Greenhouse gases: the truth about cows and ethanol | The Spokesman Speaks Podcast, Episode 15
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Narrator: Since 1934, Iowa's farmers have turned to the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman as their trusted news source. Now, The Spokesmen Speaks. Listen in and hear from leading experts on topics important to farmers and agriculture. Now here's your host, Laurie Johns.
Laurie Johns: Welcome to The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. This is our June 17th edition. Thanks for tuning in. Hey, it's summer and you can still purchase E15! That's some welcome news, right? That's because late last month the Trump Administration announced the approval of year-round access to E15 that's lifting a prior summertime ban, which is great news for drivers and farmers, and as you'll hear from our first guest, it's great news for the environment as well. Dr. Jan Lewandrowski is a senior economist for the USDA's office of the chief economist. That's the group that advises the U.S. Secretary of Ag on the economic implications of policies and programs that affect U.S. ag and rural areas. Well, he recently led a study on the greenhouse gas emissions of corn-based ethanol and Spokesmen Editor Dirck Steimel gave him a call to discuss what he found. Let's listen in.
Dirck Steimel: Jan you recently led a USDA study about greenhouse gas emissions from corn-based ethanol. What were the key findings of that study?
Dr. Jan Lewandrowski: Well, I guess there are a number of them that stand out. I think the first major finding that we highlight is that what we did is we kind of recreated the structure that the study the EPA used for its regulatory impact assessment of the renewable fuel standard when it was revised in 2010. And in that study, EPA looked at emissions from 11 different source categories that are essentially covered the gambit of what activities go into making corn ethanol. And they did other biofuels as well. At the end of the day, EPA concluded that using corn ethanol in place of gasoline resulted in a 21% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. We commented on that study. We tried to get EPA to consider some different assumptions. We were unsuccessful at the time, but there was nothing you could really do. I mean, it was one forecast and nothing had happened. It was 2010. Looking forward to 2022. Then a couple of years ago we realized, you know, we actually have data now to look at what the heck has happened to these emissions in these categories and see if the projections which were made by EPA back in 2010 were holding up or whether they maybe should be revised. And our reassessment found a couple areas, particularly international land use change, where the emissions, the evidence that's been developed since 2010 evidence just was at the initial or the 2010 projections that EPA made were very high. And so when we put all of these are versions of 11 of those 11 categories of the emissions associated with them, we came up with a greenhouse gas benefit corn ethanol of either 39 or somewhere up to 43 or 44%, depending the 39% was for an average, you know, a unit of ethanol taken out of the general U.S. ethanol tank. And the 43 - 44% was just focusing on the natural gas fired from refineries, which is what EPA focused on, or the one they used in their analysis. So 39% on average, 44% for a huge chunk of refineries because the large majority do you use natural gas as a process fuel now. That's a big difference and the reasons it's a big difference is because outside of the RFS there are a lot of markets developing internationally, California or whatnot, where the ability to use ethanol is a greenhouse gas emission strategy are defined in terms of the greenhouse gases. And so if the only number out there is 21%, it probably won't make the cut in very many places, if any. Second, a big kind of result we had is we, we did a couple of projections to 2022 which is the end of when quantities are mandated in the RFS. Some of the changes we considered there are what if refineries contracted with farmers do use greenhouse gas emitting practices such as cover crops, nitrogen management. When we use those, we picked up another like 3 or 4%. And so that pushed to the greenhouse - but these are a way, you can do these today. I mean these are, we had it in a projection, but those particular activities were chosen because they not only can be done today, they are done today by some farmers. So they could be done. If you add those benefits to the, you know 43%, so you have this natural gas fired refinery today could hit like 47%. We then looked at another one was the biofuel. If we use biomass as a process fuel, which a couple of refineries are now doing, we've got the benefits up towards like 76% reduction in greenhouse gases relative to gasoline. So I guess the big picture items are a, the greenhouse gas emissions for corn ethanol on average or just from gas fire plants are much better than it had been - then we'd been using for the last 10 years or almost 10 years. And there are things we can do to make them even better. And then, you know, probably if we look at the industry, the leading ones which are getting admitted into California with their processes, they're doing even better. So, I think what we've done is shown that, you know, corn ethanol does have a place at the greenhouse gas mitigating table and it is an option for either states or companies or what not that want to reduce emissions.
Dirck Steimel: Did the EPA when they did their study, did they believe that farmers were going to take a lot of land and put it into corn production? And that didn't happen?
