Why aren’t we addressing climate change with American solutions?

17 July 2023

For farmers like me, summer means growing season.

For others, it marks the start of the summer travel season, and airlines are projecting that this could be the busiest season ever, with a record number of Americans looking to fly. Simultaneously, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe climate change needs to be addressed in the coming years, with more than half stating that action is necessary now. Building a sustainable future for flight is key to balancing growing demand for air travel with a desire to reduce carbon emissions. The solution can be found here at home.

Crop-based biofuels offer significant opportunities to decarbonize flight using homegrown feedstock and more sustainable on-farm agricultural processes. Biofuels’ drop-in nature means they are ready-to-use – today – while the development of more efficient engines and planes continues. The U.S. sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) industry is nascent, and government support of the farmers producing these lower-carbon fuels is still relevant.

There is an internationally-negotiated framework for carbon emissions known as the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which favors European policy and practices. Policy guidance from the Biden administration will determine which SAF producers qualify for sustainable aviation fuel tax credits. A misguided decision on which model is adopted threatens farms across America, including my own, who are contributing to the country’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Corn is a major U.S. agricultural product, accounting for more than $18 billion in exports in 2022. America’s corn and soybean farmers will be integral to this sustainable aviation movement – with our crops serving as the feedstocks needed to produce sustainable, lower-carbon, and American-made biofuels, including SAF, while separately meeting feed demand for agriculture.

Biofuel feedstock production is safe for consumers and the environment. Our farms adhere to all local, state and federal regulations in place for land use, labor, environmental, and health and safety laws. The industry also adopts the latest advances in sustainable agriculture to improve our land use and reduce our carbon emissions, such as regenerative agricultural systems to enhance soil quality, reduce our dependence on synthetic fertilizers, and improve yields, all while reducing waste and emissions.

At my farm in Minnesota, we take the responsibility to be good stewards of our land and resources very seriously. Not only is it good for the environment, but also our livelihood – and the sustainability of our family, business, and rural American communities depends on it. For example, we use our cattle’s manure to fertilize our fields – organically enhancing soil nutrients while reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers. The decaying residue from past crops also enriches our soil, while conservation tillage like strip-till and no till helps us reduce fuel consumption and capture production-generated carbon emissions. These sustainable farming practices help shrink our carbon footprint and will be essential in helping aviation reach net zero by using American-made SAF.

If the international CORSIA framework is adopted as the basis for determining eligibility for U.S. SAF tax credits, many U.S. crop-based biofuels would be disqualified. Because the framework imposes criteria tailored to European farmers and producers, it conflicts with U.S. regulations and agricultural practices and fails to credit the carbon-savings practices American farms employ.

CORSIA’s flaws and harms to American agriculture don’t stop there. The framework would also require an audit of each SAF feedstock producer that is rooted in European regulations. My farm underwent a third-party CORSIA audit this year, and we passed all but one of the sustainability requirements because we used a rootworm-control treatment on our corn that is legal in the U.S. and abroad, but does not comply with the CORSIA sustainability certifier’s guidelines. This treatment is safe and essential for producing crop yields needed to feed and fuel the world.

Requiring U.S. farmers to comply with an international scheme favoring European regulations and norms is a burdensome process most farmers cannot afford – both in time and money. We operate on tight margins and cannot afford to lose an entire year’s worth of crops to regulations that were never intended to address American farming practices, ecosystems, and challenges. Furthermore, American agriculture has always been the world leader in efficiency, technology, safety, and production so adopting a European system would be a step backwards. Regulations must be sensible and workable so they are effective and widely adopted by American farmers.

As regulators consider varying frameworks for qualifying for SAF tax credits, they must establish clear, reasonable, and practical sustainability requirements tailored to U.S. agriculture. I urge the Biden administration to reexamine SAF tax credit criteria to protect American agriculture and sustainability efforts. We shouldn’t weaken our farmers’ ability to power America at such a critically important climate juncture.

Shawn Feikema is the owner of Feikema Farms in Luverne, Minnesota. Feikema Farms grows corn, soybeans, cattle and other agricultural products, as well as feedstock to Minnesota-based sustainable aviation fuel producer Gevo.

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