The Looming Biofuels Disaster

I understand that we are on the cusp of a very important Primary election, and there just doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day to promote our favorite candidates and fire digital arrows at those who dare to oppose them. But I've had an issue hovering just inside my awareness for some time now, that's been yammering for me to write about it, so please bear with me.

It may be self-serving for me to say this, but human beings are fairly intelligent. We can make fire; we can build structures to keep us safe and dry; we've developed all sorts of conveyances to carry our lazy asses from one point to another, over land and even through the air. But we're not real good at long-range planning. We're basically just big children when it comes to that. The here and now is important, and the future is something that someone else can worry about.

So now we're in the middle of a crisis, and one that should have been dealt with thirty years ago when we had to leave our cars parked at empty gas stations. But we didn't. The oil started flowing again, and pretty soon we traded our economy cars for monstrous things whose appetite for fuel is nearly insatiable, belching carbon-riddled fumes wherever we went. And now crude oil, which was selling for $20-$30 per barrel just ten years ago, is fetching over $100 per barrel.

So another crisis is upon us, and the engineers are back to trying to figure out how to stretch more miles out of each gallon. And we're also trying to figure out how to stretch more gallons out of every gallon, and the magic word is ethanol, a sugar derivative. Unfortunately, the collision of the world's appetite for combustible fuel with the world's food-related agriculture is affecting a change that is already having a horrific impact on food security as well as the environment itself.

In a discussion here at BlueNC almost a year ago, I mentioned a few things that I wish had been merely unfounded fears:

But there are both environmental and humanitarian issues at stake here, which really is off-topic from the discussion about state funding for projects that take away precious business from private companies, but I'm going to say something anyway.

One of the reasons I spoke (on another thread) about keeping the entire process domestic, is about America's insatiable appetite for fuel, and how that can impact the rest of the world in the age of biofuels. We've talked about sugar cane vs corn, but an even bigger (and scarier) source for ethanol is palm oil. How do you get it, especially in the volume biofuels would demand? You clear rainforests. Which is a whole 'nother discussion.

And then there's the food issue. If biodiesel usage skyrockets, and if we move towards a higher concentration of bio in the mixture, it could (probably would) literally take food out of the mouths of the poor, some even in the U.S., but a lot in the third world. There is more than enough arable land in the world to feed everybody several times over, but we still lose millions of people annually due to starvation and malnutrition. Why? Because there's not enough money in their pockets to justify a concerted effort to grow the crops. But...if rich Americans need fuel for their SUVs, that's a different story.

Can you see that in your mind? Can you see rail-thin children toiling in soy or rapeseed fields in Africa, or wide swaths of rainforests in South America burning, to make way for cash crops to feed the American fuel-guzzling machine? I can, which is why I hope Biodiesel is merely a stage in the process that ends with hydrogen or some other, much better solution.

In a statement last Fall from Jean Zeigler, the United Nations independent expert on the right to food, he described the growing use of food crops to produce ethanol a "crime against humanity", because of the impact it was having on world hunger:

Last March, President Bush and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed an agreement committing their countries to boosting ethanol production. They said increasing use of alternative fuels would lead to more jobs, a cleaner environment and greater independence from the whims of the oil market.

Ziegler called their motives legitimate, but said that ''the effect of transforming hundreds and hundreds of thousands of tons of maize, of wheat, of beans, of palm oil, into agricultural fuel is absolutely catastrophic for the hungry people.''

The world price of wheat doubled in one year and the price of corn quadrupled, leaving poor countries, especially in Africa, unable to pay for the imported food needed to feed their people, he said. And poor people in those countries are unable to pay the soaring prices for the food that does come in, he added.

''So it's a crime against humanity'' to devote agricultural land to biofuel production, Ziegler said a news conference. ''What has to be stopped is ... the growing catastrophe of the massacre (by) hunger in the world,'' he said.

As an example, he said, it takes 510 pounds of corn to produce 13 gallons of ethanol. That much corn could feed a child in Zambia or Mexico for a year, he said.

