'Biofuels' Hard Choice: Want Food or Fuel?
It's been just over two year ago that Georges Monbiot warned us of the dark side of an apparently good idea: replacing petroleum based fuels with others based on bio-mass. My article reporting on this drew some critical comments, but the initial fears seem to be borne out now as we are getting closer to implementing the biofuel option.
In May 2005, US president Bush urged widespread adoption of both biodiesel and ethanol production from agricultural products, as part of a strategy to reduce US dependence on oil imports. What he apparently didn't consider were the knock-on effects of such a strategy on food prices and ultimately on the ability of agriculture to assure a supply of plentiful, affordable food for all.
Mae-Wan Ho of the Institute for Science in Society warns in a recent article titled Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits
that Europe’s thirst for biofuels is fuelling deforestation and food price hikes, exacerbated by a false accounting system that awards carbon credits to the carbon profligate nations. She adds that "a mandatory certification scheme for biofuels is needed to protect the earth’s most sensitive forest ecosystems, to stabilise climate and to safeguard our food security."
Tom Philpott, in an article published by Grist magazine takes the discussion further, showing that a relatively small move towards biofuels in the US has been doubling the price of corn in the space of a year, as the grain becomes a sought-after raw material for ethanol to be added to gasoline.
What the concerns expressed on both sides of the Atlantic show is that biofuels may be far from the magic solution to our energy problems we are looking for. We should direct our attention and support to real new energy inventions. These new technologies under development by an army of private inventors and tinkerers are without public funding and there is little interest in real breakthroughs. Yes, there are some potentially disruptive technologies out there waiting for their day. They could easily upset the billion-dollar fossil fuel energy interests as they are coming into play. But come they will, with or without public funding.
In addition to the more conventional alternatives such as solar, wind and tidal power, there are promising developments on fuelless technologies that tap the energy potential provided by magnets as well as unconventional chemical and nuclear reactions.
If you're interested in following developments in these emerging energy technologies, there is a great site to bookmark and keep track of by getting their "Daily FE_Updates". There is also a Free energy Wiki which allows anyone to contribute with the accumulation and sorting of information about new energy developments.
But perhaps you want to first get a whiff of the pitfalls of using agricultural biomass for fuel production, which Tom Philpott has exposed in his article Feeding the Beast:
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Feeding the Beast
It's time for a real "food vs. fuel" debate
By Tom Philpott
13 Dec 2006
(see the original here for more links)
Can U.S. farmers keep filling the nation's bellies as they scramble to fuel its cars?
Given its evident gravity, the question has drawn remarkably little debate. Like it or not, though, more and more food is being devoted to fueling the nation's 211-million-strong auto fleet. High gasoline prices, a dizzying variety of government supports, and an investment frenzy have caused corn-based ethanol production to more than triple since 1998.
As recently as a year ago, corn seemed wildly overproduced. Suddenly, it's a hot commodity. In 1998, about 5 percent of the corn harvest (526 million bushels) went into ethanol production, according to the National Corn Growers Association. This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects ethanol producers to use upward of 2 billion bushels, or nearly 20 percent of the crop.
And ethanol's voracious appetite for corn isn't expected to abate anytime soon. According to the pro-ethanol Renewable Fuels Association, 109 ethanol refineries currently churn out 5.3 billion gallons of ethanol a year -- and an additional 56 plants (plus expansions at seven existing ones) have broken ground. When these new plants are on line, the industry's capacity will nearly double, to 9.7 billion gallons a year.
Presumably, its demand for corn will nearly double, too -- and that means higher food prices for consumers.
Corn Hits a 10-Year High
For most of the past five years, steadily rising ethanol demand has had little effect on corn prices. Bolstered by generous subsidies, corn farmers churned out more than enough product to satisfy demand from ethanol plants while holding prices steady.
This year, though, after the gasoline industry abruptly abandoned MTBE and embraced ethanol as an oxygenate enhancer, ethanol demand spiked, and the price of corn finally followed suit. A bushel of corn currently fetches about $3.45 -- a 10-year high that leaves last year's low of $1.50 in the dust.
Considering that corn suffuses the U.S. food system -- it's the main feed for beef, poultry, egg, dairy, and hog production, and provides sweetness for candy, cereal, soft drinks, and other supermarket staples -- its price can't suddenly jump without causing repercussions. In the early 1970s, a sudden spike in grain prices quickly upped the cost of meat, making it a luxury even for many middle-class families. (Hamburger Helper, anyone?)
Tyson Foods, the world's largest meat and poultry processor, has already signaled that a similar scenario might be on the way now. "I believe the American consumer is going to have to pay more for protein," Tyson CEO Richard L. Bond recently told investors. "Quite frankly, the American consumer is making a choice here ... either corn for feed or corn for fuel."
