Toward a Low-Carbon Transportation Future: Part 2

By Tomas Endicott, Processing & Markets Manager

Last week I wrote about carbon intensity and how the GREET model, standardized by the U.S. Department of Energy, quantifies the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is generated when producing different transportation fuels—both fossil fuels and renewable fuels.

Today, let’s talk about factors that contribute to producing low-carbon transportation fuels.

Lifecycle carbon tracks CO2 emissions from feedstock production to combustion.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are tracked on a lifecycle basis. That is, CO2 is generated at many points in a fuel production pathway: feedstock acquisition, processing, refining, transport. The more carbon efficient each step in a particular fuel production pathway, the lower the carbon intensity of the final fuel. For processing fossil fuels or biofuels, reducing carbon emissions may include using renewable sources of heat and electricity that generate less CO2, such as biogas, wind power and solar power. Acquiring feedstock to produce transportation fuels presents many different pathways, each unique in the lifecycle CO2 emissions it generates.

All feedstocks are not created (carbon) equal.

Fossil fuel feedstocks—crude oil or natural gas—are fairly carbon-consistent no matter what their origin. They all are extracted in enormous volumes from underground. Biofuel feedstocks are incredibly diverse. There are many more variables that contribute to carbon intensity throughout every step of any particular biofuel feedstock production process.

All plants are self-sufficient. Some more than others.

Most plants are photosynthetic. They create hydrocarbons in the form of carbohydrates (i.e starch, sugar, wood) and/or fats (oils) using carbon dioxide (CO2), nutrients, sunlight and water. The plants use these carbohydrates and fats for their own energy, and they “invest” them into their seeds for the next generation. These carbohydrates and fats also are the source of the energy we harvest and convert into biofuels.

All plants also need some amount of nitrogen to grow and thrive. Legumes, like soybeans, alfalfa seed and pongamia seed, are special in that they harness their own nitrogen—the backbone for proteins—through symbiosis with bacteria that live on their roots. These rhizobium bacteria fix elemental nitrogen from the atmosphere and supply it to the plant in a form the plant can use.

Less inputs equals lower carbon intensity.

Non-leguminous plants must derive nitrogen from compounds in the soil. In a natural environment, that source of nitrogen may be composted organic matter or nitrogen compounds deposited in the soil through earthworm activity. Because modern, improved agricultural crops produce such high yields, they require large quantities of commercial fertilizer. Commercial nitrogen fertilizer is synthesized from natural gas, and its production requires significant energy input. As a result, producing commercial nitrogen fertilizer generates carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and those emissions are attributed to the lifecycle carbon of the crops that use the nitrogen fertilizer.

Nitrogen is expensive, both in the energy consumed to manufacture and transport it and in the dollars farmers must expend to apply it to their fields. Because nitrogen fertilizers must be applied to non-leguminous crops like corn and canola, producing biofuels from these non-nitrogen-fixing crops is more carbon intensive than producing biofuels from legumes.

By-products provide additional value.

Oilseed crops, like soybeans, canola and pongamia, can provide oil as feedstock for renewable fuels. They also provide another by-product: high-protein meal, which has significant value as livestock feed and as organic fertilizer.

Pongamia seeds are removed from their shells before being processed. These shells are half the weight of the harvested ponamia pods, and they can provide significant biomass to supply renewable, low-carbon heat and power to the pongamia biofuel processing pathway.

Greater yield per acre equals lower carbon intensity.

Because carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated while producing crops are spread across the total yield of a particular crop, crops that produce higher yields per acre can be more carbon-efficient. Every trip across a field to till, seed, fertilize, spray or harvest increases CO2 emissions and increases the carbon intensity for a particular crop. Crops with higher yields spread their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions over larger production.

Growing conditions also affect yield. Logically, crops grown in tropical and sub-tropical environments experience more sunshine and heat, and they have longer growing seasons, so they produce larger yields per acre.

Annual or perennial makes a difference.

Annual crops—those that must be planted every year—require some amount of tillage or application of broad spectrum herbicides (i.e Round-Up) to prepare the seedbed and to minimize weed competition with the cultivated crop. Tillage alone can increase carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from agricultural fields simply by exposing organic matter in the soil to oxygen, thereby, allowing it to be decomposed aerobically, which generates CO2.
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Simply tilling the ground increases carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from agricultural fields. Photo by Kai Oberhäuser on Unsplash

Perennial crops are established once and produce for many years. They do not require annual tillage. For large trees like pongamia, annual maintenance is low when the tree canopy prevents sunlight from penetrating to the ground, so nothing can grow there.