Dr. Jan Lewandrowski: Well, it did. It did happen. What didn't happen was a lot of new land did not come into farm production. There was an increase in corn acres. It was made up by changes in increases in productivity in large part increases. I mean, we've been increasing corn yields, what, two acres per bushel per year for how many years? And so, you know, that starts adding up when you need them to extend it out to 2022 so, you know, it's another six or something. So much of the change in production came at the intensive margin rather than the extensive margin, which means farmers were using land more intensely, whether they were double cropping, whether they were installing irrigation, whether they're installing drainage, whatever their responses were, they were getting more, you know, they're getting more acres, more production off of the same acres, and there was some increase in crop acres, but relative to the 2010 RIA, yeah, the land use response we think was much different than we thought in 2010. I would, EPA thought, I am not going to put words in their mouth, but, as it was modeled, it turned out very different than the projection.
Dirck Steimel: You also found that ethanol plants are becoming far more efficient. Why is that important from a greenhouse gas perspective, Jan?
Dr. Jan Lewandrowski: Well, for the most part, you're getting more ethanol for less energy. If that energy is generated by fossil fuel, you're getting a reduction in emissions. Also, you're getting more ethanol per bushel of corn and you're getting more corn per acre of cropland. So all of these things are saying you're getting less land use effects, you're getting less fertilizer effects, you're getting less fossil fuel use effects, all to produce a given quantity of ethanol. And if you run that up to, you know, what we're producing now it was about 14.8 billion gallons. That starts to add up.
Dirck Steimel: With recent changes allowing year-round sales of E15, consumers will have the opportunity to use more ethanol. Why is that a good thing for consumers and for the environment?
Dr. Jan Lewandrowski: We're starting to look at that question now. It was not an issue that I addressed in the paper. But just generally speaking I note that from a consumer standpoint, there's the benefit that higher blends of ethanol costs less than gasoline. So that my son, for instance, who drives a flex-fuel Ford 150 is ecstatic that he can get E85 because he can get E85 at the same price of, you know, regular gasoline and driving that truck on premium gasoline would be brutal on his pocketbook. He's, you know, he's not well along in his career yet. From the greenhouse gas perspective, if we, you know, the more ethanol we get in there, the better the greenhouse gas footprint will be for liquid fuels generally. But I mean there are some issues that we have to get into and understand. We have to understand how consumers will view E85 on a larger scale. That's still a question and I mean, I think it's fairly safe. You can say their consumer benefits and costs and there'll be environmental benefits at least in terms of greenhouse gases. But beyond that, I think we have a lot to do to understand how all this is going to shake out.
Laurie Johns: You heard it. Not only is ethanol good for the environment, it's even better than we previously thought. Okay, now what about cattle? By now we've all heard claims that cow farts are a threat to our environment. It's a claim that probably doesn't sit well with most Iowans. That's because according to the most recent Iowa Farm Bureau Food and Farm Index, which is an annual survey we do, it's a scientific survey done every year by the Harris Poll, 99% of Iowa grocery shoppers say their families eat beef. 88% eat it at least weekly. Should we be concerned that our diets are impacting climate change? Is it, oh, make believe hyperbole? Well, what do the numbers say? For the answers, we turned to Dr. Sara Place who is the Senior Director of Sustainable Beef Production Research with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Now, unlike most of the folks you'll hear sounding off on this issue, Dr. Place has actually done the research and she understands the numbers. She earned her PhD in Animal Biology from UC Davis and she spent time at Oklahoma State University as a Sustainable Beef Cattle Systems Professor and Researcher. I recently got the chance to talk with Dr. Place about cattle, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Let's see what she had to say. It's all about meat here today as we're talking to an expert about animals' footprint, the greenhouse gas emissions of cows, cause you know meat is a big deal here in Iowa. Everybody loves their steak. Everybody loves their bacon. So let's just get to the bottom of it, shall we? I am here with an expert, Dr. Sara Place who is the Senior Director of Sustainable Beef Production Research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Doctor, nice to have you join us.
Dr. Sara Place: Thanks for having me.
Laurie Johns: Well you have some interesting information. You've done a lot of research on this so we're just going to get right to it and talk about when people allege the greenhouse gas, the footprint, so to speak of cows saying we need to give up cows because they are ruining the environment. What do you have to say to that?
Dr. Sara Place: Yeah, I think a lot of these discussions come down to greenhouse gas emissions even though that's just part of the environmental impact. But I think you read any of the news articles in this space, that's usually what comes up again and again. So it's always good to you know check our sources and see what the actual emissions are from procedurally beef cattle in the U.S. So, if we look at the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency's Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory that they put out every April, beef cattle emit directly about 2% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That’s close to where we're at actually with landfills, not too far off.
