Ethanol and Peak Food  

Posted by Big Gav

With rising demand for ethanol and other biofuels, and sugar prices already showing what this means for food prices in the future once oil depletion kicks in, more and more people are noting that this is going to result in problems (exacerbated by soil depletion, rising fertiliser costs and the lack of new arable land to expand agriculture into).

Tom Whipple's latest peak oil article considers the issue of "Ethanol and Peak Food"

No sooner had the high-gas-prices frenzy on Capitol Hill died down than a new obsession emerged— ethanol. Everywhere one looked, there was ethanol. If you live in an "over-ozoned, non-attainment" region, then every gas pump you visit has the words "10% ethanol" affixed. Television ads, magazines, and newspapers are filled with pictures of corn-yellow SUVs filled with motorists happy in the knowledge that their vehicle can run on good old American grown E-85 (85% ethanol- 15% gasoline). Their fuel dollars are staying right here in the USA and are not filling the coffers of foreign potentates.

Last Sunday, the Washington Post, which is in charge of keeping the nation's capitol up to date on all sorts of things, ran a major "A" section story on the ethanol craze sweeping the nation. From sea to shining sea, everyone from Microsoft's Bill Gates to New York 's Governor Pataki was building or announcing new ethanol plants. Rural America will soon be awash in them.

Across the farm belt everyone was getting rich making fuel from corn. Iowa wants ethanol to replace 25 percent of the state's gasoline consumption and General Motors pledged to build 400,000 more E85 capable cars this year. Farm state Congressmen are smiling as the century old problem of agricultural overproduction seems to be coming to an end. Corn prices are markedly higher. Agribusiness profits are soaring.

One searches the Post story in vain, however, for the downside to all this euphoria. As anyone who has followed the issue is well aware, there is a major debate going on about whether or not the production of corn-based ethanol takes more energy than it produces. If it does, then ethanol from corn is a giant loser for everyone but the farmer and the agribusinesses. There is also the fact that while ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline, it only produces about 70 percent of the energy and therefore gets 25-30 percent less mileage. If ethanol and gasoline are selling in the vicinity of $3 at the pump, then, in reality, you are paying $4 a gallon in comparison to sticking with plain old gasoline.

Finally we have the big question. As America is going through 500 million gallons of motor fuel per day, how much of this can safely be replaced by sharing our food with our fuel tanks?

A few days after the Post story, the answer came with a thundering crash when Canada 's National Union of Farmers issued a report on the world grain situation. The first sentence says it all: "The world is now eating more food than farmers grow, pushing global grain stocks to their lowest level in 30 years".

If the first sentence didn't get your attention, the second one says: "Rising population, water shortages, climate change, and growing costs of fossil fuel-based fertilizers point to a calamitous shortfall in the world's supplies in the near future."

There is a lot more detail, but the conclusions are the same— worldwide food production is on the downswing.

Kurt Cobb is also thinking about the subject, and bids welcome to "The newest guest at your dinner table: your car" (quoting Pimental unfortunately, whose credibility isn't entirely untarnished when it comes to his specific claims about the EROEI of biofuels, even if the gist of his argument about the problems with them is correct).
The growing drive for energy "independence" coupled with heavy subsidies has led to a scramble to build biodiesel and ethanol plants across the United States. "I wish that ethanol and biodiesel would save us," Pimentel said at a conference entitled "Peak Oil and the Environment" held in Washington, D. C. recently. Unfortunately, green plants collect relatively little solar energy, he explained. Less that 0.1 percent of the sunlight that falls on plants gets converted into usable energy. That compares with about a 20 percent conversion of sunlight to energy by photovoltaic cells.

This means that biodiesel and ethanol production facilities end up being voracious though hidden guests at the world's dinner tables. Humans get 99 percent of their food from the land and only 1 percent from the oceans, according to Pimentel. (This is in part due to the collapse of the world's fisheries brought on by new forms of industrial fish harvesting and by high demand for seafood.) The more that we demand from the land in the way of fuel, the less that will be left over to eat, and the catch from the oceans is unlikely to make up for this loss.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the recent book Plan B, spoke at the same conference. He said that as long as oil remains above $60 per barrel, it will be profitable to produce fuel from crops. "The price for oil is becoming the floor for agricultural crops," he explained. "We're setting up a competition between service stations and supermarkets. The prices of agricultural commodities will be determined by their fuel value." (my emphasis)

If oil prices remain high or even rise, they would continue to put upward pressure on grain prices. This could lead to political instability in countries such as Indonesia and Mexico which rely heavily on grain imports, Brown said.