Many reading this are aware of the sudden surge in food prices worldwide. Biofuels production is listed as merely one of several reasons for this, including some dismal crop yields in large-producing countries like Australia, but I believe it is a driver/trigger mechanism for the (world) surge in food prices, because it represents more than just a temorary reduction in food availability.

While we may have seen the effects of this on the prices of some of our grocery items, it's mostly just a little irritating. For some, however, this surge in food prices has moved them from barely getting by to malnutrition and starvation.

Africa is not only on the verge of a food security crisis, it's perched on the edge of a wave of civil unrest that could leave many nations virtually ungoverned. Just picture Somalia repeated a few dozen times over, and you can maybe get the picture. The recent food riots in Burkina Faso and Cameroon are only a taste of what's in store. The price of cereals has risen so high, livestock are being slaughtered and sold because people can no longer afford to feed them.

And thanks to a combination of the rising cost of food and the growing ranks of those who can no longer afford to feed themselves, the U.N. World Food Programme is about 500 million short of the funds it needs to provide assistance, equating to what they describe as a "silent tsunami":

“This is the new face of hunger – the millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category six months ago but now are,” said WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran, who is meeting British Government officials after addressing a UK parliamentary hearing in London.

“The response calls for large-scale, high-level action by the global community, focused on emergency and longer-term solutions,” she said.

Analysis being carried out by WFP supports World Bank estimates that about 100 million people have been pushed deeper into poverty by the high food prices. WFP expects to release figures next week estimating how many new people have urgent hunger needs.

The urgency of the situation is underlined by WFP’s decision to suspend school feeding to 450,000 children beginning in May in Cambodia, unless new funding can be found in time. WFP representatives in 78 countries around the world are facing similar difficult choices.

Now, I know that many people reading this have already donated to candidates and/or organizations recently, and some of us are feeling like we've been squeezed kinda dry. ;) But considering how long it took for tsunami relief pledges to actually take the form of money, and then be delivered where they could do some good, I have little confidence member nations will respond quickly enough to keep the food flowing. If you can squeeze a few more bucks out, please do so now.

Back to the election at hand. We must send the right people to Washington. People who have the desire and fortitude to see past the needs of the now and visualise the needs of the future. And that means you don't just react to the crisis at hand, you prudently choose a sustainable course for the future.


Doesn't have to be this way....

Here are some factors that should be considered. There have been scientific studies that show the corn based ethanol to be inefficient if compared to switchgrass by several hundred percent! So who benefits by keeping on this path? The same gang that is always controlling things. Exxon, BP, Monsanto, etc. They have been allowed to manage the pipelines, production and sales of all of this. And if you wonder why there isn't some antitrust actions, just consider that the oil industry alone has spent $600 million in the last ten years lobbying congress. I think we can realize why so many countries nationalize their natural resources, or at least attempt to regulate them.

"The market will fix this..."

Letting people who only care about the money and don't give a crap about the consequences take charge of the process is going to wreak havoc every time. This summary (pdf) of a 2005 international seminar is a prime example. A mere few sentences giving lip service to the potential problems, and the rest is a glowing business projection.

We have far from a free market in energy.

With $tens of billions each year spent on oil company subsidies (be it direct subsidization, codified tax expenditures, etc.), and with $billions subsidizing inefficient and resource-wasting corn ethanol (and boosting food prices to boot, squeezing low-middle income consumers), I don't see how anyone could see there exists anything resembling a free energy market. Oil prices have been arbitrary low for way too long, which has sent incorrect signals in the market and distorted energy consumption/production patterns.

If we want to see increases in energy efficiency and the arrival of alternative energy, we need to end energy subsidies and allow for free-market pricing to take effect. The price of oil should be a ton higher than it is now, and given that most economists believe oil/gas to be a price inelastic good, it will take a price increase like this if we were to free the energy market to see an increase in energy efficiency and the beginning of subsitution to alternative fuels.

In any event, corn ethanol is one of the biggest scams propogated to the market. Basically the only reason it is prevalent as it is today is because of the Iowa Caucus being the first Presidential Nominating contest. You'll never see so much whoring in your life as you will during a Presidential Election year in Iowa.