Laurie Johns: Right. 2%. 2%. Where in the world, if they come up with something like 40%, and they're the biggest emitter, you know it's methane, the so-called cow farts. Where in the world is this coming from?
Dr. Sara Place: Yeah. So I think it's super easy to get kind of confused pretty quick and I think that's fair. A lot of people have good intentions and find different statistics out there and don't know what to trust. So oftentimes what happens is global statistics for all of livestock using what we call lifecycle assessment gets conflated with production here in the United States or beef specifically. So for example, what the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has found for global livestock systems is that about 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to livestock production, but that includes all chickens, pigs, cattle of all types and it's a globally relevant statistics. So it definitely doesn't apply here in the United States. So I think what's key there, if we think about how U.S. agriculture in general and specifically beef production compares to the rest of the world, we are a lot more efficient and tend to have a lot lower environmental impacts and that really comes down to all the science and best management practices that our producers have adopted over the last several decades. Right? So those, the research that comes out of land grant universities and companies and then gets actually applied is super key to driving that. So if we think about the big buckets of change, you know, the big ones are genetics, and then I would say animal nutrition and so much that we've learned, gotten more precise at feeding animals, and then just in general all the management in husbandry practices that have helped our producers get more efficient and be better at caring for animals, which tends to, you know, the most, when animals have a higher quality of welfare, they're also more productive. So those things combined really help us stand out to the rest of the world. And I think a great example of that is just thinking about the proportion of beef that we produce in the United States in terms of proportion of global production versus our cattle herd, right? So, we make about 20% of global beef production, but our cattle herd is under 10% of the global cattle herd.
Laurie Johns: That's amazing.
Dr. Sara Place: And you know, so we're the number one beef producer in the world. And for example, Brazil is the number two beef producer in the world, but they have over twice as many cattle as us, right? So that just means more methane, more feed resources required to produce human nourishment. So if you really want to dumb down sustainability and get to the most basic level, the one metric I would say that kind of captures so many of these things is how much beef is produced for live animal in our herd. And so some of those complexities get lost pretty quick. And people again use global statistics to apply the United States, but the correct number for the U.S. for greenhouse gas emissions from beef cattle is 2% and all of livestock directly emits about 4% of U.S. emissions, again, according to the U.S. EPA.
Laurie Johns: Wow. 2% and 4%. That's a heck of a difference compared to, you know, what some of the other folks who are out there to try to combat meat production. And you know, the claim that if they, and again, everybody has a choice and if they want to go Vegan, that's their choice. And you know, farmers grow vegetables too. And I get that. But honestly, if they did go Vegan, would that affect the number? And if so by how much, if everybody did?
Dr. Sara Place: Yeah. And so I think that having the absolute amount of emissions that we emit in mind is really important to answer that question. So like I just said, I mean livestock are about 4% of direct emissions in the United States. And that's one because we're more efficient in this country and two we burn a lot of fossil fuels, right? So, all of agriculture's submissions are quite small compared to all the trucks and electricity that we generate United States, right?
Laurie Johns: Yeah, what is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas then?
Dr. Sara Place: Yeah. So both transportation and electricity generation are in the like, you know, 25 - 30% range for greenhouse gas emissions. That's a much bigger chunk of our pie. So on this question of dietary change, hopefully that makes sense the listeners, right? You can't reduce emissions more than that 4%. And that's actually what some interesting research found that was done and published in 2017 and the proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. They did a thought experiment and said, what if all Americans went Vegan and essentially we eliminated all livestock in the U.S.? They found that we would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6%, which is less than that 4%, which may seem strange off the bat, but hopefully makes sense in that if we get rid of livestock, we now have gotten rid of all livestock manure, right? And now we're going to have to replace that manure with synthetic fertilizer to grow our crops. And that means more nitrous oxide emissions, which is a very potent greenhouse gas. Or we're going to have to grow more legume crops, which also again puts more nitrogen into the system and will potentially increase those emissions of nitrous oxide. So I think that's really important for people to think about is there's all these consequences when it comes to shifting diets. And that is the absolute maximum benefit, if you will, of everybody changing their diets and all livestock going away, right? Which is completely unrealistic. But it kind of puts things into stark contrast because oftentimes what we see in news articles or different reports is people will compare carbon footprints of foods. Those are just greenhouse gas emissions say per pound of food, right? So maybe per pound of lentils versus a pound of beef. And there's a difference between the two and people assume if we switched from one to another, we're going to get an inordinate reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. So, I know that can always be confusing to people, but there's a big difference between comparing carbon footprints and then zooming out to our whole inventory and thinking about, oh, well, it's only 4% of emissions, right? We can change things, but it's still not gonna make a big absolute difference, if that makes sense.