Although they require a few years to produce their first crop, yields for perennial crops tend to be much higher per acre than yields for annual crops. Whereas the average yield for soybeans in the U.S. is about 2,700 pounds per acre, perennial pongamia trees can produce more than 10,000 pounds of seeds per acre per year at eight years of age and beyond. The average lifespan of a pongamia tree is at least 25 to 30 years.

How many gallons of oils per acre?

For the purpose of biodiesel or bio-jet fuel production, seeds of different crops have different concentrations of oil—their percentage of oil by weight. Whereas soybeans contain only 16%-18% oil by weight, canola seeds contains more than 40% oil by weight and pongamia seeds contain 30% to 40% oil by weight. Considering the combination of per acre yields and the oil concentration in the seeds of a particular crop determines the amount of biodiesel or bio-jet fuel that can be produced by a given cultivated area. Here is a chart demonstrating the amount of oil per acre produced by different oilseed crops.

More yield per acre equals greater carbon efficiency.

Whereas soybeans produce only 55 to 60 gallons of oil per acre annually and canola produces about 120 gallons of oil per acre annually, mature pongamia trees can produce more than 450 gallons of oil per acre every year.

The CO2 generated to harvest an acre of soybeans or to harvest an acre of pongamia seeds are similar. Mature pongamia trees, however, yield almost four times more seed per acre than soybeans, and they yield about eight times the oil for every acre harvested. Now that’s efficiency!

Maximizing transportation efficiency minimizes CO2 emissions.

To achieve maximum carbon efficiency, transportation fuels need to be produced and moved in large volumes. It is most carbon-efficient to move fuels by pipeline, although pipelines are expensive to build and they have other environmental considerations. Moving a million gallons of fuel on a single ocean-going barge is ten times more efficient than hauling the same volume of fuel the same distance in hundreds of tanker truck loads. The efficiency of moving fuel in 25,000-gallon rail cars lies somewhere between the efficiency achieved by barges and the efficiency attributed to tanker trucks. Renewable fuels, like fossil-based fuels, must be produced on a large scale to achieve transportation efficiency.

Going further on a gallon of fuel reduces CO2 emissions too.

The most efficient gallon of fuel is the one that you never use. Producing low-carbon fuels at scale is only half the battle. Reducing consumption of all transportation fuels is the best carbon-reduction strategy for the transportation sector. Electric cars, hybrids and clean diesel technology are all available today, and all are improving with each new model year. In 2012, President Obama established new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards which will raise the average fuel efficiency for all new cars and trucks in the U.S. to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Impressive! Currently, the CAFE standard is 35.5 miles per gallon.

Carbon-efficient, sustainable biofuel feedstock, high-protein livestock feed and organic fertilizer from the perennial pongamia tree.

The pongamia tree can provide a unique and substantial contribution to the United States’ sustainable, low-carbon biofuel future. It is a nitrogen-fixing, subtropical tree that is native to India, Indonesia and Australia, and it grows well in Florida and in Hawaii. It is both drought resistant and accustomed to Monsoonal rains. (TerViva’s pongamia orchards in Florida held their own against the wind, rain and flooding from Hurricane Irma last week.) Pongamia can grow on sandy soils, and it is resistant to moderate salinity. It is a perennial tree that is highly productive for both non-edible oil as a feedstock for biofuels and for protein-rich meal for livestock feed and fertilizer.

Imagine our low-carbon transportation future!

TerViva is rolling out pongamia orchards on abandoned citrus land in Florida and on land that formerly grew sugarcane in Hawaii. Imagine a future where 100,000 acres of pongamia trees produce 50 million gallons of biofuel and 340,000 tons of high-protein meal each year. Imagine biomass heat and power produced from a half-million tons of pongamia shells harvested annually. Imagine bio-char from gasified pongamia shells sequestering carbon in the soil for thousands of years—steadily reversing the CO2 increase in the earth’s atmosphere.

Imagine millions of acres of pongamia orchards spread across the sub-tropical areas of Asia, Africa, Mexico and South America providing billions of gallons of biofuel every year. Imagine fuel efficient vehicles that go twice as far on a gallon of fuel so that we consume half the transportation fuel that we do today. With biofuels, electric vehicles and other technologies in the mix, renewable fuels could make up 50% of the total transportation fuel consumption in the U.S. within twenty years.

This is not a pipedream. It is absolutely possible. It is a matter of aspiration, effort and will.

Let’s do it!

Toward a Low-Carbon Transportation Future: Part I

by Tomas Endicott, TerViva Processing & Markets Manager

 

It’s the 21st century. We have amazing technology! Certainly we can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transportation sector in the U.S., but how? We’re doing it! Did you know that already we have good systems for tracking and measuring our progress?