Furthermore, might I suggest another free market reform in the energy sector? How about the legalization of industrial hemp, which would propogate the emergence of hemp ethanol, which has demonstrated to be much more efficient than corn ethanl? (In addition to, in general, being a miracle crop.) But alas, it doesn't happen, because the potheads will take over society if this happens. Oh, yeah! That's right! It's impossible to be intoxicated by industrial hemp!

I agree about the subsidies,

The price of oil should be a ton higher than it is now

But I don't believe this is accurate.

Granted, there is a huge demand, and we are getting closer every day to peak oil, but as long as OPEC (the supplier) can manipulate the price per barrel by decreasing production, and the stock market allows speculators and analysts to inflate prices if Prince Limpdick slips on the diving board of his scimitar-shaped pool, that's about as free a market as you can get.

Back in the late 1990's OPEC was begging for us to freeze the price per barrel at $32 or so, because the market fluctuation down to $22 was screwing up their gdp badly. We should have taken them up on that, but our own oil companies (and investors) saw a future of huge profits and made sure that didn't happen.

Biofuels is more than ethanol

Biofuels from feedstock is certainly a problem in the making. However, like denno mentioned, switchgrass offers a much better return on the harvest. Another promising field of research involves the conversion of cellulose into ethanol. Cellulosic bio-alcohols aren't ready for primetime yet. They may help NC become less reliant on foreign fuels since it comes from wood pulp. The Biofuels Center of NC is working to lessen our dependence on fuel from danger zones like the Middle East.

Also not all biofuels involve the production of ethanol. Biodiesel is an excellent alternative to petro-diesel. It can be made from a large number of lipids: everything from chicken fat to waste vegetable oil. In some cases biodiesel runs better than petro-diesel.

One last thing, when the media picks up these horrifying stories about food riots in Africa, look behind the headlines. Robert Mugabe turned Zimbabwe from the breadbasket of Southern Africa into a disaster. While the initial work he did was welcome, in the last decade most of his actions have been to fatten the portfolios of his cronies while decimating the economy of his country. Other less well known African leaders have helped their buddies while robbing the treasuries of their respective nations. This lack of care for their citizens seems to be the real story.

We are losing 100,000 acres of prime forest, farmlands and open spaces for parks and recreation to development each year.

"Jesus was a community organizer while Pontius Pilate was governor."
--Jim Hightower

Of course there are other factors

impacting hunger in Africa as well as the various regional food shortages, but the huge surge in ethanol consumption is the single biggest factor in the worldwide increase in food prices. And I am a big time proponent of using cellulosic biomass for the distillation of fuel, whether it's switchgrass, corn husks and stalks (and other crop waste), algae, etc.

But here's the thing, and I'm not trying to attack any specific group (or you): proponents of biofuels are reacting to the negative impact of ethanol in almost the same way that Global Warming deniers did/do about carbon buildup in the atmosphere.

"Rising food prices have more to do with drought and corruption than ethanol," or, "The clearing of rainforests was happening long before biofuels became popular," or other arguments that try to rationalize away the problem. The fact is, a lot of people placed unrealistic hope in the potential of ethanol to free us from the dependence of foreign oil, and they're having trouble accepting that a good thing has turned bad.

But you know what? It was predictable (and predicted) that these problems would surface. Many, many environmentalists were warning people about this years ago, but they were (for the most part) ignored. Now that the inevitable is happening, a whole lot of intelligent people are sticking their head in the sand, or grasping for proof that it isn't happening.

I just hope the settling of this argument doesn't take as long as the Global Warming issue, because this one is leaving a whole lot of food bowls empty at this very moment.

Also among other factors is the question.....

of if this crisis has anything to do with our war in the middle east? From our history of the last hundred years or so, any country willing to go to war with the USA had to worry about our economic might in any protracted conflict, as Germany and Japan found to be the case. It has been suggested that Osama Bin Laden mentioned that it is good that we be bogged down in Iraq, feeling that bankruptcy will be our end. Another tidbit I have been hearing on the media is that large conglomerations, hedgefunds, etc. have all been trading up on the commodity of oil. Combine that with the many anti-US sheikhs on the OPEC councils, and you can quickly see some chance of controlling the availability of oil on the markets, with the price following. They may have found our biggest weakness by draining our treasury.