Fuel for thought: a closer look at biofuels
Sharon Astyk suggests that we take a close look at alternative fuels and through the ethical lens of sustainability and weigh their pros and cons before declaring ourselves "Switchgrass Nation".
Ethics of Biofuels
December 28, 2006
It seems like you can’t go anywhere without someone telling you that in ten years we’re all going to be driving ethanol or biodiesel cars. Biofuels are hot. People who a year ago had never heard of switchgrass keep assuring me that it will be fueling my car practically next week. No need to change anything significant about our lives, they say – just raise fuel efficiency standards a little bit and alchemically turn the corn into gold er… oil, and off we go, back to business as usual.
And, of course that it isn't true, for any number of reasons. One is that biofuels aren't really necessarily a source of energy, in the sense of producing more energy than they consume in production, another is that they have the potential for exacerbating hunger worldwide. On the first point, Cornell researcher David Pimentel has tracked the energy costs of producing ethanol and biodiesel from various agricultural sources, including the energy needed to plant, grow and harvest the corn, the fertilizer and pesticides used on it, the energy costs of transporting, the plant matter and the energy used in production, and found that in virtually every case, there is more energy input than taken out of it (Pimentel and Patzek, www.futurepundit.com/archives/002881.html). Others have found slight net positives energy accruals, but often have done so by leaving out some of these expenditures from their calculations. Even when a net positive energy gain is achieved, often it is so small that it is impossible for the biofuels ever to be significantly cheaper or more available than oil. If something is dependent for 95% of its energy value on the availability of fossil fuels, we can expect both its price and availability to be constrained by fossil fuel costs and constraints.
The impact of biofuels on world hunger can be reduced to simple land use mathematics. For example, were we to convert all 179,000,000 hectares of arable land in the US to biofuel production, we might be able to meet much of our present energy needs. We would, however, grow no food, and we would strip our soil even more severely than we have thus far. Worldwide, grain yields are falling (in part due to climate change), and populations are eating their reserves. Meat eating and biofuel production are already raising the price of grain, a cost that adversely effects the poorest people in the world. They already spend 50% or more of their income on food, so the 25% rise in grain prices we are already experiencing means less food in people's bellies.
That said, however, a blanket dismissal of biofuels ignores important points. The first is that locally produced fuels are often preferable to continued reliance on hydrocarbons for political and economic reasons. Second, in many cases it is possible for them to produce less atmospheric carbon in total than fossil fuels, and if produced carefully and sustainably, can provide side benefits like increased levels of humus and forestation. Perhaps most importantly, as fossil fuels are depleted, biofuels are going to be necessary to pick up the slack. Houses in the northern hemisphere will, for example, still need to be heated. Cooking fuel will be required. Transportation of people and goods will be necessary. We can certainly use and require much less energy (indeed, we must use much less energy), but there is little question that some of our land will have to be put to growing fuel stocks.
But saying that doesn’t change the fact that the growing demand for biofuels potentially risks increasing hunger worldwide, as well as further increasing basic inequities between rich and poor in both our country and worldwide – inequities that already lead to the death by starvation of 24,000 people every single day. And as it is being practiced right now, biofuel production also increases soil and water depletion, desertification, and atmospheric carbon. So it strikes me that the thing we perhaps need most is an ethics of biofuel production and usage, a set of useful principles and a way of thinking about our energy that enables us to make choices that are just, and moral, and also prudent and productive. My goal in this paper is to survey the issues and offer up for discussion some potential ethical guidelines for energy production, with the long term goal of hopefully helping our nation deal with the moral questions of our need for energy, and worldwide hunger.
I offer, then, 12 principles for the creation of a just and ethical biofuel production. Ultimately, such a biofueled economy must be accompanied by dramatic agricultural reforms, if we are to see positive net energy returns and also avoid an increase in world hunger and economic inequity. I personally believe that an economy based upon a sustainable, small scale agriculture can both feed the present populace and fuel some of its most essential needs with energy crops. But what we cannot do is transfer the current industrialized, inequitable, amoral system over to biofuel production. We cannot do it because it will cause widespread hunger, because it will increase economic inequity and also because unless we reduce the fossil fuel inputs required for the growing of most energy crops, we will never be able to grow fuels cheaply and efficiently enough to make a difference in our energy needs. It is worth noting that as this discussion is occurring, most of the above mentioned consequences are already occurring, caused by America's inability to control its energy appetite.
Ethical Principle #1 - Biofuels cannot and must not be a strategy for maintaining the present situation.