Laurie Johns: Exactly. I mean, that's fascinating stuff. And if you think about it too, I mean cattle like to eat things that we don't. Not to mention that here in Iowa where a lot of farmers are working on reducing the nutrients that go into the watershed, they're doing conservation practices, they're planting cover crops and cattle can eat those.
Dr. Sara Place: Yeah. Yeah. So, I think there's a great parallel there for especially consumers to think about. You know, most people are omnivores. We eat both plant and animal products and agriculture works best when we have plants and animals working together as well. So those are some excellent examples. You know, we have so many essentially byproduct feeds that will go to our livestock systems. There's some interesting research out there that would say for every hundred pounds of human food that comes from crops, we generate about 37 pounds of byproducts and most of those byproducts end up going back to livestock. So even when people are eating, you know, maybe a vegetarian diet, they're still actually depending upon livestock in the way of taking care of their waste from crop processing and providing manure, right, to those crops and systems as well. And the cover crop examples and excellent one where, you know, hopefully livestock can add some value to people that are farmers that are trying to adopt more of these conservation practices.
Laurie Johns: Right. And, and you know, you can think of dry distillers grains from the production of ethanol. So it's fuel and again, cows come into play in that one. They play a role in so many different things. And what about, then water, the water? The water that's also required to raise cattle?
Dr. Sara Place: Yeah, so I think that's one of those things that probably a lot of people have seen memes on Facebook or some other social media sites of equating a burger with a number of showers and that can get really confusing as well. So there's huge ranges out there in terms of what people have reported for water use per pound of beef. And so I think it's important to take a step back and think about how do we actually calculate these water footprints? When you do that, there's actually, there's different types of water that get accounted for, which may sound weird, right? Waters water, what do you mean different types? But essentially there is blue water, which is all surface and groundwater. So think of that like your irrigation water, right? Or drinking water for cattle. And then there's green water, which is essentially precipitation water. And so sometimes when you see really high estimates for beef for water use is because people are counting all the rain, all the snow that falls on grazing lands in the United States, which is hundreds of millions acres towards the water footprint. So to me that's a little bit nonsensical, right? Because that is going to fall regardless. And obviously only a fraction of that water is used by the plants that then is used by cattle. And of course the cattle return the water to the ecosystem, right? Through, you know, urinating, defecating, etcetera. So that's what gets really tricky with some of these water footprints. That said, blue water tends to be more of the water that we're concerned about because it's usually calling from aquifers. And so what we found is the nationwide average is about 308 gallons per pound of boneless beef in the U.S. But that varies tremendously from east west. So most of that blue water is going to support irrigation of crops that then cattle eat. Whether it's irrigated pasture or irrigated corn that the cattle will eat. So in the eastern U.S., or if you're in parts Iowa where you're not irrigating, I mean your blue water footprint is really just the water that the cattle drink. And again, that water gets returned to the environment. Right? So the summation of all this stuff that I've just said about water footprints is they tell us something but they don't actually tell us what I think people think it does, which is that we're creating a water scarcity issue. We actually don't know that from a water footprint. We had to link that to say are we pulling from an aquifer at an unsustainable rate? That's really what we care about.
Laurie Johns: Right. And you know, I can tell you, you mentioned green water. There's an awful lot of that falling around here these days.
Dr. Sara Place: Yes! You guys have way too much water, right? Yeah.
Laurie Johns: Oh, man. Man. Well, does that make any difference too when you're talking about cattle that are raised on a feedlot, you know, if they're grain fed versus grass-fed?
Dr. Sara Place: Yeah. So I think what's always important is I talk to a lot of nonagricultural audiences and I think people get really confused and that they think that cattle, when they see a feedlot, they assume that cattle spend their entire lives in feedlots. Of course as we know in agriculture, that's not true, right? Two thirds, at least two thirds of their life is going to be spent outside of a feed yard, whether eating a high forage diet or actually grazing on grass. So, all cattle are grass-fed. And then of course most cattle get finished on a grain based diet. So really there, from a sustainability perspective, it really, it depends on what you care about, what you emphasize more. There are lots of advantages of the system that has developed in the United States in terms of using grazing land resources and then combining that with our grain resources and all those byproducts fees, which make up a significant portion of cattle’s diets when they're in a feed yard. Whether it's dry distillers screens, wet corn gluten feed, whatever it may be. So when cattle are grain finished they tend to reach the point of slaughter quicker and they tend to be of heavier weight. And that's actually, it's a double advantage from a standpoint of lowering environmental footprints because the fewer days the animals alive, that means fewer days they're belching up methane, they're using resources and if they have a heavier carcass weight, that means we're diluting out those environmental impacts over more units of production, more pounds of meat go to feed people. And of course for truly forage finished beef, you know, the animals tend to take longer to reach the harvest point. And of course they tend to have lighter carcass weights as well. So, but again, animals that are truly forage finish, they are not competing at all with a human food anytime during their life cycle. Right. So, there's all these tradeoffs in terms of, you know, what you want to emphasize more in terms of sustainability attributes, if you will.
