Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Let them eat cake: Food vs. Fuel as a red herring

I'm a new father with a one-week old baby so you will have to excuse me if I take the newspaper headlines a little too seriously these days.

They will affect my son's future.

And your children's.

But for some reason we don't spend a lot of time connecting the dots, putting the puzzle together, trying, as parents, to figure out how current events are going to play out as our little one's come of age.

Today's headline, "Biosprit macht Nahrung teurer" infuriates me because of what the ensuing article doesn't say. The english translation of the headline is "Biofuels make food more expensive" and the article goes on to tell us that biofuel production is being charged guilty for raising food prices by up to 75%. The figure comes to the German WAZ from the British newspaper "The Guardian" and all I can help thinking is that all of these newsrags are acting as the guardians of the status quo -- a status quo that puts my newborn son in mortal danger.

The irony is that this headline, from July 5th, comes one day after Americans had their yearly "get drunk on biofuels (primarily beer) and gorge yourself on the barbecued flesh of dead animals fed on soybean from destroyed Brazilian rainforests" party, celebrating their independence from the British. Independence day. Hooray, we're still independent from the British! Not from oil, though! Not from radioactive rocks! Not from foreign dictators! No, we wouldn't want to celebrate that, now would we? Maybe in 200 years?!?

Another irony is that the headline appears a mere 4 days after Germany finally decided to (loosely) enforce the "you can't poison other people's air with your smoke" law that was supposed to go into effect last year (they wanted to give people time to adjust to the idea that pregant women and babies like mine might want to sit in a restaurant and not be asphyxiated).

How do all these events link together?

For one thing, with all these articles indicting biofuels as the culprit in the rising food price drama, development experts wagging their fingers and saying "shame shame for trying to use corn or rapeseed or grains for fuel when they could be used to feed the hungry" NOBODY is saying "shame on the tobacco farmers for using land that could be used to grow food for the hungry to grow a toxic weed that kills millions".

Not one word is mentioned about competing land uses that are vastly more profitable than food or fuel crop growing that are taking arable soil out of production for nutritious products.

Nobody talks about how the growing of non-nutritive cash crops causes food prices to rise.

The public is being fooled into thinking that there are fields that grow corn and fields that grow tobacco and that corn should be used for food and tobacco should be used for cigarettes, and you violate some sacrosanct principle by using some corn for ethanol. The critics of biofuels never mention that for every acre of corn you plant for fuel you could simultaneously take an acre of tobacco out of production and grow food corn there.

To make it worse, Presidential candidate John McCain talks about the Brazilian success in using sugar cane for ethanol fuel production, criticizing Barack Obama's support for the midwestern farmers who are experimenting with corn fed ethanol but nobody mentions that sugar is also a non-nutritional cash crop that does more damage than good for society, or questions why we allowed so many millions of hectares of fertile rain-forest to be destroyed just so that people could sweeten their coffee and eat candy bars. Last time I visited sugar can plantations in Venezuela, Hawaii and upper Egypt I noticed there was nothing for the peasants who grow the sugar cane to eat for miles around. In the book "Death Without Weeping" Nancy Scheper Hughes documents how the sugar cane industry caused misery and starvation. But nobody said, "hey, stop! Growing sugar cane on this land drives the price of real food up by 75% -- you can't grow this garbage here!"

Likewise, nobody talks about how much corn goes into making "corn syrup sweetener" -- America's challenge to the sugar cane industries of the south. Did you notice when coca-cola and other soda pop companies switched from using sugar to corn syrup sweeteners? The fact is that we don't grow corn only for food in America or anywhere else in the world -- we grow it for sweeteners. Sweeteners that destroy people's nutrition, wreck their teeth and make them fat. All while raising the price of real food.

Oh yeah, and we grow it to feed factory-grown animals that we can barbecue on "Independence day" -- animals that could be wandering around the plains happily munching on cellulosic feedstocks like grass and other weeds that we can't eat and that happily grow on land that won't produce food crops for us.