To begin with, let us be entirely clear that no rational plan for the use of biofuels can possibly imagine using them to replace a significant portion of our total energy usage, or even most or all of our gasoline. Any biofuels strategy we use must operate in conjunction with significant changes in the way we live, if it is to have any impact at all. Anyone who tells you that we can run all our cars on biodiesel or ethanol is out of their minds. The issue is simple arithmetic. Lester Brown points out that the average fill up of a 25 gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will requires the same amount of grain as it takes to feed a person for year. Every person in the US, man, woman and child, uses 500 gallons of gasoline per year. So, that means that every American would use enough gas to feed 20 people over the course of the year. There are 300 million people in the US, and 300 million people, each using enough food to feed 20 people to run their cars, would require enough grain to feed 6 billion people. Perhaps that number sounds vaguely familiar. Back in 1999, that was how many people were alive on the earth. We’ve added a few since then, of course, but let’s be realistic. A) We don’t have enough grain to use 6 billion people’s food for our cars for a year and b) it would be obscene if we even tried to come close. Billions of people would starve to death because of us, and we’d win the “most immoral society in history” award straight out, if we haven’t already. So realistically, we are not discussing replacing 75% or 50% of our imported oil with biodiesel or ethanol – period. It isn’t possible. And if we are talking about a more realistic number, like 10-15%, that can only happen with policy programs designed to create, encourage, and perhaps require conservation. And it may not be possible at all, if petroleum and natural gas production are near their present peaks.
Ethical Principle #2 - It would be nice if it actually worked.
Now there are several objections to the above scenario, besides the fact that there isn’t that much surplus food in the world. The first, of course, is that if it was that easy, we’d be doing it already. Anyone familiar with the biofuel debate knows that Cornell professor David Pimentel’s research has suggested that both most forms of ethanol and biodiesel may actually consume more fuels than they replace - that is, they have a negative EROEI (Energy Returned Over Energy Invested). Other studies dispute this, but at best, as previously noted, for most forms of biodiesel and ethanol, energy return is fairly small. In some cases, even with positive net energy returns, it is not wholly clear that ethanol, for example, produces more total energy than could be produced simply by having people or animals eat the grain and use that energy to fuel human or horse powered labor. Pimentel's studies include soybeans, sunflowers (major biodiesel crops), wood cellulose, switch grass and corn. Sugarcane comes out better in the energy calculations, but it grows in comparatively little of the US, and as Brazilian ethanol Grower Milton Maciel points out, the reason that cane-based Ethanol can fuel such a large percentage of Brazilian vehicles is that Brazilians use less than 10% of the oil that Americans do (Maciel, ASPO-USA 2006 Talk).
Despite what we are being told – that if we just fund research into X or Y project, it will inevitably lead to the creation of X or Y technology that operates precisely as we want it to – that’s simply not how scientific research works. In the case of corn ethanol, we have been funding the ethanol lobby for decades to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, and we still can’t get a definitively positive EROEI. If, as writer Aaron Newton points out, American presidential elections did not begin in Iowa, it is unlikely that we would have invested as much as we have already in what may well be a losing proposition. It is possible that research could improve the energy return of biodiesel or ethanol. It is also quite possible that it cannot. Our use of biofuels must emphasize net energy gains, and before we invest billions, we should be absolutely certain of what we're getting. I will assume for the purposes of this essay that we can achieve a positive and significant EROEI, but it is important to realize that that may not be the case. Long term strategic planning for our society cannot be based on a fuel that is going to be more costly and less available at approximately the same rate as fossil fuels, because of its dependence upon them. That is, if we rely on ethanol to replace fossil fuels, and in fact ethanol is a net energy loser, we will have done nothing to improve our situation, and wasted time and money. For example, at present rates of efficiency, if we were to produce 10% of our fuel energy from biofuels, we make exactly 0 reduction in our need for imported oil, while using up 20% of our existing farmland and the grain it produces. This is not exactly an energy revolution.
We have had limited success in using high technology to improve the EROEI of biofuel production. But we can (and many scientists do) approach the issue from the vector of reducing the necessary fossil fuel inputs to agriculture. If we wish ethanol and biodiesel to be anything other than a means of buying votes in the midwest, this may the only possible solution. For example, currently many scientists are working on developing perennial crops that can be used for ethanol production. This is an excellent start – sugar cane, for example, is as productive as it is in part because it is a semi-perennial (although yields do fall if it is not replanted periodically). But we can further reduce the inputs and raise yields in several ways. First, we can grow the crops largely using hand or animal power, or by using a percentage of the biofuels produced to run the machinery that grows crops. Animal traction or hand labor involve working significantly smaller acreages. For example, most Amish farmers who use draft horses will not farm more than 80 acres. And those 80 acre farms are polycultures, with less than 1/2 of the land devoted to grain production, and generally farmed by large families. We can reduce the number of inputs required by engaging in organic practices, including integrated pest management, undercropping nitrogen fixers and crop rotation. Again, this is much more feasible in small scale agriculture than large. We can grow some or all of our own fertility – for example, crops intended for fuel, rather than food usage are ideally suited to being fertilized with human manure, thus decreasing the need for nitrogen fertilizers created with natural gas. Cover crops, rotation systems, green manures, understory crops, mulching and the use of animal manures can still further reduce the number of inputs, but again, integrating these things is very difficult on farms of thousands of acres. The total energy efficiency of biofuels is likely to be dramatically enhanced by the use of organic methods on small scale farms. Right now 1 acre of corn produces 19,400 kilocalories of fuel energy – while consuming 25,000 kilocalories of fossil fuels, according to Pimentel. Unless a magic bullet arrives fast, the only possible solution is to transform our agriculture.