Fossil fuels are the mainstay for transportation energy in the U.S., and there is no question that they power our economy, but renewable fuels like ethanol, biodiesel and renewable natural gas are also making significant contributions. In the U.S., biofuels are derived from primarily corn and soybeans, as their production systems are well-established and their production volumes are extremely large. But just wait! In time, perennial crops like seeds from pongamia trees will contribute even lower-carbon fuels to the transportation mix.

Carbon efficiency is cool. Carbon intensity is not.

Carbon efficiency is cool because it reduces greenhouse gases and mitigates climate change. Hydrocarbon-based fuels have carbon embedded in their molecular structures, but they also generate carbon emissions in the form of the heat, power and transportation that are consumed to produce them and to get them to market. The less carbon emissions generated to produce a particular fuel, the more carbon efficient it is. In comparison, fuels that generate larger carbon emissions have a higher carbon intensity (CI). Not surprisingly, fuels that are more carbon efficient are generally more energy efficient as well. The less energy we consume as a society, the less greenhouse gases we generate.

We consume a lot of transportation fuel in the U.S. and that generates a lot of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In the U.S., the transportation sector generates about 27% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually—second only to electricity generation, which accounts for 29% of GHG emissions. GHG emissions from transportation are the result of burning liquid fuels—primarily gasoline and diesel fuel.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2016 U.S. drivers consumed about 143 billion gallons of finished motor gasoline (that’s a BILLION with a “B”), a daily average of about 392 million gallons. U.S. drivers consumed about 44 billion gallons of diesel fuel in 2016, a daily average of about 122 million gallons.

TE part 1

Plants use sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce biofuels for transportation

Did you know that renewable fuels are required by law?

In the U.S., the federal government requires fuel companies to blend a minimum volume of renewable fuels, like ethanol and biodiesel, into the total fuel volume consumed every year. This program, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), began in 2005 with the passage of the Energy Policy Act. Congress expanded the law in 2007 with the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). How much renewable fuel does the RFS require? More than 19 billion gallons of renewable fuel, primarily ethanol and biodiesel, in 2017! Of the 188 billion gallons of total transportation fuel Americans will consume this year, renewable fuel will make up a little more than 10%. In other words, renewable fuels could supply the U.S. transportation fuel markets for almost 38 days. Not bad really, but we can do even better!

All fuels are not created (carbon) equal.

All liquid fuels -whether bio-based or fossil-based- are composed of hydrocarbons: long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms bonded together in a variety of ways. All of these molecular bonds contain energy that is released when the bonds are broken -when the fuel is burned. The result: the fuels are converted into energy and their molecules are converted into primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H20).

This is where biofuels and fossil fuels are different. Fossil fuels mine ancient hydrocarbons from beneath the earth’s surface and add new carbon to the atmosphere, but biofuels recycle the same contemporary carbon in the atmosphere on an annual basis. The CO2 released by burning biofuels today is re-captured by living plants to create more biofuel during the next harvest cycle—a net zero effect for the carbon embedded in the biofuel.

Carbon attributed to different fuels includes more than just embedded carbon, though. To create fossil fuels requires exploration, extraction, refining and transport -all of which generate carbon emissions. To create biofuels from recycled materials (i.e. food waste, used cooking oil) requires collection, refining and transport. To create biofuels from agricultural crops requires cultivation, fertilization, harvesting, processing, refining and transport.

Accounting for carbon is the first step.

As scientists and policymakers acknowledge the effects of increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the need to reduce them, they create systems for measuring the GHG emissions generated by different activities. Carbon accounting tracks the amount of carbon emissions required to produce a particular fuel.

The federal RFS tracks the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. Carbon intensity is the measure of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions attributed to all activities required to produce a transportation fuel, expressed in grams of carbon dioxide equivalents per megajoule of energy or gCO2e/MJ. Wow! That’s a mouthful, but what it means, simply, is that making different transportation fuels generates different amounts of carbon emissions. The lower the carbon emissions generated to produce any particular transportation fuel, the lower the carbon intensity.

Who accounts for GHG emissions in transportation fuels?  How do they make sure that comparing all fuels is comparing apples to apples?

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory developed the GREET model.  The Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) model is a “well to wheel” or “farm to wheel” life-cycle model that is used to establish a specific carbon intensity (CI) value for every type of fossil fuel and renewable fuel that is consumed in the U.S. transportation sector. A fuel pathway describes the feedstock and the process for how each fuel is made, so each fuel pathway has a unique CI value.

This chart shows the carbon intensity (CI) values for different renewable fuels compared with gasoline and diesel fuel. Gasoline has a CI value of 95.86, whereas the CI for ethanol ranges from 77.44 to 120.99 -depending on where the ethanol is made and what type of energy is used for the heat and power required in the production process. Ethanol from Brazilian sugarcane has a CI value of 73.4. Petroleum diesel has a CI value of 94.71, whereas the CI for soy-based biodiesel is 83.85. Biodiesel from recycled cooking oil has a CI value of 11.76 or 15.84. Wow! That’s a reduction. Almost 90%!

