Sunday, March 16, 2008

Burning Our Food

The Global Warming "debate" continues with little air-time or space given to the opposing view: the view that disputes Al Gore's INCONVENIENT TRUTH. As I study the issue - I hope to post my thoughts as I develop them. This little post concerns the push for alternative fuels - specifically corn-based ethanol.

If you haven't noticed yet, you will soon - the price of foodstuffs is going up. The reason is the increasing demand for corn to be used in the production of ethanol. Folks - it doesn't make sense for several reasons: 1. corn is not a good source of fuel, as it takes more energy to produce corn-ethanol than is gained in the output. That is not disputed; 2. even if we took all the available farm acreage in the US and started growing corn and soybeans, we still could not produce enough ethanol to meet our energy needs.

This is driving the price of corn out the roof (prices have gone from $1.86 bushel in late 2005 to $5 bushel on Chicago futures market in February 2008) and the price of things that eat / use corn along with it. (Wheat prices, too, have soared from $3.40 bushel in late 2005 to $18 at Chicago in February 2008). Just think about it - dairy farmers feed corn / silage to the cows. The price of corn makes this cost-prohibitive. Beef cattle farmers also feed some corn and this, coupled with the price of fuel & the low sale prices of recent years, has resulted in many cattle farmers dumping their cattle on the market. Right now, beef prices - ie. hamburger/steak, etc. are very low due to this flood of US beef on the market. But what do you think will be the case when supply doesn't meet demand for US beef - that's right - higher beef prices, too!

Next - think about our taking certain farmland out of normal production and putting it into corn/soy crops. That means, in order for us here in America to meet the food demands, we will be importing more and more food. It is a scary thought for the US to be reliant on other countries to provide our food. You think our thirst for foreign oil is causing tough economic times - just wait until there is an OPEC-like cartel dictating the price of say - wheat? The Feds have mandated that 36 Billion gallons of renewable fuel be used by year 2022. On what land, I ask?

I want to quote some stuff from a presentation by Dennis T. Avery of the Hudson Institute here and I want to make sure he gets credit. His presentation was titled "Food, Fuel or Wild Species: The Eco-Dangers of Growing More Biofuels."

The world is farming all of its prime land already. Agriculture is humanity's biggest intrusion on nature. To increase production for biofuels (or the replacement land to grow food crops) would take millions of acres and displace a lot of wild species, both flora and fauna. Think about the millions of acres of forests cleared and wetlands drained for agriculture.

World food/feed demand is expected to double in the next 40 years. Humans are expected to increase from 6.3 Billion to 8 - 10 Billion by 2050. A push for more high-protein diets are ardently sought but take three times the farming resources to grow.

Biofuels Violate Farm Rule #1: Save the Poorer Land for Nature
  • Corn ethanol nets 50 gals of gas equivalent per acre. If corn yields double (it would take better fertilizers for this and that is a use of energy to create) it still takes too much land.
  • Sugar cane yields 3.6 times more energy per acre but this is on tropical land with big biodiversity questions
  • Palm oil plantations attract thousand of great apes (orangutans) which are captured/killed so that the European Union can have biodiesel. It also threatens elephants and Sumatran tigers.
So, are we going to go backwards on protection of certain areas set aside for "green space" in our quest for alternative fuels?

Higher Crop Yields (more crop per acre): it will take more and better fertilizer to increase crop yields. Huge amounts of natural gas energy is necessary to create fertilizer and then you have the whole run-off issues, etc.

I am still studying switch-grass / pine harvest residue and other sources proposed for ethanol production. I could go on about that and I am sure someone will comment that there are or will be other sources for ethanol than food crops. The jury is still out on that.

In summary: fewer US crops for food; fewer cattle raised here in US; crops that are grown here are subject to the WTO (see Brazil vs. US cotton in World Court); rising fossil fuel prices affect food production costs for farmers; transportation costs due to increased fuel prices affect the price of food; slower economy; rising prices; more land cleared to meet fuel & food demands worldwide; loss of natural habitat increases the risk of losing species - and more land will be necessary unless we use more fertilizers to increase crop yield; the whole water issue that is bubbling to the surface (pun intended) and competition for water between farming and metropolitan/human needs - it goes on and on and on and on. An old Chinese proverb says: "He who burns his food goes hungry."

I think we should be afraid - very afraid - of the direction this is heading.