Ethical Principle #3 - We must not allow people to starve to fuel our cars
And then there is the issue of hunger, the wolf at the proverbial door, and the impact of biofuels upon people’s access to food. Lester Brown, of the Earth Policy Institute, reports, based on recently released analyses from the UN, that large scale biofuel production could easily lead to widespread starvation. A recent study documented that when faced with a choice between selling grain for fuel (at higher prices) and selling grain for food to their neighbors, farmers uniformly choose selling grain for fuel. A 25% rise in grain prices has already occurred within the last year
American farmers often lose money on their annual grain harvests and are frequently driven out of business by fluctuations in market grain prices - so there is no question that they will choose to sell their grain where they can earn the most, as will many third world farmers, even at the cost of damaging local economies or even food security. So we must not ask that of them. Creating local economies, where the wealth created by farming stays in place, because biofuels are produced in local plants that employ local people is essential. So is some sort of price stabilizing mechanism, particularly in poor nations, but perhaps in our own as well, that ensures that crops go to food first, and only then to ethanol or biodiesel.
Now there are quite a few people who dispute this reasoning, and argue that the issue of food or fuel is more complicated than it appears. In an essay posted on the “Journey To Forever” website, Keith Addison and Midori Hiraga post an extremely cogent defense of biofuels production, which nonetheless has some weaknesses that deserve further analysis. For example, the authors observe that Brazil’s grain production did not fall with the introduction of sugarcane ethanol, and claim that increases in hunger in Brazil were due to policy problems. And some of that may be true. But as noted above, Brazil is a poor parallel in many ways, because of its low consumption; producing as much sugarcane ethanol as Brazil (which would be difficult, given that much of the US is not suited to sugarcane production) would provide the smallest drop in our gigantic bucket. And there are other, more disturbing issues. It is true that Brazil’s grain production did not fall after the introduction of ethanol - but it is also true that that is because Brazil has been encouraging massive stripping of the rainforests in order to grow grain. So the reason Brazil was able to keep its grain yields up was because it was transforming rainforests into crop land at the same time that it was turning farmed land into ethanol. This was only possible because Brazil had rainforest to exploit, and could not afford to care about the environmental consequences either for Brazil or for the world as a whole. For nations without rainforests remaining to slash and burn, biofuels will exact a cost in food sufficiency. Addison and Hiraga acknowledge rising food prices, but say,
Food shortages and price increases in Brazil have resulted from a combination of policies which were biased towards commodity export crops and large acreage increases of such crops, hyper-inflation, currency devaluation, price control of domestic foodstuffs etc. Within this reality, any negative effects that bioethanol production might have had should be considered as part of the overall problem, not the problem.I would argue, however, that even if only part of the problem, any increase in the incentives for nations to exploit environmentally sensitive or marginal land to increase food production has potentially enormous environmental repercussions, and is a potential contributor to long-term food shortages by adding to climate change.
It is also true, as Addison and Hiraga note, that the residues of some forms of ethanol production produce high quality livestock feed at about 1/3 of the total food value of the grain itself. It may even be possible for ethanol crop residues to feed people – residues from beer making once were eaten as grain porridge and baked into bread in medieval Europe, but I know of no one doing this in the present. But again, if ethanol means that poor countries are taking grain (good food for humans) and converting it ethanol (gas for people wealthy enough to have cars - i.e., us) and food for livestock (i.e., meat, which many poor grain producers worldwide are also too poor to have), what we will achieve is total net transfer of food from the poor of the world to the rich of the world, to put in their gas tanks and eat as beef. This is, at best, morally troubling, and public policy should not encourage it.
In Britain, the claim is being made that the nation can replace 5% of its oil needs with biofuels without increasing hunger, because the biofuels will come from “surplus” grain that would only be exported anyway. In fact, Peter Kendall, president of the UK’s National Farmer’s Union claims, “What has been holding back agriculture in the developing world is not a shortage of land, but the rock-bottom prices caused by the fact that world markets have been swamped by surplus grain, from both the EU and US. If the demand for biofuels helps to change that, directly by lifting prices and indirectly by mopping up the surpluses, then it will give Third World farming the biggest single boost it has ever had. That, in turn, will do more to alleviate starvation in Africa and elsewhere than all the food aid programmes put together.” Kendall’s claims are true as far as it goes, but his arguments are dangerous. It is true that African farmers have been driven out of grain production by the dumping of cheap grain from the first world on their markets. It is also true that if we stop sending them grain today, because we are using it to grow gas for ourselves, they will not be able to recreate their existing agriculture by tomorrow, and people who depend on that grain will go hungry. The helpful kick in the pants Kendall suggests we might offer Africa might better be applied to first world anatomy, so that we can grasp the reality that having created an enormous dependency by destroying African economies, we cannot immediately withdraw our food because we now want it so we can drive more cheaply.