Many other biofuels perform even worse. Pimentel and his co-author Tad Patzek determined that it takes 45 percent more energy in the form of fossil fuels to turn switchgrass into liquid fuel than that liquid fuel returns in energy. The results for wood biomass, soybeans and sunflowers were 57 percent, 27 percent and 118 percent, respectively. In short, we are currently subsidizing the production of biofuels with fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas which provide the heat and electricity to process those biofuels.

So, given all of this, what is driving the biofuels market? The simple answer is money, said Pimentel. For instance, U. S. government subsidies mean that companies producing corn ethanol receive payments totaling $7 per bushel of corn processed. The corn farmers alas receive less than a 2-cent per bushel subsidy related to ethanol production.

Pimentel offers a simple test for whether ethanol producers really believe their own hype. If ethanol offers such a magnificent energy gain, then why don't ethanol plants run on ethanol instead of coal and natural gas? Not surprisingly, this question has so far been met with dumbfounded silence.

Finfacts in Ireland says that the "Growing use of corn for conversion to fuel may push up world prices of food" (may ?).
The US, the world's largest exporter of corn, will use as much or more of the grain for conversion to ethanol in 2007 than it will sell abroad, according to estimates by the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

As gasoline prices rise, farmers are diverting more of their output to producing fuel rather than food or feedstock for animals. The new estimate highlights the growing competition between food and fuel that could push up the price of food globally. .

The USDA says that about 55m tonnes of corn will be converted into ethanol, compared with exports averaging 40m-50m tonnes over the past 15 years. This would be up from an estimated 41m tonnes last year - a quantity of corn that could feed 131m people for a year. The US accounts for 70 per cent of world corn exports.

"This year looks like being the first time ever that as much or more corn is converted into ethanol than exported. If oil prices stay high, it will propel this trend much further," USDA economist Keith Collins, said in an interview with the Financial Times.

Some of the older articles on this topic include George Monbiot on "Feeding Cars, Not People", Richard Manning on "The Oil We Eat" and WorldChanging's series of "Postcards From The Global Food System".
The Road From Green Revolution to Fatal Harvest

There are so many criticisms around the current global food system that for a while I started wondering if in fact it had already collapsed and I was studying a post-apocalyptic food system.

The difficulty with data around the food system is a little like data around climate change, only much more fragmented and fast-moving. If a group of scientists make a claim, it's fairly easy to find a Bjorn Lomborg-type claiming it ain't so, you're just fear-mongering. Discerning the truth of what's going on with the global food system at the numbers and science level requires a lot of time and energy. There is contradictory information and all of it cannot be right. At the end of the day it boils down to epistemology and axiomatic truths, and a choice needs to be made as to what we are willing to accept as legitimate data.

In trying to discern patterns in the mass of data it seemed to me that there are two broad schools of dueling, wheeling thought, with a host of lesser and emerging schools emanating from them. The first is the modern Green Revolution. The second, simultaneously representing an older form of agrarian logic and a response to the Green Revolution, can be dubbed (perhaps unfairly) the Fatal Harvest School.

The Green Revolution took hold and changed the face of agriculture through the 1960s and 1970s, although its origins lie in the early twentieth century. Until the 19th century food production grew by expanding cultivated land area. If you wanted to grow more food then you had no choice but to put more land under cultivation. A key technological advance -- synthetic ammonia -- changed this age-old truism.

The modern fertilizer industry came into being in 1909, with the synthesis of ammonia by Fritz Haber. This discovery had little agricultural impact at first; during the two world wars production of ammonia was diverted to munitions instead of farming. Following the end of the Second World War, however, the ammonia industry turned to producing ammonia for the rapidly growing fertilizer industry, contributing to dramatically increasing crop yields. Norman Borlaug, known as the “father of Green Revolution”, in his survey, “The Green Revolution: Its Origins and Contributions to World Agriculture” (B. 2003) explains that change in hard, cold numbers,
“US maize cultivation led the modernization process. In 1940, US farmers produced 56 million tons of maize on roughly 31 million hectares, with an average yield of 1.8 t/ha. In 2000 US farmers produced 252 million tons of maize on roughly 29 million hectares, with an average yield of 8.6 t/ha.”

