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Biofuels

A recent post by Joe Brewer at Celsas is called The Coming Biofuels Disaster.  In it, he points out that a recent push towards biofuels is likely to make matters worse.

There are two reasons to push for biofuels (or three, if you’re a cynic).  One is carbon – since biofuels are made from recent photosynthesis, the carbon released is equal to the carbon fixed.  Thus, they can be seen as a carbon neutral fuel.  The other side is energy independence – since the main feedstock, corn, is produced in the US, any fuel produced by corn is fuel the US doesn’t have to import.  (The third reason could be profit, in the form of subsidies for Cargill and ADM).

Brewer argues that the “carbon neutral” issue is false.  The “costs” associated with corn production (in terms of fossil fuel for fertiliser, cultivation, transport, etc.) are so high that it takes more energy to make corn than we can get out of it.   In addition there are unaccounted-for subsidies in the form of damage to land and soil as a result of industrial agriculture.

Large-scale agricultural practices deplete soils, contaminate water supplies, and are vulnerable to pests and disease when single crops (monocultures) are grown in large fields. The widespread use of pesticides – manufactured using fossil fuels – is also contributing to the cancer epidemic wreaking havoc on our communities. Current agricultural practices also require non-renewable resources and utilize vast distribution networks that are very high in resource demand – including the need for lots of energy.

The demands for fertiliser isn’t going to change – that’s the key behind the yields of corn fields.  The cultivation systems depletes and pollutes both ground and surface water.  The cropping system degrades the soil.  Yep, we know that.  So how does diverting corn to biofuels change anything?  The system is already geared to keep increasing corn production, while farmers go bankrupt growing corn.  What difference does it really make whether it is being fed to cattle or cars?

The tone of the article doesn’t engender confidence – it seems terribly alarmist.  But tone is meaningless – what are the facts?  Dismissing something as “hysterical” is far too often a tool of the anti-science bunch.  I have no intention of judging content based on tone.  That said, it takes some effort not to do so.  It gets worse when it becomes an anti-GMO rant:

We shouldn’t call genetically engineered plants biofuels. They are frankenfuels. By tampering with plant DNA, we run the risk of getting further out of balance, possibly introducing new and unexpected harms like invasive species that take over croplands and natural ecosystems.

Sadly, the article goes downhill from there.  Brewer writes:

Addressing the climate crisis requires us to do a lot more than change from fossil fuels to plant-based fuels. Global warming is a problem because the way we live is out of sync with nature. The solution is to rethink how we relate to our natural environment. This is where livability is paramount. We need to be thinking about family farms, not factory farms. In the family farm frame, people are interacting with the earth to produce food. The factory farm frame has people interacting with the earth to produce money.

Sure, but who is going to challenge the powers that be?  Who is going to change the system?  And if your main challenge is to change the system stop feeding corn to cattleCAFOs are far bigger problems than debating biofuels.  CAFOs turn a resource (manure) into toxic waste.  Stop feeding corn to cattle and we suddenly have a surplus of corn.  In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan says that sixty percent of corn is fed to livestock.  Get rid of the CAFO and the price of meat goes up.  The price of meat goes up and people eat less of it.  So you would probably make a dint in the obesity epidemic.  I’m not saying that Enforced vegetarianism is a viable solution, just that it’s probably easier to achieve than a return to the family farm.

There’s a subtext in the article that says that global warming isn’t the problem, it’s living out of balance with nature.  Sure, but so is everything since the Neolithic Revolution.  Climate change is the problem.  And reverting to the family farm seems almost impossible.

There’s one more point in the article that bothers me.  Brewer makes the point that we should not be taking food out of the mouths of the poor to fuel our cars.  But a return to sustainable farming takes the food out of production, and thus, deprives the poor of the food just as effectively.

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