It is, however, true that the claims that the first world likes to make to being able to feed the world are largely exaggerated. Addison and Midori cite evidence by Mark Muller and Richard Levins of the Institute for Agriculture and Policy Trade, pointing that we are net extractors of food from the Third World. This is an important point, implying that much of the food produced in the third world is not helping feed the poor, but going to either to feed first worlders directly, or to feed livestock that we purchase, and also that the world's poor might be best served by being allowed to actually eat the food they produce. But again, the problem is complicated by the habits of extraction.
For example, many of the foods that we have encouraged (and sometimes forced) second and third world producers into growing for us are high value luxury foods, rather than traditional staple foods of that country. Vandana Shiva, for example, has documented the large-scale replacement of traditional coastal rice farms with shrimp farms for the export market (Shiva, Stolen Harvest 23). Much of the best land in South America, Asia and Africa is now covered with coffee plantations, producing for export to wealthy nations. Suggesting that poor nations, who have now entirely adapted their agriculture and their land to grow food for rich nations should now live on their coffee and shrimp comes with some logistical problems at best. Some second and third world nations, like Brazil, which exports quite a lot of grain, or uses it for meat production for export, would be able to avoid hunger in this scenario, others would not. The problem with a nation by nation approach, which is advocated by Emil Bedi, of the Foundation for Alternative Energy (cited in Addison and Hiraga's Paper), is that little as we like it, our failure to create sustainable economic infrastructure or avoid warming the planet to the crisis point may mean that nations are more dependent on the availability of one another's grain surpluses than they are now, not less.
Bedi says, "The argument should be analyzed against the background of the world's (or an individual country's or region's) real food situation of food supply and demand (ever-increasing food surpluses in most industrialized and a number of developing countries), the use of food as animal feed, the under-utilized agricultural production potential, the increased potential for agricultural productivity, and the advantages and disadvantages of producing biofuels." And this is all true, as far as it goes, but if you genuinely analyze things as Bedi suggests, you find that in fact food surpluses are not increasing, but declining, and that more of the food we produce is being consumed by livestock and fuel needs. Which means that the costs of grain are rising in places that are not and cannot be food self-sufficient with their present populations. And in many of those places, people already spend more than 50% of their income on basic staple foods – and still go hungry. The 25% rise in prices that Lester Brown, author of Plan B 2.0 and director of the Earth Policy Institute documents represents an enormous pressure upon the poorest people in the world. It would be helpful for most Americans to try and imagine what their quality of life would be like if they were forced to spend 50% of their income on food, while making the rest stretch to meet other needs – and facing a price jump that would require them to raise that percentage to 60 or 70%. Then recognize that much of the world lives on infinitely less, and cannot afford even basic things in addition to their food, like water, or education for their children, or basic shelter.
Ethical Principle #4 - Forests for home heating before corn for cars
When we speak of biofuels or energy crops, we generally mean crops that produce oil biodiesel, such as, rapeseed and soybeans (among others) and those that commonly produce ethanol, like corn, switchgrass, sugarcane and forest and crop residues. However, I would also like to include wood used directly for home heating and cooking in this discussion. This is because forest management also functions as a form of energy cropping, and because sustainable forestry is one of the best ways of growing fuel. In much of the north, sustainably managing wood crops for home heating and cooking may turn out to be a much more urgent proposition than creating biological fuels for transportation, at least in the US and Canada. Because electricity is such an inefficient means of heating (and because it would cost billions of dollars and mean hundreds of new coal and nuclear plants to create the infrastructure to expand electrical production sufficiently to heat millions of homes now warmed by oil or natural gas during the winter), we can expect wood to be the most desirable and sustainable source of home heating.
At present, there are 90 million homes in the US that rely on oil or natural gas. For all of those to be heated through a winter with wood, without depleting the forests, we would need 500 million acres of sustainably managed forest land in the US, based on the calculation that one can remove approximately one full cord of wood per acre, per year from a forest without doing any harm to it. The amount of wood required by a household varies so widely as to be very hard to estimate, but assuming that we reinsulate and give up our taste for 74 degree houses, we can assume that many households would need between four and six cords of wood annually for home heating and cooking. At the moment, 500 million acres is just slightly above the amount of productive forest land we have, without leaving anything for other uses - paper production, building, etc... So it seems evident that more of our bioproductive land is going to have to be forested, not less. That means we cannot use marginal, already forested or crop-protected land for growing corn and soybeans for biofuels, since we will need to produce wood sustainably. Fortunately, much of that land could be forested in part with fruiting or nut producing trees, improving our national food security as well as providing firewood. But in order to continue producing paper, building houses and all the other things we use wood for, we are going to have to forest more land, including, ideally, some of the land most depleted by the depredations of industrial agriculture – the land that present day ethanol and biodiesel production imagine will be producing corn for their crops.
