Sunday

Trading Food for Fuel

One of the myriad ways that my upbringing was "un-American" is that I was raised to be very skeptical of simple solutions, as well as the status quo. As this country begins it's slow emergence out of denial, and begins to recognize that we are running out of oil, we seem to be latching on to "quick fixes" and simple answers in a way that is note-worthy even for this young country. One example: biofuel.

I have to admit that I was innitally taken in ~I mean, it sounds so lovely: swap out icky, poluting and unsustainable fosil fuels for stuff so pure, clean and organic that -in it's raw form- you can literally eat it. But, you see, that is in fact one of the primary problems. You can not have your grain and burn it too.

In an increasingly hungery world, cars claimed a substantial portion of the world's grain consumption this year, according to a enlightening and deeply disternbing article from the Earth Policy Institute.

"In agricultural terms, the world appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain it takes to fill the tank every two weeks over a year will feed 26 people."

In some U.S. Corn Belt states, ethanol distilleries are taking over the corn supply. In Iowa, a staggering 55 ethanol plants are operating or have been proposed. According to Iowa State University economist Bob Wisner, if all these plants are built, they would use all the corn grown in Iowa. In South Dakota, a top-ten corn-growing state, ethanol distilleries are already claiming over half of the corn harvest.

We are all familiar with the cycles of supply and demand, as the price of oil climbs, it becomes increasingly profitable to convert farm commodities into automotive fuel, either ethanol or biodiesel. Whenever the food value of a commodity drops below its fuel value, the market will convert it into fuel. We are currently willing to pay 70 a barrel for oil, what does that say about what we soon might be paying for a bushel of corn, and thus an ear of corn for our dinner table.

The U.S. investment in biofuel production is threatening to draw grain away from the production of meat, milk, and eggs. And, most seriously, the vast number of distilleries in operation, under construction, and in the planning stages threatens to reduce grain available for direct human consumption. Simply put, the stage is being set for a head-on collision between the world’s 800 million affluent automobile owners and the world's food consumers. Given the insatiable appetite of cars for fuel, higher grain prices appear inevitable. The only question is when food prices will rise and by how much. Indeed, in recent months, wheat and corn prices have risen by one fifth.

Think about how many grocery item contain corn, grain, milk and eggs, rather rules out the line "let them eat cake. For the 2 billion people in the world who spend over half of their income on food, rising grain prices can quickly become life threatening. The broader risk is that rising food prices could spread hunger and generate political instability in low-income countries that import grain, including Mexico. If ethanol distillery demand for grain continues its explosive growth, driving grain prices to dangerous highs, the U.S. government may find themselves in a whole new "war without end" in the form of an unfolding global conflict over food.

There are alternatives to using food-based fuels, alternative to fuel-based transportation, as well as alternatives to single passenger transportation. While there are no alternatives to food for people.

One immediately available alternative would be to simply raise auto fuel efficiency standards by 20 percent, which would give us the equivalent of the 3 percent gain in automotive fuel supplies from ethanol everal times over—and at a fraction of the cost. Other alternatives include shifting some of the current investment in biofule production to investing in public transport could reduce overall dependence on cars.Similarly, if wind-rich countries such as the United States invest heavily in wind farms to feed cheap electricity into the grid, cars could run primarily on wind energy, and at the gasoline equivalent of less than $1 a gallon.

No matter how one crunches the numbers, the simple fact is that we will need to reduce our energy consumption, which was never sustainable by any standard; and in seeking alternatives, we must keep in mind that the days of simple and cheap answers are behind us. They are in fact what has brought us here.

8 comments:

Tom Gray said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

More info about wind and plug-in hybrid autos available here.

Regards,
Thomas O. Gray
American Wind Energy Association
www.awea.org
www.ifnotwind.org

Curt said...

Excellent article.

It's true, that's why oil conservation measures sound have been seriously undertaken a long time ago.

One thing to remember about biofuel is that some sources of grain are a lot more efficient than others, because of the processing methods involved. None of them are really very attractive given the factors you've talked about, such as deferring resources that are often badly needed for food.

Of corn, for instance, it is often said that 6 units of energy have to go into the biofuel process to get 1 unit of energy out. So it's going to be a net loss of energy there until there are significant developments in technology.