What specific factors contribute to higher or lower carbon intensity (CI) values of transportation fuels?

Different feedstocks -both bio-based and fossil-based- and different fuel production pathways generate different amount of CO2 emissions.  What are the factors that affect the carbon intensities for different feedstocks and for different fuel production pathways?

Stay tuned.  We will pick it up there next week.

We Can Reverse Climate Change

by Lila Taheraly

After learning about Project Drawdown last year, I could breathe a sigh of relief. I could finally envision an appealing goal for the world: reversing climate change. Not mitigating it, adapting to it, or solely reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but actually reversing climate change.

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming is a book which gathers 100 solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon. It ranks them based on their potential carbon impacts in the next 30 years, and studies their implementation costs compared to business as usual (using fossil fuel oil, gas and coal). Published in June 2017, the book describes a possible and hopeful future.

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PC: Paul Morris on Unsplash.com

What is Drawdown? Drawdown represents the moment when greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere begin to decline. Combined, all these proposed solutions could eliminate up to one trillion of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2050 — enough to prevent the climate tipping point of 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial level. These solutions would also cost less and create more jobs than business as usual.

Below are the top 10 solutions in terms of carbon impact and their potential carbon savings by 2050:

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PC: Karsten Würth on Unsplash.com

  1. Refrigerant Management – 89.74 GT CO2* eq.
  2. Onshore Wind Turbines – 84.60 GT CO2 eq.
  3. Reduced Food Waste – 70.53 GT CO2 eq.
  4. Plant-Rich Diet – 66.11 GT CO2 eq.
  5. Tropical Forests – 61.23 GT CO2 eq.
  6. Educated Girls – 59.60 GT CO2 eq.
  7. Family Planning- 59.60 GT CO2 eq.
  8. Solar Farms – 36.90 GT CO2 eq.
  9. Silvopasture – 31.19 GT CO2 eq.
  10. Rooftop Solar – 24.60 GT CO2 eq.

Beyond these 10 solutions, the real power of this book lies in the abundance of solutions and the measurement of their potential impact. These technologies all exist today, and some are scaling up right now. In the USA, in 2016, solar power employed more people than electricity generation through coal, gas and oil combined.

To reflect on this profusion of solutions, here is my selection of favorites through an award competition.

The unexpected: Educating Girls, ranked 6th.

Discovering “Educating Girls” as the 6th solution to mitigate Climate Change was fascinating! After the surprise, the explanation made perfect sense. Educated girls tend among others to have fewer and healthier children, to have higher wages and contribute more to the economic growth. In developing countries, educated women also grow more productive agricultural plots, and their families are better nourished. Today, there are still barriers preventing 62 million girls from their education rights.

The low-key: walkable cities, ranked 54th.

Walkable cities or neighborhoods favor walking over driving (thus reduce CO2 emissions but also improve health). In a neighborhood, walkability can include density of homes, offices, and stores; practicability of sidewalks, walkways and pedestrian crossings; and accessibility to public transportation. Today, demand for walkable cities far exceeds the supply. You can check the walkability of any location via applications like this one.

The never-heard of: temperate forests, ranked 12th.

We hear so much about the tropical forest degradation, than we tend to forget its sibling: the temperate forest. A quarter of the world’s forest lies in temperate zone, either deciduous or evergreen. 99% of it has been altered throughout history with timber, conversion to agriculture or urban development. This solution is to restore and protect temperate-forests on degraded land. Young temperate forests sequester carbon in both soil and biomass at very fast rates.

watermill

The most picturesque: in-stream hydro, ranked 48th.

While hydropower reminds us at huge dams, reservoirs, and big environmental impacts, in-stream hydro is defined as less than 10 mega watts hydropower technologies. They are small scale in-stream turbines. The advantage of small scale is that turbines can be designed to have a minimal impact on the environment and become accessible in remote territories like Alaska or Nepal, unlocking great potential.

The most related to our business: perennial biomass, ranked 51st.

Compared to annual crops like corn, perennial biomass grows for many years. In a climate perspective, it makes a fundamental difference. Perennial biomass throughout their lifetime requires fewer energy inputs, and prevents soil erosion, produces stable yields, supports pollinators and biodiversity. As an example, Pongamia, an oilseed producing tree, is a legume and fixes nitrogen naturally.  Pongamia also grows deep roots thereby reducing water needs and increasing the carbon sequestration.