Why prefer forests to corn? For a number of practical reasons. First of all, foresting land reduces atmospheric carbon, many trees fix nitrogen or bring trace minerals to soil surfaces, and trees can produce food and medicinal crops. While the claims of carbon neutrality for all forms of biomass are somewhat overstated (in the sense that while trees do sequester carbon dioxide, they ordinarily release it gradually, over years of rotting, rather over a half hour in a fireplace), wood represents a particularly positive form of energy for carbon emissions purposes, because it can be harvested in part by coppicing, allowing the tree itself to continue growing).
In addition, forestation prevents the erosion of topsoil (an enormous problem on most grain producing land), and while we can reduce our need for fuel for transportation dramatically, we are less flexible in reducing our need for home heating. Transportation can be provided by changing our infrastructure to create neighborhood economies, by using human and animal powered transport, by working from home and in homes, creating new businesses in our own neighborhoods, but because heat is not efficiently produced by electricity, we must rely on burnables, of which wood is our best option. Insulation and passive solar design will help in those houses that can be built or adapted, but even the best designs will require a considerable amount of energy to be devoted to home heating and cooking. So if we are to use fossil fuels for any purpose, it makes more sense in terms of energy return to use electricity to power trains and buses than it does to power individual home heating systems.
For warmer climates, the priorities may be different. But we should remember that much of the US and Canada stands to have a serious shortage of home heating fuel over the next few decades, and that planning for that long term must be a priority.
Ethical Principle #5 - Either we must address the more basic injustices that lead to hunger, or we must acknowledge that large-scale use of biofuels will increase hunger and inequity.
In the same essay from Addison and Hiraga, the authors lay the blame for much third world poverty and destruction of local agricultural systems at the feet of our system of economic globalization, and I would argue that they are correct. Limitations of space preclude a full analysis of the problems brought on by globalization, but Jeremy Seabrook's work in The No Nonsense Guide to Globalization offers an excellent primer for those unfamiliar with the issues. While Addison and Hiraga are right to focus on globalization as a creator or economic inequity, they fail, however, to recognize that biofuel production as presently practiced abets globalization, in the sense that it works, as we have seen, to accelerate the net transfer of wealth from poor nations to rich ones. For example, the present emphasis on "selling" biofuels as dual purpose, because they can feed animals, ignores the fact that in many poor nations, most meat goes for export, and most poor people can afford to eat little meat.
In claiming that globalization and inequitable distribution of wealth is the central problem, because it fails to allow local markets to work as they should, the implication is that somehow biofuels can be produced in a world where these issues will be resolved, where we will, for example, be consuming less meat, and where local and national markets will operate more fairly. But there’s no evidence that that will be the case. Those are all admirable goals, but it stands to reason that if we have not resolved the problem of distributing food, not wasting it, etc… at this point under the present, globalized model, adding a new way of inequitably distributing cereals will not help anything and it probably will hurt. At best, their reasoning requires that we resolve the problem of economic inequity before the industrialized world begins the race to biofuels.
Any move towards large scale biofuel production needs to be a by-product of agricultural reform (that is, the transformation away from industrial agriculture and towards small scale farming), and towards a more just, less globalized economic system. Unfortunately, large scale production of biofuels and their sale on world markets encourages, rather than discourages, globalization. However, small-scale, local production of biofuels within national and regional boundaries, for use in that area, might make sense, and might reduce inequity and environmental damage. Doing so will require, among other things, nations to reconsider how they subsidize agriculture and large corporations, and how they address the worldwide problem of landlessness. But a biofuel economy must begin from an ethical economy.
I believe this can be accomplished, as part of a move away from globalized trade and industrial agriculture, and towards small scale production, in a nation with many more farmers. But agricultural policy and planning must integrate these changes into its plans for a world even partially powered by energy crops.
Ethical Principle #6 - We must make the relationship between biofuels, meat eating and hunger explicit, because we can’t have it all.
Ethanol is booming, despite the fact that it may be a net energy loser. There are enough plants either in existence or being built in Iowa to use every grain of corn grown in the state, and if the ethanol industry gets its way, there will be enough plants to use up fully one half of the US corn crop. Now as might be expected, this makes people from the meat, dairy and poultry lobbies quite nervous. Because right now, more than 70% of all our corn production goes to feed livestock. Take half of the corn away, and we’ll be faced with a problem – do we reduce our meat consumption by 1/3 - 2/3 (the proportion of feed value removed from the grain in ethanol production) in order to fuel our cars, or do we keep eating and pay $6 per gallon for gas? But you will note that no one in the ethanol or biodiesel debate has suggested that if we want cheap, sustainably produced fuel, we ought to go vegetarian as a nation.
The danger, then, is that Americans, being rich, will continue to do both. They will eat meat and they will drive ethanol cars, and because our own grain is going to produce ethanol, we will import more grain, grown in poorer nations, to feed our livestock. We are doing this right now, and it is already raising the price of grain. Poor nations will be unable to compete, and unjust trade policies will continue to have them export food to us while they go hungry. We must recognize that rhetoric that emphasizes the potential for biofuels to produce livestock feed often ignores the reality that in many areas, staple foods, rather than meats, eggs and dairy products, are what keep people from hunger. So if many regional grain products are going to produce fuel, and the residues are suitable only for feeding livestock to produce expensive foods like meat and milk, it becomes less and less likely that the poor will be able to feed themselves.