Laurie Johns: Right. And I know too that the grass-fed in some areas also impacts the phosphorous and the sediment that's going into the watershed. So sometimes getting them back on feedlot is better for the environment in a different way. You know, again, choices.
Dr. Sara Place: Yeah, I think that that's a key component that is sometimes lost about confinement animal systems is of course we're actually collecting all the manure and we can manage it and hopefully apply it to the soils that more agronomic rates. So yes, it's so it's so dependent on where you are in the country. All those questions, very, very site specific.
Laurie Johns: It sure is. It sure is. And the bottom line, let's leave them talking about nutrition too. So it's kind of hard to beat beef. It's got so much going for it. And whether it is grain fed, grass-fed, whatever it is, you know, if you raised on pasture raised in a feedlot, you know, like you said, everybody's finished on grain, right? But the nutritional equivalents of beef are kinda hard to match in the plant world.
Dr. Sara Place: Yes. And I think that's what super key, whether it's beef or any other animal source foods is really, you know, these foods are protein packed, but they're also like nature's multivitamin, right? They provide so many essential nutrients that we can't get from plants or we can't get at higher rates or what's really key is the bioavailability of those nutrients rights? Meaning when you eat, you know, a portion of beef as compared to an equivalent protein amount in a plant based source you're still getting a higher quality protein from those animal source foods in terms of the actual building blocks of the protein, which are amino acids. That's what we need as the human animal, right? To meet her on nutrient requirements. So beef is really nutrient dense per calorie. And I think that's something that we have to emphasize is that you're getting more protein, you're getting more vitamin B12, some of these essential fatty acids, things like choline, per calorie when you're eating beef or other animal sources. And to your point, I mean, there are, there can be, you can detect subtle differences between grass and grain finishing, but really that overall picture of a nutrient package is the same for the two. It kind of more comes down to people's preference. And there can be taste differences between the two. And I think it's just, you know, lucky of living in the United States of American, we have lots of choices for people, right? They want to choose grass finished, that's awesome. Or grain finished. From our perspective we just say thank you for choosing beef.
Laurie Johns: Right, right. That's right. Just keep steak on your plate. And on that note, I'm feeling kind of hungry right now. Is there anything I haven't asked you that you want to add about it? It's certainly given us a lot to chew on, so to speak.
Dr. Sara Place: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think that the key thing there is, you know, what we kind of touched on about how ruminants, there's cattle, sheep or goats, you know, how they use these byproducts feeds and use the forage resources we have in the U.S. I think that's really underappreciated. And the reality is that these animals are making more protein for the human food supply then they're using in the form of human edible foods like grains or soy products. So we need to really emphasize that in terms of these animals add to our food supply and particularly vitamins and minerals that are not needed in a huge amount in our diets, but are absolutely essential. And the key one there is vitamin B 2, right? So 100% of the vitamin B12 that cattle produced does not exist without them. That's such a huge resource. Right? And I would argue that that's worth a couple percent of greenhouse gas emissions, to provide an essential micronutrients that, you know, without it, we wouldn't be alive. Right? So those kind of bigger picture items are super, super key for people to understand.
Laurie Johns: Some fascinating information from Dr. Place, wasn't it? Not only are livestock responsible for a very small percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, they also provide us with essential vitamins and minerals that we just can't get anywhere else or it's pretty darn hard to get anywhere else. As we wind down this episode of the podcast, remember that this is your last chance to register for Iowa Farm Bureau's Economic Summit, which is June 28th in Des Moines. You can do that by going to the website, IowaFarmBureau.com. We also want to remind you that our series of farm bill meetings is starting up again. We're holding those meetings at locations all around the state so that can help you make the best risk management decisions for your farm based on the programs that are available through the new farm bill. So find the location closest to you. Go to IowaFarmBureau.com and get signed up. That's all for this episode of The Spokesman Speaks. Be sure to join us for our next podcast episode on July 1st. And until next time, thanks for reading The Spokesman. Thanks for all the great stories and inspiration, and thanks for listening to The Spokesman Speaks.
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