My  favorite coming attraction: living buildings

Besides 80 solutions against climate change, Project Drawdown also introduces 20 “coming attractions”. One of them is “Living Buildings”. Living buildings answer the question: How do you design and make a building so that every action and outcome improves the world? For example, Living buildings could grow food, use rainwater and protect habitat. The Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach, VA, completed in 2014 produces all of its drinking water from rainfall, uses 90% less water than a commercial building of the same size, and generates 83% more energy than it consumes.

Curious and inspired by Project Drawdown? You can visit their website, read the book, and come back to tell me about your favorite solutions.

 

 

 

 

*Note: 1 gigaton of CO2 (GT) = 1,000,000,000 tons of CO2.

At ambient temperature, one ton of CO2 holds on in 559 cubic meters (19,775 cubic feet), i.e. in an 8.25 m high cube (27 ft).

 

 

 

From Inside the Pipeline: Energy & Ag in Hawaii

By Marie O’Grady, Elemental Excelerator Communications Coordinator

Exhaust poured from the truck as it came to a grinding halt at the base of a conveyor belt, delivering Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company’s last cane harvest, symbolizing the end of an era in Hawaii. As happened in Puerto Rico and Trinidad & Tobago, growing sugar in Hawaii was no longer profitable.

In early 2016, Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), the fourth largest land owner in Hawaii, announced the close of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S), the state’s last large-scale sugar plantation. Over the years, HC&S had faced controversies around water, pesticides, and field burning, and in 2015, the company incurred a $30 million operating loss.

Alexander & Baldwin announced in early 2016 that all 36,000 acres of former HC&S land would be transitioned to diversified agriculture, such as energy crops, agroforestry, livestock, diversified food crops, and orchard crops. Last month, A&B announced a new partnership with TerViva to cultivate pongamia on 250 acres of former plantation land.

EEx TerViva - orchard - 1

We believe pongamia can help diversify agriculture production on Maui while also potentially addressing our community’s need for renewable fuels. Our former sugar lands provide a great opportunity to grow more energy crops locally as they are ideally suited for large scale cultivation and mechanical harvesting.” – A&B President & CEO, Chris Benjamin

TerViva was the first ag company to join Elemental Excelerator’s portfolio in 2014. As part of their demonstration project, they are growing more than 200 acres of pongamia trees on Oahu and Maui. The oil extracted from pongamia seeds is well suited for industrial applications such as biopesticides, lubricants, chemicals, and fuels – and the residual seed cake shows promise as a feed supplement for beef cattle. Compared to soy, pongamia requires only 25 percent of the chemical and water inputs. One acre of pongamia produces 10 times more oil and 3 times more protein rich seed cake than one acre of soybeans.

EEx TerViva 3

This project is not only transformational for TerViva (it’s their first orchard in the region), but it’s also transformational for Hawaii.

  • Local farmers and agribusinesses are a critical source of economic stability for rural economies, through jobs and direct and indirect spending. TerViva is steadily growing its Hawaii-based team, and the company supports two local nurseries and a handful of contractors.
  • Pongamia is able to grow on marginal agricultural land that is not suitable for other crops. This is ideal for a place like Hawaii where the soil, which once provided resources for thousands of acres of sugarcane and pineapple, has been largely stripped of key nutrients.
  • Biofuel and biomass play a role in Hawaii’s transformation to clean energy, providing firm, dispatchable power. Hawaiian Electric’s December 2016 Power Supply Improvement Plan outlines how the utility plans to utilize biofuels in power plants to replace oil as a fuel source.

There is a growing trend in the number of new agtech companies mature enough for a demonstration project, as evidenced in Elemental Excelerator’s pipeline of applicants:

  • Since 2014, EEx had added four other agriculture startups to the portfolio of 53 startups. These companies are working to increase local beef production, increase crop yields, and help small farmers use data to reduce water usage.
  • Over the last few years, EEx has also seen a dramatic increase in applications from ag startups. This year, 10 percent of the companies who took the first step to apply were agriculture-related. That’s twice as many as last year!

After Monsanto acquired the Climate Corporation in 2013, ag tech gained significant attention. In 2014 alone, investments in ag tech grew 170%. Most innovation was focused in the areas of biotechnology and seed genetics. Today, subsectors include bioenergy, sustainable protein, decision support tech, soil & crop tech, advanced imaging & data analytics, and many others. Investment and innovation are no longer limited to players in the agriculture sector. Moreover, as concern grows over droughts, weather fluctuations, the cost of farm labor, and competition with international markets, key players such as farmers, agro-businesses, and landowners are searching for ways to grow smarter.

 

Elemental Excelerator

Elemental Excelerator helps startups change the world, one community at a time. Each year, they find 12-15 companies that best fit their mission and fund each company up to $1 million to improve systems that impact peoples lives: energy, water, agriculture, and transportation. To date, Elemental Excelerator (EEx) has awarded over $20 million to more than 50 companies. What makes EEx unique? They co-fund, co-design, and co-develop projects and strategies that improve infrastructure and sustainably enhance communities. The program is funded by a diverse coalition of utility partners, corporate partners, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Energy, state government, and philanthropic organizations, and is structured as a non-profit created in collaboration with Emerson Collective.

