Low-Carbon Meat and the Circular Economy

By Dr. Pat Gruber, PhD, CEO of Gevo, Inc.

The problem of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change is so large that it’s going to take every solution we can figure out. The truth is, every bit helps. The more ideas and systems we can pull together to work in concert, the more likely we will be able to figure out this one. Nothing can fall by the wayside. We need to make sure all the needs of humankind around the world—transportation, food, energy, and improving quality of life—are met within the process of reducing GHG emissions.

Feeding the world is a challenge that’s huge in scale, similar to powering our world’s transportation and generating its energy. According to OurWorldInData.org (with figures from Joseph Poore & Thomas Nemecek from 2018) food production is responsible for 26 percent of global GHG emissions. Anytime anyone talks about the food supply, they are really referring to protein. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations livestock products account for about 30 percent of the global value of agriculture and 19 percent of the value of food production. Livestock provides 34 percent of protein and 16 percent of the energy consumed in human diets.

Because we only use protein to make a high-protein animal feed, we use the leftover starch from corn in our process to make advanced renewable fuels—including renewable gasoline and sustainable aviation fuel. Our system makes the most of the farmland by growing corn that can be used for both fuel and food simultaneously, eliminating any tradeoff (learn more about how we do it) and reducing waste. In addition, sustainable agricultural techniques store more carbon in the soil while keeping nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N,P, K) where it is needed, on the fields.

As a sector, livestock and manure account for 5.8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to OurWorldInData.org citing information from Climate Watch, the World Resources Institute.

Cattle and dairy cows are considered the largest source of greenhouse gases within this sector, according to OurWorldInData.org (with figures from Joseph Poore & Thomas Nemecek from 2018). Beef emits carbon dioxide at a rate of 49.89 kg per 100 grams of protein, while dairy does so at a rate of 16.87 kg per 100 grams of protein, with cheese and milk not far behind at 10.82 and 9.5 kg, respectively. The methane that cattle and dairy cows emit is considered a major factor in human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and is thought to trap substantially more heat by volume than carbon dioxide.

We can reduce the carbon footprint of beef and dairy herd by dealing with what goes in and what comes out! We can reduce the methane emissions caused from feeding simple carbohydrates to cattle. We do this by stripping the simple carbohydrates from corn, and producing a high-protein feed product. Reduced carbohydrates means reduced GHG. On the back end of a cow we intend to collect manure and digest it to make methane on purpose—this is called biogas. We can use the biogas in our boilers, displacing fossil-based natural gas. And we get to capture significant amounts of N, P, K for use as a fertilizer. Low-carbon corn can lead to low-carbon beef and dairy.

By looking at meat and food production as part of The Circular Economy, we are able to capitalize on its place in our larger system to increase the sustainability of every part. The more facets we can add to the system, the better we’re able to reduce carbon intensity at every step. The fuel we produce is a better energy source in the big picture because it makes the most of the corn. Here’s how it works, step by step:

  • The corn is grown sustainably by farmers who partner with us. We share our base of knowledge about sustainable agriculture techniques that improve carbon sequestration in the soil while helping boost yield per acre.
  • Farmers who raise dairy cows and beef cattle use our high-protein animal feed to produce better meat.
  • The livestock produce manure which can be used as fertilizer, recycling nutrients effectively.
  • Gevo will partner with farmers eventually to install manure digesters, which will help capture methane as enzymes break down the manure. This methane will then be converted to biogas to help power the production process for our advanced renewable fuels, and reduce reliance on high-carbon-intensity energy sources such as natural gas.

Every part of the process cuts more fossil carbon out of the equation, using carbon taken out of the atmosphere by the corn crop each year. By bringing these livestock farmers into our Circular Economy, we all help to reduce their contribution to greenhouse gases and share in the collective carbon reduction.

And there’s still another aspect of the equation to think about: Considering the GHG emissions attributable to food production, a full 6 percent of the world’s GHG emissions are a result of food that is never eaten. That’s more than the contribution of livestock! We must turn our attention to reducing the impact of this waste.

This is how sustainability will grow—by harnessing our largest systems—food, transportation, energy—at an integral level, around the world. In this interlinked way, every part of the system improves the sustainability every other part. Everyone is welcome at the table, to work together towards the collective solution.