The Green Revolution coupled developments in fertilizer synthesis with the breeding of more robust and fast growing seed varieties...

A much more recent post from WorldChanging on agriculture is "Green Water and Sustainable Agriculture".
If green is the new black, then water is the new oil. With climate change threatening harsher droughts and water scarcity facing nearly 60% of humanity, water is critical to any vision of sustainability.

Water scarcity is a major issue for rainfed agriculture, which uses 75% of all agricultural water. Rain-fed agriculture is at the mercy of two things: rain and the capacity of soil to capture and store that rain. While farmers can't do much to make it rain, they can do a lot to retain rainfall in the soil. The rainfall that infiltrates and remains in the soil--also called green water--is the largest fresh water resource and the basis of rain-fed agriculture.
Green water is a very important resource for global food production. About 60% of the world staple food production relies on … green water. The entire meat production from grazing relies on green water, and so does the production of wood from forestry. In Sub-Saharan Africa almost the entire food production depends on green water (the relative importance of irrigation is minor) and most of the industrial products, such as cotton, tobacco, wood, etc.

Payments to farmers in the developing world are one opportunity to improve water management, while at the same time alleviating poverty and ensuring the flow of ecosystem goods and services like flood control and healthy soil. Modest measures like mulching, conservation tillage, and small-scale water harvesting can increase infiltration by as much as 2-3 fold. Other methods include terracing, contouring and micro-basins that also increase green water and reduce run-off. You'd think that development agencies would be clamoring to invest in these simple but effective techniques, but...
Chris "The Feral Metallurgist" Shaw has an article up on the process of enriching uranium.
From the orebody to the reactor, uranium begins its journey conventionally enough. Like other metallic mining operations, the wanted mineral is carefully separated from the natural matrix. When the separation has been achieved to the level of purity that is practicable in an outback processing plant, the uranium oxide "yellowcake" is now concentrated enough to be conveniently transported away. Radiation levels of yellowcake are tolerable with respect to its relatively small quantity. Steel containers provide adequate short-term shielding.

The opposite might be true of the plant tailings, which although weaker in radioactive mineral, are now cast upon the surface of the land in very large amounts. Here I yield to the wisdom of the environmental scientist to inform us what is or is not tolerable.

Only a small portion of natural uranium has the ability to detonate the process that generates uranium heat energy. Seven atoms in every thousand are subtly different to their brothers. In my naive way, I will tell you that those seven atoms have the potential to release some of the energy that went into the creation of the heavier elements, in old stars, so long ago.

In that distant past, unstable transitory atoms were far more plentiful. By gathering remnant transitory atoms together in greater abundance, we can re-create those energetic times once again, if only for a brief while, in the heart of a reactor...

Common Dreams has an article on "The Value of George Orwell".
George Orwell remains a valuable writer, though he died in 1950. He was a man who was an active participant in his times, and since the new century appears to be going down the same road as the last one, we can still learn from him.

His essay "Politics and the English Language" ought to be read by every journalist and by everyone who reads journalists or listens to the babble on television.

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity," he wrote. "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

"In our age, there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia," Orwell wrote. Earlier in the essay he had said, "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible."

Our time and his time remain the same. We invade a sovereign nation based on lies, destroy its infrastructure, depose its government and kill 30,000 of its people, and we call that "spreading democracy" or "defending freedom."

The phrase "war on terror" is a phony metaphor. We are not at war. Ninety-nine and 99/100ths percent of the American people are living the same way they've always lived...

Australia's second military intervention overseas this year, in East Timor, has been dominating the news over the past few days (narrowly shading volcanic eruptions in Indonesia and sweeping away the nuclear power brouhaha). Wayne Madsen has a tinfoil explanation of what is going on - which stretches even my credulity.
May 25, 2006 -- More on East Timor's "sudden rebellion." According to Australian sources, East Timor's long sought independence is in severe jeopardy as a result of collusion between the United States, Australia, Indonesia, and the World Bank under pro-Indonesian president Paul Wolfowitz. More astounding are reports that Indonesian intelligence has thoroughly penetrated the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), by using blackmail techniques involving pedophilia and bribes. These techniques have also been used to target former Australian and U.S. ambassadors and other diplomats and military personnel assigned to Indonesia. Wolfowitz is a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia.