 

Related articles:

2015 State Ag Land Use Baseline Data, Hawaii Department of Agriculture

AgTech Is The New Queen Of Green, TechCrunch

Cultivating Ag Tech: 5 Trends Shaping The Future of Agriculture, CB Insights

Hawaii’s Last Sugar Plantation Finishes Its Final Harvest, NBC

Land Sharing vs. Land Sparing: Can We Maximize Yield and Biodiversity?

By Nathan Chan, TerViva Germplasm Development Associate

We often think of the environmental impacts of agriculture being limited to things like pesticides and nutrient runoff polluting waterways (see my colleague’s post for more on this), and methane emissions from livestock contributing to climate change, but one of agriculture’s biggest impacts has been its role as a leading cause in declines in wildlife and natural habitat. That may not resonate with those of us in Europe and the United States, where we’ve had a fairly mature agricultural industry for the past 100+ years (I challenge you to imagine what the West may have looked like before humans), but deforestation to create lands suitable for agriculture in South America and Southeast Asia is directly responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of hectares of habitat for thousands of species. This is not a sustainable approach moving forward as we aim to feed 9 billion people worldwide while working to maintain our remaining biodiversity.

Clear cutting and burning rainforests is common in the tropics to create more land for agriculture.

A popular framework for finding a sustainable solution gives us two strategies: “land sharing” and “land sparing”. In land sharing, lower intensity agriculture is practiced in favor of less productive methods that promote more suitable conditions for wildlife resulting in less food produced per acre. In land sparing, farmers practice high intensity agriculture to boost yields, enabling them to forego expansion and leave natural areas “wild”. There are tradeoffs with both approaches — organic “land sharing” farms have on average 30% higher species richness and 50% higher abundance than conventional “land sparing” farms, but produce 20-25% less yield per acre.

In an article examining the tradeoffs of food production and wildlife published by The Breakthrough Institute, Linus Blomqvist puts forward the idea that higher yields, especially in the row crops that use the most land globally, will always result in lower on-farm biodiversity because there are “simple biophysical components of yield growth that there is not much of a way around.” The highly specific management practices farmers must use to get maximum yields from a specific crop preclude the establishment of other plants, which form the basis of a habitat that can sustain wildlife. As evidence, Blomqvist cites declines in farmland bird populations in Europe and America being driven by the loss of habitat and nesting sites in high-intensity agriculture settings – not due to direct mortality from pesticides.

An example of a “land sparing” farm — diverse set of crops, surrounded by potential wildlife habitat.

Even in the most organic, ecologically friendly, “land sharing” farm one can imagine, any decision to increase yields would result in higher-intensity practices that would in turn decrease the farm’s ability to support wildlife. If higher yields per acre on an organic farm decrease on-farm habitat quality, than the only way to increase yield while maintaining habitat quality is to use more land. In the West, more land probably means acquiring farmland or uncultivated land from a neighbor.  However, in South America, Asia, or Africa expanding croplands often takes place at the expense of natural habitats like forests. Any gains in on-farm biodiversity may be offset entirely by the loss of natural habitats.

Multiple combines and tractors with grain carts harvested a large field of corn outside New Haven, Ky.

As we try to feed a human population of 9 billion-plus people, agricultural land will expand and will undoubtedly come at the expense of wildlife and natural habitats. The question we face is how to minimize that impact. Land sharing and land sparing underscore the idea that there is a tradeoff between food production and biodiversity: increasing one will invariably decrease the other. Fortunately, there are ways in which we can try to mitigate that trade off. Embracing GM technologies like Bt enables crops to produce their own insecticide (that is safe for human consumption) and reduce the need for spraying pesticides allowing non-target species to thrive. Incorporating staples of organic or agroecological farming like crop rotations and cover crops make it difficult for a single pest species to persist from year to year further reducing pesticide loads.

There is no correct answer to the land sharing vs. land sparing debate. Both ideas have their merits and embracing one or the other is better than nothing. The growth of the global human population will continue and it will be at the expense of the natural world, but through the discussion and implementation of ideas like land sparing and land sharing, and the incorporation of new crop technologies and agronomic practices we can hopefully reduce that negative impact.

Author’s Note: The idea behind this blogpost came largely from the previously mentioned article published by The Breakthrough Institute, Food Production and Wildlife on Farmland. I encourage you to read it if you are interested in this topic. 

Fixing Nitrogen, Waste

By William Kusch

irina-sorokina-253176footprint grass

Figure 1: What is your nitrogen footprint?