Elsewhere, The Wall Street Journal recently explained succinctly why poultry prices will soon reflect corn's new popularity as a fuel source. Because of higher corn prices, "It costs nearly a nickel more to produce a pound of chicken today than at the end of 2005, yet the 20-year average industry profit margin per pound of chicken is two cents. This means poultry producers either will have to raise prices or slash other costs."
It should be noted that any farmer who has survived the last 20 years in the poultry business has already slashed costs to the bone; higher prices seem inevitable. And adding a nickel a pound for whole chickens at the farm level will ripple up the food system, translating to higher increases on the supermarket shelf.
The Boom Heard 'Round the World
While the industrial-food system is easy to criticize, it's important to recognize that vast numbers of people rely on it for cheap sustenance. For more than 30 years, real growth in average wages has, at best, floundered. According to University of Massachusetts economist Robert Pollin's Contours of Descent: The Economic Consequences of Clinton, Bush, and Greenspan, real hourly wages peaked at $15.73 in 1973 and by 2000 stood at $14.15 (in 2001 dollars). And that was after a rare three-year growth spurt provoked by the stock-market bubble; since 2000, wages have essentially flatlined.
Not surprisingly, tens of millions face what the USDA calls "food insecurity," which the agency defines as the condition of households being "uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food."
In that context, the federally funded effort to divert billions of bushels of corn into ethanol with scant public debate seems cavalier.
Moreover, the pattern of booming biofuel production driving up feedstock prices is also taking root in developing countries -- where, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization claims [PDF], some 800 million people face persistent hunger and malnutrition.
In a blunt report last week, The Wall Street Journal vividly illustrated the effect of booming European demand for biodiesel on Southeast Asian palm-oil production. Prices for the tropical fat have jumped more than 30 percent in 2006, spurring rapid deforestation as landowners scramble to plant more palm, the Journal reports.
Meanwhile, Brazil's successful sugarcane ethanol program has inspired copycats -- and a rally in sugar prices. Sugar prices recently came off 25-year highs, but that's only because growers in other areas are scrambling to plant cane and thus increase supply. According to the Journal, "In India, environmental activists say, water tables are dropping as farmers try to boost production of ethanol-yielding sugar."
Deforestation, falling water tables -- these are hardly the hallmarks of a fuel source that can reasonably be called "renewable," much less an agriculture strategy designed to maintain food-production capacity. And rising prices for food commodities, without other social reforms, will only translate to more misery for the global south.
Already, the FAO is sounding the alarm. The agency claims that world grain prices are at ten-year highs in part because of "fast-growing demand for biofuel production." These high prices, the FAO warns, cause "dismay [for] many developing countries that rely on the international market to meet their staple food needs," many of which will "reduce food purchases, not always in response to their own improved domestic supplies but rather because of the high international prices."
Covering Every Inch
Here in the United States, cellulosic ethanol, which could theoretically utilize non-food crops such as switchgrass, is often held up as the panacea for a truly green biofuel that needn't have much effect on food prices.
Yet the process for extracting sugars from cellulose remains, 30 years since the government first started investing in research for it, just beyond the grasp of viable commercial-scale production. USDA chief economist Keith Collins recently told Congress not to expect significant fuel contributions from cellulose for "some years into the future."
In that testimony, Collins articulated the official response to reining in food prices as ethanol production booms: grow more corn. That's a bracing strategy in a nation that already produces 42 percent of the world's supply of the crop.
Because of the ethanol boom, "The United States will need substantial increases in corn acreage to prevent exports from declining and livestock profitability from falling," Collins declared. He reckoned that by 2010, the 80 million acres currently devoted to corn would need to expand by an additional 10 million acres to meet rising demand for ethanol. Where to find them? Collins points to the Conservation Reserve Program, the 36 million acres of marginal, environmentally sensitive land the government now pays farmers to keep fallow.
Moreover, per-acre corn yields -- driven by copious dousings of fossil-fuel-derived fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, pesticides, and investments in heavy farm machinery -- must rise, from about 148 bushels per acre in 2005 to 155 bushels by 2010, Collins claimed.
Even with these measures, Collins predicts, corn prices will likely "set new record highs over the next five or six years." And he acknowledges that the strategy will offset little fossil-fuel use. "Corn ethanol alone," he told Congress, "cannot greatly reduce U.S. dependence on crude oil."
Mano a Monocrop
Given the environmentally ruinous nature of corn production, the economist Collins presents an odd plan for clean energy.
Indeed, squeezing yet more corn from the land to make a relatively small amount of auto fuel might not even deliver a net reduction in greenhouse gases. Michael B. McElroy, professor of environmental studies at Harvard, recently wrote that "the reduction in net emissions of carbon dioxide obtained by using corn rather than petroleum as a 'feedstock' for motor fuel is largely offset by additional emissions of the several hundredfold more potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, formed as a byproduct of the nitrogen fertilizer used to grow the corn."