But all the corn used for corn syrup and all the corn used to fatten animals for slaughter never makes it into the headlines as an "evil" or "bad" or even "competitive" use of our crop land.

What is more, corn fed ethanol is made from -- guess what? Corn syrup! The stuff that is in the candy and sodas and other junk food crap that makes kids hyper in school, makes cavities grow to the size of craters, makes Fat Albert fat, and causes the twinkie murderer to go on a killing spree. Some sacrifice if we have to use that garbage for fuel instead!

In California we had a visitor to the school I taught in (Jefferson High School in South Central L.A.) from a representative of the California Energy Commission who drove an ethanol fueled car. The ethanol came from the recycled waste of a local soda pop factory -- the liquid effluent waste from the corn syrup used in the soda that would otherwise have been dumped in the local rivers or sewer systems (to end up in the ocean). So it wasn't even a competitive use of the corn syrup -- it was just what was left over. Other ethanol came from a cheese factory, after they had made the cheese, taking the sugars in the whey they had to separate out. That would have been dumped down the drain too.

The fact is that an enormous amount of the sugar content from our corn production and other agricultural industries is being flushed down drains every day. But that doesn't get talked about in the alarmist articles criticizing biofuel production.

I am NOT a fan of food for fuel, and I certainly was disturbed when I visited Malaysian and Guatemalan rainforests that were being burned down to make way for vast oil palm plantations, some of which is now going for the production of biodiesel. But oil palm isn't food either -- the oil palm plantation boom began before the biofuel boom (I saw it with my own eyes as a rain forest researcher from 1985 when I was with a Harvard team in Borneo to 2003 when I was working in Central America with the L.A. Zoo) and most oil palm products ended up in cosmetics, as lubricants, in soaps, and in desserts. Desserts are not food. They are luxuries that make us fat and give us heart attacks. Sure they are fun to eat, but don't tell me you are outraged because fats and oils that would have ended up in your arteries are now being converted to run through your car engine!

Naturally I favor switch grass and other cellulosic feedstock for my biofuels. I have long been a critic of using food crops for fuel, but I have also long been a critic of using land that could be used to grow food in order to grow non-nutritional cash crops for cigarettes, coffee, tea, snacks and sweets. There is an obesity epidemic going on around the world because we don't eat right and their is a cancer epidemic going on because we let people poison our air and water with the polonium 210 and tar and nicotine that tobacco plants produce. This is hardly the time to be bickering when farmers look into ways of using their land that can help us kick our addiction to fossil fuels. It isn't as if we are going to stop growing food to get our fuel. First we would convert the land that we are using to grow tobacco and sugar cane and all that corn and wheat and rice that goes not into food for the hungry millions but into snacks and cookies and cakes that are killing us, and use that non-food crap to drive our cars right? Wouldn't we? We would use this time in history to end our addictions to not only OIL but to drugs like cigarettes and coffee and tea and other stimulants and junk food, right?

No, no. I get it. We aren't going to do either. We are beholden to our addictions. The articles waging war on biofuels are really an attempt by the party of the rich to knock the good Senator from Illinois out of the race. Because Obama is a smart man and gets it, and McCain is a panderer to the oligopolists who just wants to make sure they stay in power. McCain, a man who thinks war is a joke and sings "Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran", makes offers of prizes for battery makers for electric cars, but his real agenda is to get us hooked on massive quantities of electricity that he will argue can only be provided by nuclear power plants. Since domestic energy can so easily be provided by wind and solar and other renewables at a much lower cost than building and maintaining and securing nuclear power plants, the nuclear lobby needs a massive turn-over from oil fueled cars to electric cars to make the argument for their latest centralized energy distribution scheme. And biofuels threaten that.

