increase, holding other things constant, the energy used and GHG emitted per gallon of biofuel decrease. This change may support these fuels to qualify as renewable or advanced biofuels.

Of course, there is more to agricultural biotechnology than increasing yields. New traits might eliminate the use of a current pesticide, which takes energy to produce and apply. At the same time, commercialized nitrogen use efficiency technology might significantly reduce fertilizer applications.

Although the issue of energy efficiency may not be at the top of all farmers’ minds, the issue is important. In addition to new fuels qualifying as renewable or advanced biofuels with the EPA, biofuel refiners who market their fuels into areas with low carbon fuel standards, such as California and British Columbia, may capitalize on their products’ smaller environmental footprint.