Such a corn-centric strategy might even impede our ability to grow food. Blanketing even greater swaths of the Midwest with ever-intensely cultivated, monocropped, chemically reliant corn plants seems like a recipe for further degrading the nation's richest store of topsoil.
Yet current public policy is pushing us decisively in that direction. In his exhaustive study of the complex array of biofuel subsidies, Doug Koplow estimated [PDF] that total government support for ethanol will soon reach between $6.3 billion and $8.7 billion. (In fiscal year 2005, by contrast, Amtrak received $1.2 billion in federal funding.)
Despite the gargantuan annual outflow of government cash, public discussion of the ethanol question has been muted. In the last election, the political debate centered on which of the two major parties embraced ethanol more.
That must change. Hinging so much of the U.S. food system on monocropped corn agriculture was always a dubious decision. Extending corn's domain to the nation's gas tanks compounds the error, and can hardly be counted on to provide a sustainable supply of food or fuel.
With food prices rising and environmentally sensitive land in the U.S. and the global south alike going under the plow to plant fuel crops, it's time for a blunt international debate on the wisdom of biofuel.
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Grist staff writer Tom Philpott farms and cooks at Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
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Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits by Mae-Wan Ho
U.N.: Food prices could offset biofuels benefits
Biofuels like ethanol can help reduce global warming and create jobs for the rural poor, but the benefits may be offset by serious environmental problems and increased food prices for the hungry, the United Nations concluded in its first major report on bioenergy.
Biofuels Boom Raises Tough Questions
The problem is, ethanol really isn't ready for prime time. The only economical way to make ethanol right now is with corn, which means the burgeoning industry is literally eating America's lunch, not to mention its breakfast and dinner. And though ethanol from corn may have some minor benefits with regard to energy independence, most analysts conclude its environmental benefits are questionable at best.
Scientists Weigh Downside of Palm Oil
Marcel Silvius, a climate expert at Wetlands International in the Netherlands, led a team that compared the benefits of palm oil to the ecological harm from destroying virgin Asian rain forests to develop lucrative new plantations. His conclusion: "As a biofuel, it's a failure."
The four-year study found that 600 million tons of carbon dioxide seep into the air each year from the drained swamps. Another 1.4 billion tons go up in smoke from fires lit to clear rain forest for plantations - smoke that often shrouds Singapore and Malaysia in an impenetrable haze for weeks at a time. Together, those 2 billion tons of CO2 account for 8 percent of the world's fossil fuel emissions, the report said.
H2CAR could fuel entire U.S. transportation sector
A new process which combines carbon from biomass and hydrogen from wind or other renewable energy sources could supply the liquid hydrocarbons needed for transportation without over-use of land area to grow biomass instead of food - until we come upon a better idea that is.
Biofuels more harmful to humans than petrol and diesel, warn scientists
"The dialogue so far on biofuels has been pretty much focused on greenhouse gases alone," said David Tilman, a professor at the department of ecology, evolution and behaviour at the University of Minnesota. "And yet we felt there were many other impacts that were positive or negative not being included. We wanted to expand the analysis from greenhouse gases to at least one other item and we chose health impacts."
The health problems caused by conventional fuels are well studied and stem from soot particles and other pollution produced when they are burned. With biofuels, the problems are caused by particles given off during their growth and manufacture.
70 Percent More Energy Required to Make Ethanol than Actually is in Ethanol: Cornell
Neither increases in government subsidies to corn-based ethanol fuel nor hikes in the price of petroleum can overcome what one Cornell agricultural scientist calls a fundamental input-yield problem: It takes more energy to make ethanol from grain than the combustion of ethanol produces.
"Abusing our precious croplands to grow corn for an energy-inefficient process that yields low-grade automobile fuel amounts to unsustainable, subsidized food burning," said the Cornell professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Scientists Expose Devastating False Carbon Accounting for Biofuels
A team of thirteen scientists led by Timothy Searchinger at Princeton University, New Jersey, in the United States, pointed to a "far-reaching" flaw in carbon emissions accounting for biofuels in the Kyoto Protocol and in climate legislation. It leaves out CO2 emission from tailpipes and smokestacks when bioenergy is used, and most seriously of all, it does not count emissions from land use change when biomass is grown and harvested.
They said that replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy does not by itself reduce carbon emissions, because the CO2 released by tail pipes and smokestacks is roughly the same per unit of energy regardless of the source, while emissions from producing and/or refining biofuels also typically exceed those for petroleum.
posted by Sepp Hasslberger on Thursday December 14 2006
updated on Wednesday December 1 2010
URL of this article:
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