Farm Progress

Side event at COP27 event looks at decarbonizing ag

Organized by Solutions for the Land, the panel event explored ways farmers are now helping reduce ag’s carbon footprint.

Willie Vogt

November 10, 2022

6 Min Read
PANEL DISCUSSION: Solutions for the Land led a side event at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27). Speakers on the panel shared their thoughts on a range of issues. From left, Fred Yoder, co-chair, Solutions for the Land; Brian Sievers, Sievers Farms, Iowa; Doug Berven, POET, vice president corporate affairs; Envandro Gussi, Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association; and Verity Ulibarri, New Mexico farmer.

The United Nations is holding its COP27 Climate Change Conference this week in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The meeting will include a wide range of events with a major focus on food and food production. In a side event as the conference is getting under way, Solutions for the Land explored the issue of decarbonizing agriculture.

Moderated by Fred Yoder, co-chair, Solutions for the Land, and a fourth generation Ohio Farmer, the panel looked at ways farmers can build on what they do now, add new approaches and be an important part of the climate change solution.

The panel included:

  • Bryan Sievers, an Iowa grain and livestock farmer who is also co-chair of Iowa Smart Agriculture and vice chair of the American Biogas Council. Sievers Farms has three biodigesters producing gas to use for generating electricity, but also to enter the pipeline as renewable natural gas.

  • Doug Berven, vice president for corporate affairs for POET, in Sioux Falls, S.D. POET is the world’s largest producer of bioethanol.

  • Evandro Gussi, president and CEO of the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association.

  • Verity Ulibarri, AVVA Farms, New Mexico. Ulibarri runs a diversified livestock and cropping systems business in the state.

Each panelist shared their insights on their part of the industry. The key is to be open to new ideas as ways to add more margins to agriculture. Sievers notes that the use of a biodigester to produce biogas on his operation also involves new ways to create economic opportunity for farmers.

“It’s a viable economic model,” Sievers says. “We want to encourage others to adopt digesters for their sustainable business model. It will also provide a better way for us to provide food security for those of use in the United States but for consumers around the world.” The key is the circularity of the model, he raises livestock, the manure goes into the digester and the methane becomes electric power for the farm, and reduces methane released into the atmosphere.

Bervan, with POET, started by pointing out that while his company produces 3 billion gallons of ethanol annually it also produces 15 billion pounds of dried distillers grains and 975 million pounds of corn oil. Speaking to a lay audience, he focused on a key point. “It’s important to understand that when we produce bioethanol we take corn in but we do not consume the corn, we transform the starch,” he says. “All the protein, fiber and oil goes into the markets that corn has been grown for originally in the United States.”

It was clear Bervan wanted the audience, which also included many non-ag people, to understand that production of energy from corn was not taking that product away as a food and feed source for the market. “In fact, in the United States less than 1% of the corn grow is for human consumption,” he adds.

As Sievers noted about his use of biogas to produce electricity, Bervan offers a look at ways POET is turning corn into more products including hand sanitizer, due to Covid. In addition, the company markets Jive, a product from corn oil that makes asphalt more pliable. And there’s also a zero-carbon business that focuses on capturing carbon dioxide from several ethanol plants, and pushing it underground in Illinois. “We’re decarbonizing the atmosphere,” Bervan says about this approach.

For Gussi, who is focused on sugarcane in a country that has turned to ethanol as a key transportation fuel, decarbonization has already started. He points out that since the oil crisis in 1973, Brazil has raised the blend of ethanol in automotive fuel to 27%. He notes that critics say imported cars don’t run well on that gas, he differs noting his use of imported cars that run on the fuel.

“The agriculture industry is part of the solution,” Gussi says. “We need all the clean sources of energy, we can’t avoid any specific fuel.” He comments that electric vehicles offer an opportunity but that there will still be a need for liquid fuel in the future, and farmers can help supply the market.

For the New Mexico farmer Ulibarri, the key is to find new ways to boost margins on the farm. She shared the story of past practices of keeping land fallow, which was common when she was a child. But margins in agriculture are tight, and pricing is getting more volatile.

When she started farming 10 years ago, they continued customary practices in the region, but three years ago Ulibarri and her husband saw that weather was getting more volatile and there was a greater need to farm in ways that preserved moisture. The region they farm only gets 18 inches or rain a year. This meant converting to no-till or minimum till and incorporating cover crops into their system, and in some cases cover crops included residue from the prior year crop.

The key is managing the soil and moisture available more closely on their operation. “It was scary to leap out and do [those practices],” she says. “We have hay in dry years when our neighbors don’t, which allows us another way to generate income.”

The value of climate-smart farming

Each of the panelists shared examples of ways new markets and options to decarbonize could bring more income. For Sievers, the digestate solids from the digesters goes on farmland and he’s seen soil organic matter rise, this can help soil hold more moisture, and boost income for the farm.

Bervan at POET discussed a pilot program where farmers near ethanol plants share input and yield data and provide a carbon index score. Those with better indexes get a bonus as high as 75-cents per bushel selling grain to that elevator.

Ulibarri notes that she’s not only a farmer but also a consumer. She explains that consumers should know that climate-smart farming practices are in place which can become an incentive for farmers. “It is open to the marketplace,” she says. “As a consumer if we want to help do our part for climate change we want to support those efforts through the value chain.” That could be all the way back to the farm, with some financial incentive.

She adds that food, fiber, feed, and fuel for the world is produced on farms. “We’re important to each other and we will not be financially viable or climate-smart if we don’t have the consumer on the other end that finds value in my product,” she says. “We all have to help each other and if we’re not continually thinking of the circularity, we’ll not get any further.”

All panelists note that the climate-smart farming initiative from the Biden Adminstration funding grants across the ag industry may offer new opportunities to farmers in the future.

Ulibarri, in her closing comment, noted that the takeaway from the COP27 event is the potential for optimism. “There are a lot of things in this world to be negative about, and want to change,” she says. “We are here, and we have a voice and we’re not just preaching to the choir. It’s not just farmers, but those in the entire system. It’s encouraging to see groups like this come together, we can be competitors on another day, competition is good and makes us better.”

About the Author(s)

Willie Vogt

Willie Vogt has been covering agricultural technology for more than 40 years, with most of that time as editorial director for Farm Progress. He is passionate about helping farmers better understand how technology can help them succeed, when appropriately applied.

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