You may be familiar with the concept of carbon footprint, but when was the last time you measured your nitrogen footprint? If you are like me, up until very recently, the answer to that question would be: “huh?”.

I got to thinking about the topic when I read an article[1] that National Public Radio (NPR) published, profiling research on life cycle analysis (LCA) of producing a loaf of bread. The article concluded that 66% of greenhouse gas emissions were not from transportation, or baking, but from growing the wheat itself.  Further, “of the environmental impacts … 40% is attributable just to the use of ammonium nitrate fertilizers alone.”

Intrigued, I read on, re-read my colleague’s excellent blog post on animal and livestock nutrition, then clicked my way to a related article[2], also on NPR that dove deeper than greenhouse gas emissions. This story looked specifically at the nitrogen pollution linked to agriculture, with an emphasis on meat production. This piece outlined some agricultural sources and forms of this significant pollutant:

  • Gaseous emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from livestock
  • Release of N2O, and NOx from soil microbes
  • Runoff from excess fertilizer applied to farm fields.

Well, you may say, so what? Isn’t most of the air we breathe nitrogen anyway?  While it is true that a large majority of the atmosphere is nitrogen, it comes in the form of inert N2. N2 is far different from N2O and NOx , two recognized pollutants. Here are a couple of the potential implications from the release and accumulation of N2O and/or NOx:

  • WK gulf mexico

    Figure 2: Image depicting marine dead zone in Gulf of Mexico

    Marine dead zones, such as the famous one in the Gulf of Mexico, where most ocean life has died due to lack of oxygen[3]

  • If concentration is elevated in drinking water, can lead to potentially fatal blue baby syndrome, other negative health impacts[4]
  • Emissions of NOx can lead to the hazardous type of ozone that remains near ground level. This type of ozone can trigger health problems, especially for children and the elderly[5].

Given that agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to nitrogen pollution, and also that no one is going to stop eating in order to stop polluting, what can people do to reduce their nitrogen footprint? Fortunately there are some simple, and effective options to pare the amount of nitrogen pollution associated with our daily activities:

  • Average Americans “eat about 1.4 lbs of protein per week, 2/3 of which come from meat and dairy. …you could cut your nitrogen footprint by more than 40% just by reducing your total protein intake to 0.8 lbs, the amount recommended by the USDA and the National Academy of Sciences”.
  • Get creative with your spending power: think about ways you could change one meal a week from animal protein to one that is centered around plant protein such as that from chickpeas, or assorted beans.
  • Throw away less of your food: an estimate from Natural Resources Defense Council[6] indicates that America wastes ~40% of our food by throwing it in the garbage prematurely, or unnecessarily.
  • Encourage your legislators to support agricultural land conservation efforts, especially in areas where plants filter fertilizer runoff before it enters the local watershed.
  • Consider a more fuel efficient, or electric vehicle when choosing your next set of wheels: while agriculture is the largest source of N2O, transportation also accounts for a large share of NOx[7].
WK orchard

Figure 3: Nitrogen-fixing pongamia trees in TerViva’s Hawaii orchard

At TerViva, we’re doing our part to mitigate this global nitrogen problem as well. We are growing orchards of pongamia: oilseed-producing trees that are legumes and harness the power of symbiotic bacteria to capture nitrogen from the atmosphere. This ability to provide nitrogen for itself allows pongamia to be cultivated using significantly fewer costly inputs relative to most conventional crops, like nitrogen fertilizers. After we harvest the seeds, we crush the crop in an oilseed press, yielding oil and seed cake. The oil serves as an excellent feedstock for biofuel. The seed cake is high in protein and we have discovered how to convert the pongamia protein into animal feed. In addition to feeding livestock, pongamia seed cake can also be used as a fertilizer[8]; we know this because people have been using pongamia cake as fertilizer in Southern and Southeast Asia for many hundreds of years. The reason this anecdote is relevant here, is that modern scientific techniques have recently been brought to bear, analyzing and quantifying the value of pongamia seed cake as fertilizer. In fact, in addition to demonstrating the value of pongamia products as fertilizer, recently published research shows that if pongamia seed cake is used as a fertilizer, there are compounds in the fertilizer that prevent nitrogen pollution from happening in the first place when farmers apply fertilizer to their fields [9].

Through this idea of considering our Nitrogen Footprint, we at TerViva are exploring ways that we can provide renewable, plant-based energy and protein to society, while at the same time preventing and mitigating some of the issues that arise from the modern lifestyles that afford us comfort and convenience.