Australian sources report that Woodside, Australia's largest oil and natural gas company, has been playing hardball recently with East Timor's government over disputed oil blocks in the Timor Sea. Woodside has also been active in oil deals in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region, a major reason for Australia's troop deployment to that war-torn nation.

I have trouble imagining Woodside playing this sort of energy geopolitics game for some reason (though the specific points about them operating in the Timor Sea and Iraq made above are correct) - they seem to have had enough trouble in Mauritania just dealing with the local government without trying grander operations like fomenting rebellion in Timor, especially given the weak hand the East Timorese government has been dealt - and the idea that potential deals for Woodside were behind our part in the Iraq invasion seems even less likely - while I'm someone who believes the invasion was totally about oil, I tend to think Australia's role is more due to the government's desire for an enduring US security blanket, along with delusions of imperial grandeur, than a predatory desire to acquire oil rights for our companies).

Crikey has an alternative explanation.
Much has been written in recent days about the complex army/police/political divisions in East Timor. But there are other reasons for the recent violence in East Timor which are not being addressed. These speak of a government which has consistently failed to appreciate the needs of the people. Remote, imperious and at times almost embarrassingly out of touch, it has walked the state to this point and now conveniently is waiting for others to enter and clean up the mess.

Simple reason first. Approximately 96% of young adult Timorese males are unemployed. In Timor, disaffected youths hang about on virtually every street corner. During 2004-2005 numerous incidents of "gang warfare" occurred, centring on the activities of so called martial arts groups where young men flocked for want of anything better to do. The government was conspicuous in its absence of any commentary in relation to the security risk that this situation posed. The Minister for the Interior, Rogerio Labato, stated that all those who demonstrated should be viewed as criminals and if necessary shot on sight.

More complex reasons look at police impunity, increasing government authoritarianism, the erosion of civil liberties such as the right to protest and increasing allegations of police brutality, to name just a few of the live issues in East Timor.

The essential collapse of the justice system and the decision to make Portuguese the official language are inextricably linked. The implications of the decision on the part of the then provisional government were not initially fully grasped. Aside from the distance it created between Timor and its Australian neighbours, it effectively created a two-tier society: 87% who could not speak Portuguese were effectively excluded from government while the remaining 13% (US Department of State figures, September 2005) representing the remains of the colonial elite and the diaspora who now held almost complete control. ...

Venturing back towards tinfoil territory, those of you who follow Mike Ruppert's version of peak oil theory over at FTW might be familiar with Gary Webb, who wrote the "Dark Alliance" series of articles that linked the CIA, the crack cocaine epidemic and the Nicaraguan Contras (the topic that seems to have been FTW's original focus). The comments in that RI piece on video gaming I threw into the mix yesterday noted that Gary's last article was also on this subject.
For anyone who hasn't seen one of these games--known as first-person shooters--here's the gist of them. You're placed in a combat zone, armed with a weapon of your choice and sent out to find and kill other players. Knife them, club them, blow them apart with a shotgun, set them afire, vaporize them with a shoulder-launched missile, drill them through the head with a sniper rifle--the choice is yours.

Depending on the game, blood will spray, mist or spout. Sometimes your kills collapse in crumpled heaps, clutching their throats and twitching convincingly. Sometimes they cry in pain with human voices. Their bodies lie there for a while, so you can feed off them if necessary, restoring your own health. Then you can grab their weapons and set off to find another victim, assuming you don't get killed first.

It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but among young men it's far and away the most popular genre of computer game. Some psychologists and parents worry that such games are desensitizing a large, impressionable segment of the population to violence and teaching them the wrong things. But that depends on your point of view. If, like the U.S. Army, you need people who can become unflappable killers, there's no better way of finding them.

It's why the Army has spent more than $10 million in taxpayer funds developing its very own first-person shooter, and why the Navy, the Air Force and the National Guard are following suit. For anyone who thinks kids aren't learning playing shooter games, read on.

