Friday, April 18, 2008

Note from Trey on farm crisis and response

-----Original Message-----
From: Trevanion
Subject: Meat + Biofuels

Evening Unity-
I have been hearing a lot about how detrimental Biofuels are lately. The media focuses a great deal about how they take away from the global food supply causing a food crisis in third world nations, how they encourage the destruction of rain forests and how the recent increase in federal subsidization of crops grown for biofuels is a scam, etc, etc... All of these critiques raise valid and worthwhile points, but they bring them to a conclusion that I consider narrow-minded at best. In response to an article my sister sent me, (attached below) I wrote the following rebuttal. Here it is for your thought and consideration.

Well, the problem as I see it lies in trying to confront one problem while ignoring others. The article got several things correct; most importantly is the idea that the way we currently grow food uses an amazing amount of oil. The second is that ethanol and much of the fad of biofuels has been nothing but a scam. It was painfully obvious from the beginning that GM's ethanol initiative was little more than a PR stunt. Ethanol is not cost or energy effective (especially from corn), so GM got to say "Look how green we are!" and then act disappointed when ethanol did not really take off.

But I digress. The point is, biofuels have amazing potential as a transitional tool to aid us through the end of cheap oil. In the long term, they are not really sustainable; financially or ecologically. The problem that biofuels can fix is that we have no where near the alternative powered transportation infrastructure in place to continue shipping anything anywhere at the costs that we can do it with fossil fuels. So as oil becomes exponentially more expensive, the cost of producing and transporting foods will increase the cost of food to the point where the only financially viable means of crop growth will be local and organic. Unfortunately, through a combination of people's lack of willingness to cough up the extra money and effort to buy food produced locally on a large scale and the federal government's ever-increasing assault on small farms, there is nowhere near the local farm infrastructure in place to provide for the populations that exist, especially in places like Boston and new york, so this cannot happen as quickly as the increase in the cost of foods will. The other problem that makes this problem really tricky is that people now feel that it is their God-Given Birthright to eat red meat three meals a day. This is not and has never been sustainable in any North American ecosystem. It takes 16 pounds of grain to create one pound of red meat. If the US were to reduce its red meat consumption by 10%, we could free up 12 million tons of grain per year. That is enough to feed every person who dies of starvation or malnutrition on the entire planet (Celsias). If we were to reduce our meat consumption by another 10%, we would then have another 12 million tons, 10 of which we could convert to biofuels without needing to increase croplands or reduce food supply. The problem is not that we do not have enough grain to both make biofuels and feed people. The problem is that we feed more than half of the grain we grow to cows and then eat them (Cornell).

There are no systems in place to provide transportation, heat or power for as low a cost as fossil fuels do, at the scale on which they are currently used. This means that the transition from the magic of cheap fossil fuels to alternative means of transportation, heat and power is going to require some serious lifestyle changes. The easiest and first one is a dramatic reduction in the amount of meat that we consume. If we continue dedicating the percentage of our grain to meat production that we currently do, than biofuels form crops will continue drive the cost of food worldwide up so sharply that it will be a humanitarian crisis. Alternatively, if we choose to cut our meat consumption by 25% now, than we can create a surplus of food while creating an abundance of biofuels with which we could ease the transition into a more sustainably structured society.

Finally, when confronted with public arguments against things of this nature, consider who would benefit from the argument. Whose profits would be cut into by a decrease in oil consumption and meat consumption, and how much influence do they have with the media, the advertising industries, and the culture as a whole?

"Your beliefs are all that is truly yours. Don't let anyone shape them but yourself."
Trey, interesting post.

One additional thing to consider:

It might be overall more efficient to feed animals on forage and forage crops in those farm regions and locales where growing corn or soybeans or other arable crops is not an option. So on small and rocky pastures in Maine, for instance, especially when the animals require little or no imported feed. This is the reason I'm very interested in sheep, particularly as the main product apart from meat, fleece, can be used for clothing and building insulation. Breeding ewes require winter feed for lambing, but they can otherwise thrive on hay and grass.

Also you may be interested to know that Jake Harr and I (mostly Jake) are currently beta testing some Maine-grown biofuel for a local farmer in Jake's grease car.

In general, I would not be very interested in this project as it diverts nutrients from human food to fuel, and thus adds to the food crisis, but in this case the farmer sees the oil as a by-product of his small scale soy-bean pellet operation, and has no outlet for it so wishes to run it in his tractors to save on diesel costs. At the margin, this is efficient since the sy oil might otherwise go to waste for lack of an outlet.

I have to investigate a little to see what alternate local outlets there may be for the oil, and to look at the price points difference before I can help advise the farmer as to the economics of this plan. But jake is testing the oil right now.

All the more reason why small scale local and regional farm and food systems are helpful. High prices for food also help, though, as small scale operations may now begin to make money. And facilities for properly processing and distributing the product of local agriculture are important too: small scale slaughtering, small scale compost and food waste management, humanure recycling, etc, can all be helpful.


1 comment:

Anders said...

Thanks to Trey for thinking critically and broadly about these issues. I agree that reducing meat consumption is a great way to work toward sustainability. Our acquired tastes aside, eating less meat would ameliorate a lot of issues ranging from environmental degradation to human health to animal welfare.

Even if we did eat 25% less meat, however, I'm not convinced that grain-based biofuels would represent the best use of the resources we'd save. It's a bad investment, a bit like sinking one's hard-earned financial savings into subprime mortgage securities.

According to scientists David Tilman and Jason Hill, if all 70 million acres on which corn was grown in 2006 was used for ethanol, "the 'new' (non-fossil) energy gained would be very small -- just 2.4 percent of the market. Car tune-ups and proper tire air pressure would save more energy."

70 million acres of corn for 2.4% of our fuel use? To me, the many drawbacks of grain production for biofuels -- food prices rising out of reach for many people, tax revenues diverted, soil and water quality issues, loss of wildlife habitat, demand on dwindling water resources, 'dead zones' in the Gulf of Mexico, to name some -- outweigh the very modest energy gains.

Taking land out of grain production instead would offer attractive opportunities to ameliorate environmental degradation by building up soils and reducing runoff, preserve dwindling water resources, increase rare wildlife habitats, and sequester carbon from the atmosphere into plants and soils. If we simultaneously managed to keep our car tires inflated properly, we'd have all these benefits and just as much energy as if we had made the ethanol.

I'm not against the idea of biologically-based fuel production, particularly utilization of wastes such as used cooking oil. But biofuel production on a large scale is wise only if it makes sense from an energy-budget standpoint. Technological advances (e.g. cellulosic processes) may get us to that stage, and we should invest in research and development toward these potential advances. Right now, however, the energy budgets are not favorable enough to make grain-based biofuel production sustainable.