That said, in nations that already support livestock on a significant scale, such as India, which derives much of its protein from milk products, some ethanol and biodiesel production might make sense, combined with methane digestion which would up the net energy gain significantly by using animal manures. Patents have recently been granted for a feedlot system in the US which would combine ethanol production with beef feeding and methane digestion. While the basic idea has a great deal of potential, the disastrous and energy intensive feedlot model is not the place to begin.
We can choose to resolve this problem one of two ways. We can stop eating so much grain fed meat as a people, in which case national corn surpluses will allow us to produce some of our gas from ethanol. We can switch to eating much less meat, and what we do eat will be grass-fed or raised on the by products of ethanol production. Or we can continue to eat meat as we have been, but we can't do both without causing hunger. And discussion of biofuels in public forums must emphasize this. We must tell people – meat or gas, but not both, and let them choose as part of a public debate. Thus far, no such discussion has occurred.
In the end, peak oil and natural gas may well make the decision for us, in the sense that the energy intensive quality of meat production may necessitate reducing our consumption of animal products, while simultaneously reducing our ability to produce biofuels.
The US must work to increase its food self-sufficiency, since it is at present the largest food importer in history. Former US secretary of Agriculture Tommy Thompson described the terrible vulnerability of our food supply, and we must recognize that any move to reduce our vulnerability to terrorist attacks by reducing oil imports must also reduce our vulnerability by reducing food imports. Any strategy that increases its dependency is both bad for the US and inhumane and terrible for the developing world. Transforming our agriculture is likely to reduce surplus grain availability for biodiesel and ethanol production in the short term, because small scale agriculture functions best in polyculture form, and also because organic methods of production usually experience a short term drop in yields as farmers compensate the damage to soil done by conventional agriculture. Doing so would, in the short term, reduce our ability to produce biofuels, but the long term increase in food security would be, as they say, priceless.
Ethical Principle #7 - Surpluses must be maintained and increased
Midori and Addison note rather dismissively that last year, 1 billion bushels of corn went unconsumed, as though that spare grain might well have been used for ethanol. But both national and worldwide food surpluses are absolutely essential to avert famine. Because of world-wide declines in crop yields, we are presently living in a period of shrinking surpluses. As Lester Brown notes, describing data from the 2006 harvest, "Even more sobering, in six of the last seven years world grain production has fallen short of use. As a result, world carryover stocks of grain have been drawn down to 57 days of consumption, the lowest level in 34 years. The last time they were this low wheat and rice prices doubled." A worldwide crop failure, or a major environmental event, or even a concatenation of factors could easily reduce us to no surpluses at all, or to mass famine. Any plan for large scale biofuel production must recognize that the first priority is the restoration of the world's grain reserves back to at least a six month reserve supply, and that expanding those reserves further ought to be a high priority. This would be easy to do, if most of us abjured grain fed meat, but we haven't. And as always, the cost is greatest for the weakest and poorest people in the world. On the other hand, making better use of waste is a possibility... maybe.
Ethical Principle #8 - Food waste must be minimized, and therefore, biofuels derived from food that would otherwise be wasted are potentially a net benefit
The most famous use of food waste is the transformation of vegetable oil from the fast food industry into biodiesel for cars. This has limited applications, but for those with easy local access to waste oils, it is an excellent way of keeping oils out of our waterways. It is, however, predicated on large scale fast food production, which is itself predicated on cheap agricultural commodities, including lots of cheap beef and chicken, which are in direct competition for grains with biofuel plants. Depending on the results of our national dialogue on meat, the availability of french fry oil for driving may be reduced significantly over time. Likewise, peak energy is likely to wreak some havoc on the drive through. This is a useful niche energy source for the present, but I suspect its long term applications are limited.
And there are other sources of waste. Nearly 40% of all food goes to waste in the US, as do tons of manures, both human and animal, that might be used for the production of biogas. Addison and Midori use this evidence of waste to argue in favor of biofuel production, and it may be that if we can streamline the connections between field and table, we could find a significant food surplus. That said, however, most of the potentially useful ways of reducing food waste either come with negative consequences such as large increases in pesticide and poison use (i.e., reducing crop damage), are not easily adapted to biofuel production (it is hard to make ethanol out of wheat that has been transformed into spaghetti, mixed with tomato sauce and left to mold in the refrigerator, and such products are better fed to animals or composted), or are fixable by the creation of more local agriculture. But localized agricultures are in many places likely to be small scale and unsuited to the enormous industrial grain production model that fuels our corn surpluses. It may be possible to reduce the food waste stream and derive some surplus over and above what is needed to prevent famine worldwide, but it may also come with limitations on how much corn there could be for ethanol.
