Time for Rebranding: We are Protein Producers!

At the yearly F.O.Licht's World Ethanol Conference, two speakers spoke about ethanol as a coproduct, focusing on front-end separation of high-value protein from the corn, or recovering the yeast to produce a protein concentrate.
By Rob Vierhout | December 26, 2013

At the yearly F.O.Licht's World Ethanol Conference, I had the pleasure of sharing a session on "Ethanol, the Coproduct." 

There were two very interesting speakers who did not speak about ethanol as product but on ethanol coproducts, suggesting that eventually ethanol could become the coproduct. For me, it is clear that some important changes are taking place in our industry that may, or maybe should, have implications beyond mere processing technology. They spoke about front-end separation of high-value protein from the corn, or recovering the yeast to produce a protein concentrate that is a great animal feed for fish or chicks. 

It is not just yeast that can be separated but, of course, also oil and fiber. Recently, I attended a presentation by Jerry Shurson, a professor, nutritionist and specialist on animal feed, speaking about corn oil extraction.

I never before paid much attention to these relatively new coproducts, but the more I look into them, the more I am convinced that this is going to be a gold mine,  not just for ethanol producers, but also for people like me who are defending the interests of the sector.

Corn oil is fascinating because it is an excellent raw material for all sorts of industrial uses and the production of biodiesel. Importantly, extracting oil from the corn does not diminish the nutritional value of the distillers grains. On top of that, it creates highly needed new sources of revenue. According to Shurson's research, the investment cost for the oil extraction equipment can be earned back in less than three months. Extracting yeast and fiber will create other valuable new products and welcome new revenues for the ethanol producer, particularly when ethanol margins are low.

I see another use for these new coproducts in a totally different market segment: the political or regulatory market. For over a year, we have had a fierce lobby in the EU on the unintended effects caused by biofuel policy in indirect land use change (ILUC). The debate is conducted in a one-sided way by putting much emphasis on the food/feed crop needed to produce the ethanol or biodiesel mandated by policy. We try as much as possible to explain that the ILUC effect is quite different, very likely nonexistent or even positive, if the coproducts are accounted for in the proper way.

It seems that something that is so obvious does not resonate well with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), media and many regulators. Why is that?

I think the main reason is that we keep stressing first and foremost that we are ethanol (biofuel) producers and this makes us extremely vulnerable because it is the biofuel policy that is under attack. The main problem lies in the way we have been branding ourselves. What for many producers is (now) the main source of income when producing ethanol should maybe become the way to defend our industry. Rather than repeating that we are ethanol producers, we should brand ourselves as protein producers. It is not different from the soy business: the main product is soymeal, the oil is just a byproduct.

In Europe, we need to import 70 percent of our protein needs. Positioning ourselves as protein producers should resonate well even with NGOs. The European ethanol sector has a great story to tell: we use (feed) grains, enrich the proteins in those grains so that we can reduce the protein shortage in Europe. Oh yes, we also do produce ethanol from the sugars (not very healthy for the animals) that we can use in the sectors of drinks, industry, chemicals and energy.

From now on, we should call ourselves protein producers that operate a biorefinery with a coproduct called ethanol. It is a residue and should maybe count double when one uses it as a fuel.

It is time we start seriously thinking about rebranding the ethanol industry.

Author: Robert Vierhout
Secretary-general, ePUREVierhout@epure.org