Today, biodiesel and renewable diesel are produced from a wide variety of fats and oils, referred to as feedstocks. Domestically, biodiesel feedstocks come to the industry as both first use products (soybean oil or canola oil) and second use byproducts or wastes (used cooking oil, animal fats, in addition to other wastes and residues). Some of these fats and oils, such as soybean oil, can be directly consumed by humans, begging the question: if we turn soybean oil into fuel, are we limiting it as a potential food source?

The simple fact is when growing soybeans for meal and oil, a farmer produces feed, food, and fuel. Today, farmers are producing more food in the form of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, on less land than ever before.

When farmers plant soybeans to supply the demand for protein they also produce soybean oil. Soybean oil, which comprises roughly 20% of the soybean is one of the primary vegetable oils used in the United States. As farmers across America seek to satisfy global demand for protein through soybean production, America’s farmers are producing more oil than the domestic market can consume as food.

Daily Per Capita Protein Supply Vs. GDP Per Capita, 2013 Chart

One of the most sustainable ways to meet the increased demand for protein is through the production of soybeans. Soybeans are approximately 80% protein meal and 20% oil by weight. These remarkable oilseeds account for roughly 59% of the global plant-based protein production.1

Soybeans, valued for their ability to grow large quantities of high-quality vegetable protein meal for animal feed have become a backbone of global animal agricultural. Since protein meal is the dominate component of soybeans both from a mass standpoint and a value standpoint, domestic demand for animal feed is the main driver of domestic soybean processing. The bulk of the soybean oil that is produced from the processing of soybeans goes to human consumption while a portion of the remaining oil is processed into cleaner-burning biodiesel and renewable diesel. By helping growers maintain value for all components of the soybean, not just the meal, the production of these sustainable fuels has the beneficial outcome of helping alleviate pressure on soybean meal prices, maintaining soybean meal as an affordable option for food production.

Today, due to record crop production, the United States exports a growing share of their soybean crop as whole soybeans to global trading partners, helping these partners fulfill their local demand for protein. One of clearest beneficiaries of this trade has been China. As China’s population has grown wealthier, they have begun to consume more meat, primarily pork, at levels that are beginning to rival western countries like the United States. To fuel this demand for animal-based protein the government of China has invested heavily in the creation of a domestic swine industry, however China lacks the ability to produce enough vegetable protein to feed their swine herd, this is where imports of American soybeans come in. Whole soybeans exported to China are then processed locally, reducing the need to import less sustainable forms of protein meals to feed their swine herd. Since these whole soybeans are then processed in China, it results in local production of soy oil, providing the supplemental benefit off reducing China’s import demand of less sustainable vegetable oils, specifically palm oil.

U.S. Soybean Production and Disappearance Chart
U.S. Soybean Production and Disappearance; Source: USDA/ERS, Oil Crops Outlook, various issues

Coming back to the original question, if we in the United States are converting excess, domestic soy oil into biodiesel are we limiting its food use? The simple answer is no. In fact, the opposite is true, maintained domestic demand for soy oil for biodiesel production has helped keep soy protein affordable, helping maintain global access to sustainable U.S. soy protein and supporting a more sustainable global animal protein production system. This strong demand and value for all components of the soybean has led to greater investment in genetics resulting in increasing yields and more soybean production on the same area of farmland.

U.S. Soybean Yield Chart
U.S. Soybean Yield; Source: USDA/ERS, Oil Crops Outlook, various issues