The old saw, "Eat your dinner, there are children starving in India" is relevant here. Because even though we cannot mail our spare food elsewhere, our waste impacts their food security. Were we to devour fewer calories, and fewer calories of meat, and waste less food, the pressure on the food system created by Americans, the largest consumers of just about everything, might leave room for fuel-scarce nations to grow some of their own energy needs. We should remember that the first and best ways to minimize food waste is, well, not to waste food. If we develop large economic dependencies on "waste" food, we can expect to have difficulties if and when we either choose or are forced to use less, consume less and waste less. So there are dangers in building tolerance of waste into the system.
Still, as Addison and Hiraga point out, many second and third world nations are experiencing shortages of cooking, transportation and heating fuel as well, and biofuels have the potential to mitigate some of this. Dung-based and open wood fires are to some degree implicated in world-wide climate change, and creating local sources of fuel, particularly from waste materials, would do much to improve the quality of life of poor people who often must range far afield to find cooking fuel. But it is not clear to me that we are better off producing biofuels than growing more forests, which the millions of people who desperately need cooking fuel could coppice for firewood. And third world nations are, of course, precisely the places where food waste is minimized. So a system of using grain for local food production must, again, be integrated into a just economic system.
Ethical Principle #9 - The language we use shapes how we think, and we should be careful how we think about energy crops
We must be very careful in what we regard as "waste" - some proposals for ethanol or biodiesel involved the use of leaves and brush from forest floors, corn stalks, and other "waste" biomass. But these sources of organic matter are essential for good forest and soil health, and in many cultures, such "waste" products are already used as livestock feed. The potential consequences of choosing to think of anything we cannot eat as "waste" is potentially quite dire. Vandana Shiva has gone so far as to refer to the laying claim to straw and materials that would be composted as theft from the poor and from the future productivity of the soil. Carbon is sequestered in high-humus soils like forest floors and sustainably farmed land. Maintaining and increasing soil humus levels by either leaving or integrating dead organic matter into the soil is absolutely essential, and cannot be called "waste." Stripping our forest floors to produce energy for ourselves will come back to haunt us in deforestation and global warming. Good agricultural practice involves our returning the vast majority of our biological waste, including human manures, to the soil, rather than burning them as energy crops.
And as we must take care with what we label "waste" products, we also need to think carefully about how we regard our remaining resources. For example, we in America could easily choose, over the next decades, to exploit all of our remaining forests, watersheds, and even-remotely tillable land to produce bio-replacement crops for the fossil fuels we've come to depend upon. The first step in this disastrous exercise is the linguistic transformation of the whole and varied ecology of a forest into "biomass production" or of a bushel of corn into "ethanol in its raw state." Let us not forget that what we are speaking of is forest and food.
Ethical principle #10 - Biofuel production must be both organic and small-scale
There is no good industrial agriculture. At best, as Michael Pollan so amply documents in The Omnivore's Dilemma, industrial organic agriculture is marginally better than other industrial forms of production, at least in terms of toxicity. But industrial organic agriculture is no better at treating animals or human beings humanely, and often worse. Biofuel production has the potential to further invest our nation and the world in the industrial agricultural model, in ways that only increase the difficulty of extricating ourselves from the environmental disaster we've created. Moreover, if we wish to make ethanol or biodiesel into net energy producers, we have to minimize the number of fossil fuel inputs required to produce our fuels – that means reducing our dependencies on oil and gas for pesticides, fertilizers and tools.
So if our goals include fewer pesticides, fewer cases of cancer, rebuilding of world fish stocks, less water contamination, less exploitation of humans and animals, less dependence on foreign oil, net energy gains from biofuels and a saner economy, we must concentrate on returning agricultural production to much more of the human populace than the current 2%, to becoming a nation of farmers once again, full of diversified small farms. Biofuels must be integrated with food crops, green manures, and other natural fertilizers. Ideally, they might be harvested with animal traction, as the Amish do, which produces reduced soil compaction and requires less fossil energy. Or perhaps they will be planted and harvested with biofueled tractors and implements whose energy is produced and kept in their own neighborhood.
Peter Rosset has repeatedly demonstrated that small scale, diversified organic farms are hundreds, or thousands of times more productive than large industrial farms. The most bio-productive form of agriculture is the farm of 4-10 acres, which is more than 1000 times more productive, in total output, than 10 industrialized acres. If we could recreate a small scale polyculture form of agriculture, it is likely that we would have enough land to both feed the world and meet some of its energy needs. But it is also evident that the present, industrial model cannot meet those needs. Agricultural reform worldwide must come along with any biofuel revolution.
In Brazil, Milton Maciel describes a sugar cane to ethanol production plant that is located on the farm where he grows organic sugar cane. This kind of on-site or highly localized biofuel production is essential to maximizing EROEI – the less fuel required to transport the grains to the site of extraction, the better the net energy return will be. And biofuel produced this way should provide most of its economic benefits to the people who live nearby. There will only be anger and resentment in the end if yet again, farmers in the Midwest see their resources and wealth extracted and sent to the cities on the coasts. Thus, if we are to transform the national economy, appropriate biofuels should be produced on small scale farms in every part of the US (and around the world), as part of diversified polyculture farms. This would represent a radical cultural transformation, and require enormous policy shifts. But it would, in the end, provide enormous net benefits, including the possibility of maintaining some of our existing economy after peak oil.
