Will Biofuels cause Peakfood?

February 25, 2010 · Filed Under competition from biofuels · Comment 

ActionAid has produced a report called “Meals Per Gallon: The impact of industrial biofuels on people and global hunger,” which says that EU companies had taken millions of acres of land out of food production in Africa, central America and Asia, to grow biofuels for transport.

They say that most industrial biofuels are made from agricultural crops grown in developing countries on land that should instead be used for food production.  The charity believes that the 2008 decision by EU countries to obtain 10% of all transport fuels from biofuels by 2020 was having a disastrous effect on poorer nations. 

Report author Tim Rice said: “Biofuels are driving a global human tragedy. Local food prices have already risen massively. As biofuel production gains pace, this can only accelerate.”

At www.peakfood.co.uk we are against those biofuels with a poor energy balance – where the input of fossil energy is nearly as great as the energy in the resulting biofuel. Some US ethanol from corn comes under this category. We are also against destroying rainforest to plant with oil palm. Burning that massive carbon store will never be made up by the CO2 savings made by producing palm oil.

However, it is important that we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, especially in farming itself. We need to work on developing a sustainable farming system that collects solar energy both for food and fuel if we are to feed the growing population in a future where oil will become scarce and expensive. 

We will need to produce cellulosic ethanol and biogas from plant residues. Brazil now makes millions of gallons of ethanol from sugar cane residue very efficiently.

 Farmers on arable land in developing countries perhaps need help so that they can find ways to produce both food and fuel in a way that does not harm valuable soil.

But most important of all is that both the developed and developing worlds innovate to reduce consumption of all fuels thereby slowing global warming and oil and gas depletion.

Quitting our Addiction to Economic Growth

February 19, 2010 · Filed Under solutions · Comment 

The recent change from years of continuous economic growth though most of the world to much slower growth in Asia and negative growth in America and Europe has shown just how addicted we’ve become to continuous growth. It seems that without growth our economies cannot cope. Unemployment rises, assets fall in value and bankruptcies rise. Governments see that the boom that began by excessive debt and the illusion that property prices have made us rich without working for it has ended, so they use government debt and money creation to attempt to stimulate growth.

This apparent inability to manage without growth throws up significant problems. Economic growth increases living standards and richer people consume more of the Earth’s resources, especially fossil fuels. Indeed, it is only due to the availability of this energy collected from the sun millions of years ago that we have lifestyles undreamt of 100 years ago. Unfortunately these fuels are finite, the main reserves of oil and gas are in unstable, unreliable or unfriendly countries and their continued burning is causing the climate to change in a way that threatens our future food supply.

Does that mean that there are just two very unpalatable choices? Should we resume rapid fossil-fueled economic growth, consuming more and more of the Earth’s resources and emitting more and more greenhouse gases until the inevitable time, perhaps not far away, when we reach a rapid decline in oil and gas availability, at the same time as we experience weather related food shortages? Farming is now so dependent on finite energy inputs that food supply will in any case fail when these fuels become scarce. The panic, hoarding and breakdown of the economic system as well as law and order, that will take place when this happens will make the present recession seem like heaven.

The second option doesn’t look much better. This would be to drastically reduce our consumption of energy, thereby slowing the depletion of oil and gas reserves at the same time as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The snag with this, of course, is that economic growth would stop, the recession would turn in to a longterm depression and the billions in the developing world would continue in abject poverty.

Looking at these two options, it appears as if we are leaving the next generation with no hope. However there is in fact a third way foreword that would be possible if the world’s leaders accept that we are facing disaster.

That third way is to use ingenuity, innovation and invention to collect far more of the abundant solar energy reaching us each day using solar panels, wind, wave and tidal collectors but most of all the age old method of collection by the plant leaf using photosynthesis.

Because fossil fuels have been so cheap and plentiful, there has been no incentive to improve the inefficient and wasteful farming methods that have become nothing more than a way to convert finite but cheap, fossil energy in the form of nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides and diesel fuel, into a much smaller amount of more expensive food energy. How can anyone think that this will not fail in the long run?

A large proportion of the energy in crops is wasted, either in the field, during processing, in the home or by feeding it to animals. There are now ways to efficiently harvest more of the crop and turn the previously wasted portion in to liquid fuels or gas. Besides traditional crops, there are developments to turn cellulose from any organic such as managed woodland or grasses, into ethanol fuel. Similarly oil can be produced from algae grown on the water that covers 70% of the planet.

If we also use technology to make it possible for us to enjoy a satisfactory lifestyle while using less total energy, we would be able to delay the depletion of fossil fuels and also reduce climatic change. What a result that would be!

The only way to make this happen quick enough to avoid disaster is to drastically change the price relationship between fossil energy and renewable energy through the tax system. We could replace income and other taxes by a carbon tax on all fossil fuels, or introduce a carbon tax with a 100% dividend. That would mean all the proceeds of the tax would be distributed back to the population.

These changes would bring about vast new industries producing both the renewable energy and the new low energy appliances, buildings and transport methods. Economic growth would no longer be leading us to disaster. It’s a possible solution.