References:

[1] http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/02/27/517531611/whats-the-environmental-footprint-of-a-loaf-of-bread-now-we-know

[2] http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/02/25/467962593/why-your-hamburger-might-be-leading-to-nitrogen-pollution

[3] http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2015/080415-gulf-of-mexico-dead-zone-above-average.html

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1638204/

[5] https://www.epa.gov/ozone-pollution

[6] https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-food-IP.pdf

[7] http://www.pnas.org/content/100/4/1505.full.pdf

[8] http://oar.icrisat.org/424/1/IndJourFer5_2_25-26_29-32_2009.pdf

[9] http://nopr.niscair.res.in/bitstream/123456789/5647/1/NPR%207(1)%2058-67.pdf

Well Managed Animal & Livestock Nutrition As Part Of A Low Carbon Future

by Eduardo Martinez

eddie blog picture

Of many discussions around Global Warming and the subject of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), the majority are focused on causes like energy production or transportation emissions, and most of those emissions are carbon dioxide.  According to EPA’s 2016 Report, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, electricity production and transportation produced over 56 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

In addition to those well known causes, agriculture and livestock production also contribute significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.  The three main GHG emitted by the agriculture and livestock sector are nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, as well as losses of nitrogen (N), energy and organic matter that undermine efficiency and productivity in agriculture.

The greatest opportunity for reduction of GHG emissions in the livestock sector lie with improving the efficiency with which producers use natural resources (think tractor fuel) engaged in producing plant protein for animal production, to manage the cost per unit of edible or non-edible output. These improvements are always being pursued in the interest of increasing yield, enhancing quality, or reducing production costs, all while providing a safe and affordable food supply to the public.

There is an obvious and direct correlation between GHG emission and carbon intensities and the efficiency with which producers use natural resources. But among possible opportunities for reducing GHG emissions, fascinating breakthroughs lie in improving livestock nutrition efficiency at the unit level—in this case—the cow level. The average cow emits around 250 liters of methane per day and ruminants overall (animals like cattle, goats and sheep) contribute about 25% of all anthropogenic or man-made methane emissions.

Today universities and industry are working closely together in many ways to improve cattle production and efficiency by eliminating waste, applying the latest enzyme research to improving ruminant digestion and protein conversion. They are also introducing alternative forms of plant protein that might also be more sustainable than traditional energy-intensive animal feedstocks like soy or corn.

For example, recent studies have identified how livestock diet can affect or minimize methanogenesis — methane production.  One common misunderstanding on playgrounds across America is that the back end of the cow is the prime offender in producing GHG in the form of methane. But the truth is the vast majority of methane comes from the cow’s burp—over 95%, in fact!  Thus the opportunity for improvement lies earlier in the animal’s digestive tract.

Rocky De Nys, Professor of aquaculture at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, has been studying the effects that introducing seaweed to a cow’s diet can have on methane production.  Specifically, Professor De Nys and his team discovered adding a small amount of dried seaweed to a cow’s diet can reduce the amount of methane a cow produces by up to 99 per cent.  The species of seaweed is called Asparagopsis taxiformis, and JCU researchers have been actively collecting it off the coast of Queensland.

“We had an inkling that we would get some success from this species, but the scale or the amount of success and reduction we saw was very surprising,” he said, adding “methane gas was the biggest component of greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector.” The key aspect of Asparagopsis taxiformis is that it produces a compound – bromoform (CHBr3) – which prevents methane production by reacting with vitamin B12 at the final step, disrupting enzymes used by gut microbes that produce methane gas as waste during digestion.

Advances such as these are critical to increasing sustainability in the farm and livestock industry and reducing the carbon intensity of farming and producing our global food supply.  TerViva is providing forward thinking solutions in the form of our tree-based platform for producing plant protein and vegetable oil, Pongamia pinnata.

TerViva’s Pongamia tree produces 3 times the plant protein per acre than soy (3 tons vs 1 ton) and 10 times the vegetable oil per acre than soy (400 gal. vs 40 gal.) and all without the negative environmental impact and carbon intensity of annual row crops. Permanently installed orchard crops like Pongamia trees provide tremendous opportunities for carbon sequestration that offset anthropogenic GHG starting with the obvious visible form of the tree visible to the eye, and also from the deep and stabilizing root system below ground.  Pongamia is also a nitrogen fixing legume that takes atmospheric Nitrogen and returns badly needed (N) to the soil.

In the next 12 months, TerViva will be modeling the exact amount of carbon sequestered by our trees per acre, and therefore, the exact amount of carbon reduction that our protein meal offers as compared to soybean.  I’d bet that we’ll find our protein meal offers a compelling advantage over soybean meal in terms of greenhouse gas reduction overall.

Add these sustainable characteristics to the numerous high value products that Pongamia trees yield, and to top it off, a nice shady canopy to host a songbird’s nest or to provide some welcome shade to cattle or sheep on a hot, sunny day and you’ve got a winning addition to tomorrow’s sustainable farming portfolio.