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.

Soil and Peak Food.

September 23, 2009 · Filed Under Uncategorized · 1 Comment 

In David R. Montgomery’s brilliant book,”Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations”, he explains the effect of poor soil management on past civilizations and the likely effect on our own. Excerpts from the last page should be read by anyone worried about our future:

“As much as climare change, the demand for food will be a major driver of global environmental change throughout the coming decades. Over the past century, the effects of long-term soil erosion were masked by bringing new land under cultivation and developing fertilizers, pesticides, and crop verieties that compensate for declining soil productivity.  Coupled with the inevitable end of fossil-fuel-derived fertilisers, the ongoing loss of cropland and soil poses the problem of feeding a growing population from a shrinking land base. Whereas the effects of soil erosion can be temporarily offset with fertilizers and in some cases irrigation, the long-term productivity of the land cannot be maintained in the face of reduced soil organic matter, depleted soil biota, and thinning soil that so far have characterized industrial agriculture.

“Many factors may contribute to ending a civilization, but an adequate supply of fertile soil is necessary to sustain one. Using up the soil and moving on to new land will not be a viable option for future generations. As odd as it may sound, civilization’s survival depends on treating soil as an investment, as a valuable inheritance rather than a commodity – as something other than dirt.”

Soil – our most precious Resource

May 5, 2009 · Filed Under solutions · Comment 

Soon, we will need to move from an oil economy to a bio-economy if we are to fight the challenges of climate change and oil depletion. So, as we devise methods to obtain much more of our energy from the sun mainly via the original solar panel-the plant leaf, it is vital that we do not do so by degrading our soil, something that is happening much too quickly anyway.

Until around 70 years ago, in Europe at least, cereal crops such as wheat, barley and oats were harvested intact by binding, with most of the above ground biomass removed from the field. After threshing, the grain was used for human and animal feed and the straw for animal bedding.

The animal manure and human waste was returned to the soil in due course and so the soil nutrients were constantly recycled.

That cycle has long been broken. The nutrients are now flushed down the sewers of the great cities or treated as a waste product at huge feedlots, hundreds of miles away from their origin, but at least some of the straw remains on the soil to help organic matter levels.

In modern farming we now replace the lost nutrients with fertiliser made, or mined and transported, using finite fossil fuels. This oil and gas (for N fertiliser) dependent farming system is plainly doomed to fail as oil and gas supplies deplete and as their use causes climatic change severely disruptive to farming.

A new farming system that again removes most of the above ground biomass to produce the food, fuel and chemicals needed in the post oil era will need to be carefully planned.

By removing the entire crop, just as was done in the past, crop residue levels would be low making no-till or minimal till easier. Keeping the roots and stubble near the surface helps prevent erosion and slows decay, compared with energy hungry deep tillage, so soil structure remains good.

So far as soil nutrients go, they don’t generally disappear and the trick is to return them to the soil.

Ideally, crops should be used locally by being processed at a local integrated bio refinery where all of the components are used to produce food, fuel, chemicals and process heat.

If some of the grain were used for ethanol production, the brewers grains would be fed to animals, then the manure would produce biogas, leaving a residue containing soil nutrients that would be returned to the soil. Even sewage sludge should be digested to provide energy and fertiliser.

As nitrogen fertiliser production is the biggest use of energy in most farming systems, heavy government investment should be made in to high yielding legume plants that can fix nitrogen and be an important part of maintaining soil fertility as well as providing vegetable protein to partly reduce our meat consumption.

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