Food v fuel debate – bio refineries can give us both

November 25, 2008 · Filed Under news · Comment 

There has been much heated debate about using good cropland to grow biofuel. Many people believe that this will push up the price of food while others believe that it is essential for the west to grow biofuels to make us less dependent on imported oil and also to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

So far as reducing emissions, some biofuels are much better than others. Ethanol made from sugar cane in sunny Brazil with the waste being used as the process heat source compares very favourably with Ethanol made from Corn in Iowa where coal or gas is used for heat. When the energy used to grow and transport the crop is taken into account, the energy gain is not very high and without subsidies, this would not be economical.

However, just because some poor systems have evolved, we shouldn’t forget that plants are by far the most important collectors of solar energy and well planned and executed systems could provide plenty of food as well as lots of fuel. As the fossil energy needed to grow our food will inevitably become scarce and unreliable at some time it is crucial that such systems are developed quickly.

At the recent National Non-Food Crops Centre conference, Prof. Bruce Dale of Michigan State University pointed out that in the main we don’t grow food for humans, we grow feed for livestock, whose calorie and protein demands are, respectively, 6 and 10 times those of humans.

Advances in technology can allow that animal feed to be produced more efficiently in bio refineries making biofuel.

Strategic Grain Reserves

November 20, 2008 · Filed Under news · Comment 

The world should be breathing a massive sigh of relief that the Northern Hemisphere 2008 harvest has yielded big crops due to excellent weather and growing conditions in most regions. The food shortages of 2007 were managed by the market, prices went up and the poorest people in the world had to tighten their belts even further, stretching out available supplies. Higher prices also encouraged farmers to produce as much as they could in 2008.

Food prices are now falling which is great news for consumers, especially the poor, but bad news for farmers, whose production costs have risen dramatically in the last year. We should remember that both 2007 and 2008 were exceptional years and that food supplies are bound to be tight in the future.

The fundamental problems of a world population rising by 80 million a year combined with the better diets expected by the billions in Asia will mean that demand will rise rapidly while each year the world loses around 25 million acres of land due to urbanisation, desertification, salination and biofuel production. Scientists also predict that climate change will cause drought in major food producing regions.

However, the biggest medium term problem is that our food production system in now nothing more than a method of converting finite fossil energy in to a much smaller amount of food energy. This worked well when supplies of oil for power, and gas for nitrogen fertilizer were cheap, plentiful and reliable, but will not work when the opposite is the case. As fossil fuels are finite, at some stage our input of fossil calories will have to decrease and therefore so our will our output of food calories.
Food production and prices will be volatile in the future as climatic events become more extreme and as our energy inputs become less secure.

Now would be a good time for governments to build strategic grain reserves to protect the public from the disaster that a series of poor harvests would bring. In the U.K., a 2 million ton reserve would only cost about £300 million plus fairly low storage costs. As most government projects £billions, this would be cheap insurance.

Credit Crunch threatens the Environment

November 15, 2008 · Filed Under Threats to Food Supply · Comment 

Policy makers are now giving priority to the credit crisis that is threatening to push the whole world in to recession. They feel that the great problems of climate change, resource depletion and food security are less urgent but this could lead to disaster as less government and bank funding is available for sustainable projects.

Already, Texan oilman T Boone Pickens has been forced to delay plans to build the world’s biggest wind farm, partly because of the difficulty in borrowing money.

We should really be questioning if continuous rapid growth of the world economy is possible without damaging the Earth’s capacity to produce enough food for an expanding population. We need to find a way for all the people of the world to live a good life while using less fossil energy. We need innovative ways to reduce energy consumption and to efficiently collect the abundant solar energy reaching us every day.

While fossil energy is still cheap there is no incentive to do this, so the massive tax increases that will come about because of government borrowing should be energy taxes. Jobs would then be created in the new industries that would spring up providing renewable energy and building energy efficient products and infrastructure.

Food Security now on the Agenda

November 11, 2008 · Filed Under news · Comment 

The Labour government has never been sympathetic to the farming industry and has always taken the attitude that if food can be imported cheaper than grown at home, then that should be what happens even if that means that our food production capability is reduced.

In the past it was normal for ministers responsible for food and farming to have a farming background or at least represent a constituency in a farming area. But unbelievably, Hilary Benn has only one farm in his constituency and Jane Kennedy, Food and Farming Minister has none at all in Liverpool’s Wavertree constituency.

However attitudes seem to be changing. Hopefully after reading our book, ”Famine in the West”, Hilary Benn has started saying that food security is important and that sustainable home grown food production should be encouraged.

The Government’s top scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington could have been almost reading straight from the book when he told an audience of eminent scientists in London recently that world agricultural output must increase by 50% by 2030 to feed a rapidly growing population.

He said the major challenge would be to produce more food with less available water, less available energy resources, fewer pesticides, increasing competition for land, while emitting fewer greenhouse gasses. However, world policy-makers had ignored the imminent threat until now.