Back to slightly more standard fare, while I'm aware of the volume of money that the resources boom has sent washing through my hometown, this report left me aghast for more than one reason - I can vaguely understand places like Dubai foolishly burning some of their enormous wealth by building indoor ski slopes, but I never thought I'd see such a thing in Australia - its not even that long a flight to the local ski fields (plus I've met Steve Pretzel and he didn't seem like a maniac)...
Ski enthusiasts could be taking to the slopes in Perth if the dream of two businessmen becomes a reality.

The $45 million West Coast Snowpark project is the brainchild of Nick Forster and Steve Pretzel. Mr Forster said a feasibility study for a snow dome last year had been positive and further studies would now be carried out.

The pair believe Perth's distance from traditional snowfields and its climate make it an ideal location for a snow dome. "Our research indicates there are more than 50,000 snow-sport enthusiasts living in Perth," Mr Forster said. "These people regularly travel across the country or across the world to participate in the sport they love and would surely welcome the opportunity to have a world-class indoor facility in the Perth metropolitan area.

"Can you imagine how refreshing the ice-cold snow park would be on a baking hot Perth summer's day?"

I linked to "The Power of Nightmares" yet again on the weekend and noticed that there is an interesting Q&A session with Adam Curtis up now.
Why did you omit the economic element - oil, trade, globalisation, privatisation etc. The crucial project of imperialism.

Shosh Morris, London

I think this is a serious and important criticism. To put it at its simplest it says that the neocons are being used. That their ideas and their myth of America as a revolutionary force that can spread democracy and freedom around the world are a convenient disguise for a much more ruthless and anti-democratic exploitation of the world.

My problem with it as an argument is that it is itself based on a simplistic ideology that doesn't fully explain what is happening.

Underlying the argument is what some people call a "vulgar Marxism", the belief that business and corporate interests shape the world and that all ideas and political ideology are just froth on the surface that disguise the real, hidden forces underneath.

The neoconservatives and the Islamists believe the complete opposite - that ideas can fundamentally change the world. In the neoconservatives' own words: "Ideas do have consequences."

I don't believe either of these positions. I think the reality is far more complex - that ideas do have widespread effects but not in the way those who developed them necessarily intended. They are taken up, used and distorted by many other forces which include business and corporate interests.

But the essential point is that it is not business that leads the way. And in this area in particular I do think that the ideas had a primacy.

The reality is that both the neoconservatives and the Islamists became powerful and influential because of the power of their ideas and I wanted to make a series of films that explained the roots of these ideas and how they were taken up, simplified and distorted.

This was the focus of the programmes, and I made them this way because very few people know anything about the history of these ideas and I thought it was important to tell that history from the point of view of those involved and to critically analyse the development of their ideas.

I think it may well be true that there is a synergy, a fit, between the neoconservatives' particular individualistic version of democracy and the neo-liberal economic policies that suit American business interests but I really don't think that is what is driving the neo-conservatives.

As I said in the films I see them as the last political idealists - they are driven by an extraordinary and epic vision of transforming the world which reflects America's own revolutionary history as much as it does its capitalist economics.

Do you believe it possible that the American Neo-Cons engineered the 9/11 atrocity as a catalyst for their program?

Cliff Babbs, Daventry


Is it possible that the ideology of radical (political) Islam has a better chance of succeeding where it failed in the 1980s now that the West has responded as it has to the perception of its threat in Afghanistan, Iraq etc?

James, London

I can only repeat what I said in my previous responses on this site. I think one has to be very careful about this.

The films showed that Islamism is not a new phenomenon. Its trajectory in the 1980s and 90s is that of rise and fall. It tried to create a pan-Arab revolution and failed because it couldn't inspire the masses.

The answer is that no-one knows whether the war on terror is re-creating mass Islamism and giving it a new revolutionary appeal, or whether it is actually fuelling a more nationalist opposition that uses an Islamist rhetoric - as seems to be happening in Iraq.

The problem is that it is so dangerous to report anything in Iraq, that everyone - both pro and anti - project what they want to see onto the insurgency.

Yet again our perception of reality is being driven by political fantasies rather than an accurate understanding drawn from reality.


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