But with some other grains, grains native to México and South America and not the US and Canada, the ratio is much lower: it's maybe like 3 in and 1 out, or maybe even 1 1/2 to 1 in some cases. That's a big part of why Brazil has had such success in realigning their economy with biofuel, to a high degree. But that presents another problem: deforestation, of course. So you're exactly right, it's a picture where even attractive opportunities have severely negative ramifications.

Rebecca said...

Yes, there are a lot of problems with biofuels - our methods of agriculture involve the very intensive application of energy and produce a lot of environmental problems, such as water pollution and soil erosion, so turning to agriculture to supply our fuel needs is obviously not plausible, at least not without a lot of careful planning.

Anonymous said...

Great article, Griffin.

Careful planning toward turning to agriculture to supplement our fuel needs could include more wind farms, and incorporating more solar energy wherever possible.

It's also time we make a hell of a lot more noise about the current refusal of government and industry to bring affordable electric vehicles to the marketplace. It could be done, but it isn't being done, and that's just plain wrong. Our nation would collapse if every individual was denied the automobile, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be more thoughtful and moderate about using cars.

Playing devil's advocate (can't help myself, you know): I wonder wonder wonderbread, if we did away with only the unhealthful convenience foods the main ingredient of which is processed grain, who would be hurt and who would benefit, and what other use might that grain be put to? I'm thinking of Nabisco, Kraft, Sunshine, Little Debbie, Keebler, and even most of Kelloggs, Post and General Mills - just to scratch the surface.

Aside from recovering a lot of wheat and oats, we'd recover corn and eliminate HFCS from our diets -- eliminating HFCS needs to be done anyway.

Further, I'm doubtful that even whole grains should comprise the bulk of a healthy diet -- for people or livestock. Grain sure is convenient, and it takes a lot of land to pasture-feed beef & dairy cows. I suspect if switched completely to more efficient means of raising these animals, supply would descrease and prices would soar. Nobody needs to eat a 20oz steak, but the formation of the teeth of our species would indicate to me that some animal protein is appropriate for human consumption.

Likewise, convenient or not, nobody should eat a diet comprised of 80% grain. It's just not natural or balanced, and our population's predilection for wheat allergy, along with the fact that wheat and corn (and dairy!) exacerbate diseases such as fibromyalgia, is proof.

Why dairy products even end up in human bellies in this day and age is a mystery to me. While at some point in history humans had to turn to the milk produced by other mammals as a means to avoid starvation, we're much better off healthwise to limit ourselves to human mother's milk. Calcium is more readily assimilated in vegetable form. The natural and more efficient sources for Vitamin D are mushrooms (wild ones, especially, and who doesn't love wild mushrooms?), fish and eggs.

Back to my original point, the companies I mentioned above, and others, churn out a lot of grain based garbage. Compared to eating a whole foods diet, eating refined foods ain't cheap in the short or long term, yet even people on government food programs gobble it up. It makes people fat and toxic; there are longterm health consequences, yet our government encourages it.

If we got rid of all of that crap, gave up our beloved cheeses, decreased without eliminating animal protein, and yet continued to produce the grains that currently go into these products, how many more people could we feed, more cheaply?

How many biofuel cars could we fuel?

How many people would lose their jobs?

What would they do next?

zilla said...

How did I suddenly become anonymous? As if you don't know me by my long-windedness :-)

griffin said...

Zilla! I thought that might be you! :)
Thanks to all for your insights and input. Good points all.
Doubtless it is true that grains shoud not be the bulk of one's diet, though not eveyone has the luxery of that choice. For much of the worlds poorest citizens rice and other grains are a staple. Further, one of the dominant agricultural products being converted to biofule is corn, though nearly any crop could be used. Brazil is focusing on sugar, which probably dont belong in anyone's diet (though it figure prominantly in my coffee habbit)
Gven the already monumental issues of hunger and poverty, it makes sense to me to focus on wind, solar and (ofcourse) human power

Nathan said...

You can have my processed grains and my HFCS and my milk but you'll have to pry my cheese from my cold, dead fingers!

;)

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