I see this as a bid to keep centralized power in the energy industry -- the same fight that Henry Ford had to wage with his chemurgists against John D. Rockefeller and William Randolph Hearst when he launched his Model A alcohol powered cars and proposed that every farmer could be both an energy and a food provider. Ford lost his battle when the oil lobby got desperate enough to force congress to enact prohibition. That killed the alcohol car. The resurrection of the electric car (which both Ford and Edison worked on and drove together in the late 1800s), while admirable if fueled by electricity produced by renewables, is, in the Republican's hands, merely an attempt to monopolize electricity through their ownership of uranium mines and nuclear power plants.

Heaven forbid we should use real plants, which are powered by the sun, to power our cars.

Smart do-it-yourselfers know that when push comes to shove we can distill our own ethanol fuel or cook up biodiesel or make biogas in the backyard using garbage and animal plant food waste. We know there is no competition between food and fuel. We know that making fuel is not going to drive up the cost of real food.

What the scaremongers would have you believe is that people are going hungry because we are turning away from oil and exploring different sources of solar powered energy, some of which involve using biomass. But if you let a poor farming family decide how to use their land they will wisely grow enough food for themselves and enough cash crops for the market. It usually matters little to them whether that cash crop is ending up being burned with a match to provide the cough in someone's lungs or burned as calories providing the sugar high in somebody's dessert or candy bar or bringing the buzz into somebody's beverage cup. Or putting the "vroom" into somebody's gas tank. That isn't what determines whether they a farming family goes hungry or not, and it isn't what is driving up food prices for the non-farmers.

If it were then there would be a simple answer for people worried about the food vs. energy debate, given how much land on this planet is devoted to non-nutritional cash crops:

Let them eat cake.


Andy said...


You make an interesting point. People get caught up in the story of the day without thinking about the underlying causing. For instance, Americans are blaming high gas prices and the credit crises for the economic downturn, however they ignore the fact that the real problem is that we've spent two trillion dollars in Iraq so far--with nothing to show for it. Meanwhile, we aren't investing in education, health care and infrastructure (as you know, our internet service ranks very low among industrialized nations.)

And the same with food prices: we ignore the fact that for decades we've been using valuable land, water and energy to grow sweeteners, tobacco, and so on. We focus our ire on those things that don't call into question the very basis of how we operate. After all, whether or not one supports biofuels is an intellectual decision, I suppose, but it's impact is limited to corn and soybean production. But questioning the fact that we waste corn to make sweet sodas, well now that calls into question our entire wasteful, consumer culture. And that's probably too much for most people to bear. . .

Would you mind If I wrote an article on this next Sunday for Huffington Post? I'll "mod" this article, as you call it, and of course give credit where credit is due!!

T.H. Culhane said...

Please do! I "DUGG" your article on renewables for Iran! Well done. Sometimes the obvious things need to be said because everybody is looking in the wrong direction (or sticking their heads in "de Nile!")

Don said...

I peruse and contribute to forums and blogs discussing the benefits of living car-free and creating walkable cities and encouraging bicycle use. Bikes are the most efficient means of transport going. I saw a post/entry where the author referred to a study, which I believe is stunning even if it were exaggerated, in which someone did a calculation of the amount of energy required to ride a bicycle in terms of gas mileage. The comparable mileage for a bicycle was 1500 mpg.

The fundamental concept behind walkable/bikeable city planning is that the best solution for energy use is not to use it in the first place. While it is obvious this only deals with a certain part of our transportation infrastructure, it is not insignificant and brings with it cultural and community benefits as well. Point being, don't use it in the first place.. Prime directive!!

With that bit of advocacy out of the way, an entry in one of these blogs showed a picture of two trailer trucks parked in a small street in a city, blocking and clogging the way, yes, but even more important, they were delivery trucks. One for Coca Cola, the other for spring water. Water being the heaviest of cargo, you can get the point. So, a Coca Cola truck contains water, high fructose corn syrup, and uses non-renewable petroleum to do transport a maximally heavy load over roads paved with petroleum products.. Perfect inefficiency and exploitation... Sickening.