Ethical Principle #11 - All of this must take into account a view from the peak
Ultimately, peak oil isn't really a controversy any more if we're talking about producing large quantities of ethanol and biodiesel. This entire discussion implicitly assumes that we cannot rely on fossil fuels forever, and that we know that. There is no doubt that the days of cheap oil are over, even if there remains some dispute as to when the end will come. So any plan for the large-scale use of biofuels must take into account the realities of peak oil. And those realities consist of, as many peak oil writers have argued, the end of a growth economy, a significant contraction of industrial culture and a general loss of economic and potentially, food security.
Much of my paper has assumed that at least temporarily, the continuation of industrial agriculture and a world-wide economy will remain possible, that we can choose between meat consumption and fueling our cars. But within the next decade, our options will most likely change. Some of those changes may be positive – we may find much more efficient and less energy intensive ways of doing things. But many of them will not be. Every year we attempt to preserve things as they are is a year we are not working to alter our basic infrastructure for an energy depleted future. In embarking on large scale industrial biofuel production, we are potentially making our own process of adaptation much more dangerous, because we reduce the time we have to transform our societal infrastructure. This is true in the US and the world at large.
Peak oil's impact is likely to show up in several areas. The first, as previously noted, is that biofuels will neither be cheaper nor more effective than fossil fuels, as long as they rely on large quantities of fossil fuel inputs to keep them running. So if we are to reduce fossil fuel inputs into the production of crops designed for biofuels, we need to prioritize organic agriculture, small scale agriculture, local fuel production plants, soil building and natural sources of fertility. We cannot reduce the impact of an oil peak without reducing the sheer number of inputs required.
Second, peak oil is likely to increase the number of people who struggle for access to both food and fuel worldwide. Biofuel production must be a part of local food systems, organized and administered within local communities, and bringing economic benefits to places that need them – if biofuel production is organized in an extractive fashion, where farmers grow cheap corn at the cost of soil and water that they and future generations need, it will only increase the problems, and increase social inequities both in the US and worldwide. On the other hand, if biofuels are grown as part of local food systems, and fuels are produced locally, in part for local needs, providing local jobs and benefits to local economies and as part of community strategies to maximize resources, then that can only improve our future.
Finally, peak oil is also likely to make changes in global trade and the nature of agriculture more urgent. For example, a dramatic rise in the cost of pesticides, herbicides and nitrogen fertilizers is going to make organic agriculture not a trendy luxury but a necessity. As the costs of transporting food long distances rise, the urgency of producing staple foods, wood and basic fuels nearer the places they will be eaten will be self-evident. We can and should use agricultural policy and our food choices to begin that transformation into a society that can both grow food and fuel.
One possible model for this is The Relocalization Network's "Energy Farms" (http://www.energyfarms.net/) which integrate food and fuel production and experiment with new energy crops. Their emphasis is on local security – food security, economic security, and also security from energy shortage. Julian Darley, founder of relocalize.net and author of the forthcoming Relocalize Now and High Noon for Natural Gas observed to me that he felt the food vs. fuel debate was somewhat misplaced, because there is no possibility of reducing our energy input needs to zero. What we can do, Darley pointed out, is reduce our consumption dramatically enough that locally and sustainably produced energy can meet most or all of our needs. Darley's concept of the "foot economy" is the scale on which we should be imagining things here – all the biofuel production I have written about here needs to be considered in wholly local terms.
Ethical Principle #12 - Any system of biofuel production must take the long view
Right now, when we talk about biofuels, we are mostly talking about fueling our cars in the conventional way, only with a percentage of ethanol or biodiesel. And this is both a real and non-trivial issue. But as we've seen, the long term hope of growing much of our fuel and maintaining the same basic lifestyle is extremely poor. An industrial, globalized biofuel economy will increase hunger in the third world, but it is also not an answer to first world problems, because the required fossil fuel inputs are so great that the cost of biofuels will be bound inextricably to the cost of fossil fuels. Given that most biofuels offer little or no net advantage in either fossil fuel consumption or carbon emissions as presently produced, they are at best a stopgap solution without massive transformation of our culture and economy.
Taking the long view means changing our ways of eating, changing our economy and our trade, and most of all, changing our agriculture and creating a generation of new farmers, educated in sustainable agriculture. It will mean turning more of our land into forest and paving less of it, and it will involve a new culture of conservation. If we do not take the long view, we will create more hunger and more economic injustice while simultaneously wasting most of the resources we are pouring into biofuel research and plants. If in a decade, most people can no longer afford to buy biodiesel or gasoline, we will have to start again with the energies to run our economy, only from a vastly weaker position.
An ethical economy of energy crops can only begin with the creation of an ethical economy, an ethical agriculture, an ethical society, and an ethical culture. All that sound tremendously overwhelming, and, of course, it is much harder than simply planting a field of corn and building an ethanol plant. But the potential rewards, the environmental, economic and social benefits for ourselves and our children and grandchildren are enormous.