Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Three Billion Dead: The Future of Biofuels and the Future of Resistance

I'm going to be asking all of you to do some hard work today - this is not going to be a short post, or an easy one, particularly if you read the referenced piece and the hundred or more relevant comments. We all have limited time and energy, and I'm not necessarily famous for my brevity, so I understand if this looks overwhelming to you, but I'd like people to try and get through it, because this is damned important.

The one time I saw Stuart Staniford speak, at ASPO Boston in the fall of 2006, he ended his analysis of oil peak data with something along the lines of "Peak Oil isn't the end of the world, folks." I'd tend to guess he may actually have changed his mind on this one. He's a guy who tends to be conservative in his estimates, and, as far as I can tell (I don't know him at all) someone who doesn't believe things until he's figured them out to his satisfaction. Since he's a brilliant data analyst, to his satisfaction is quite a high standard. But becuase he's not someone who leaps to conclusions, I tend to trust Staniford's thinking. That is, when he gets worried, I worry. When he says, as he does here, that he was "floored" - I sit up and pay attention. And in fact, I was too.

This is a very long, difficult and important piece, on the impact of biofuels on the food supply, world hunger and the future. I've been arguing intuitively from the perspective of someone whose interest is not in data analysis, that peak oil's first and deepest effects will appear in world hunger, but Staniford has pushed it further. http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2431#more. I strongly urge you to read the whole thing when you can, but his conclusion is this:

Here the value for the lower-income 2/3 of the world's population is about +0.7. What this means is that a 10% reduction in income has about the same effect on food consumption as a 10% increase in food prices. This suggests that we can use the global income distribution (shown above) to roughly estimate the impact of a doubling or quadrupling of food prices. We noted earlier that according to the UN about 800 million people are unable to meet minimal dietary energy requirements. That is 12% of the world population. On the income distribution (one graph back), the 12% mark corresponds to $1020/year in income (shown as the lowermost green dot). By looking at the $2040 level (36% of the global population - second green dot up), and the $4080 level (61% of the global population - third green dot up), we can estimate that a doubling in food prices over 2000 levels might bring 30% or so of the global population below the level of minimal dietary energy requirements, and a quadrupling of food prices over 2000 levels might bring 60% or so of the global population into that situation.

These estimates should be regarded as quite uncertain. Still, it seems hard to make a case that food price increases will cause a cessation of biofuel profitability before a significant fraction of the global population is in serious trouble. The poor will not be able to bid up food prices by factors of two and four and keep eating. In contrast, the quadrupling of global oil prices, and tripling of US gasoline prices, over the last five years has had very minimal impact on driving behavior by the middle classes.

The core problem is that gasoline price elasticity in the US is about -0.05, versus the -0.7 price elasticity for food consumption by poor consumers. This makes clear who is going to win the bidding war for food versus biofuels in a free market.


I wouldn't claim to be very knowledgeable on this, but I struggle to imagine how someone who wasn't meeting minimum dietary guidelines already can continue to exist on half as much food, or a quarter as much food, as food prices come into equilibrium with the current oil price level, or perhaps double again should oil prices double again. I would imagine that if you are hungry all the time you would already be devoting most of the skills and resources available to you to the problem of eating, and you would have limited ability to increase that in the face of large increases of food prices

For those of my readers who don't spend a lot of time reading scholarly papers, let me translate a little bit. What Staniford is saying is that there will be strong economic incentives to continue biofuels growth at the expense of the world's poor, and that mass starvation could occur quite rapidly, even as he states early on in the paper, as soon as 5 years from now and under existing policies. That is, if we don't act now, we may "accidentally" starve billions of people in our quest for oil substitutes. Staniford says,

"I will use a mixture of existing data,[..] to demonstrate that there are reasonably plausible scenarios for biofuel production growth to cause mass starvation of the global poor, and that this could happen fairly quickly - quite possibly within five years, and certainly well within the life of the existing policy regimes."

Even the most jaundiced viewer of the rush to biofuels, (including myself) has probably underestimated the dangers of biofuel growth without external constraints. My own analysis was that some significant percentage of the population might starve - I admit, I didn't guess half. Here's my own work on what an ethical model of biofuel production would look like: http://www.energybulletin.net/24169.html

If this is true, how do we apply those constraints? That is, if we don't think it is morally acceptable to feed our cars at the expense of other people's children, how do we get that message across?

This, of course, is the central question of just food distribution. While practical data on yields and output of various organic and polyculture practices provides ample evidence that we can continue to produce similar, even increasing quantities of food for some time, the question of distribution offers a constraint that is deeply difficult to overcome. That is, there seems to be little doubt that we can produce enough food to create a stable decline - that is, to feed the population until it stabilizes and falls via voluntary self-limitation. But that does mean that we would have little human food to convert to meat or biofuels, and we would have to not only have more equitable distribution, but a cultural passion for justice and equal distribution.

I know people who believe that latter is utterly impossible to achieve. We are not like that, we are told. We are too selfish. We will not change until we have to.

And perhaps that's even true, but perhaps there are multiple versions of "have to" - that is, the idea that we won't do anything until it is absolutely necessary implicitly sets a real bar for what constitutes absolute necessity. One of the places we tend to set that bar is at our compassion for others as a collective people. That is, we tend to believe that things that affect us personally might move us to action, but things that mostly affect others will not.

There is no doubt that a massive move to biofuels will affect us - is affecting us now. Rising food prices are hurting Americans who have to pay for gas and food and mortgage, and have little flexibility in both. But there is also, as Staniford notes, little doubt that the biggest victims will be the poor of the world, people far away who we do not know. What would make it possible for us to care so much about them that we are willing to change our lives in profound and difficult ways to preserve their lives? Is that entirely unthinkable.

I think to many of us, it is. That is, we look at the way we live now, and do not see or recognize a part of ourselves that cares so deeply about distant others.

Which is why I think the following information is so important - we once did care that much, and not so very long ago.

As Amy Bentley documents in _Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity_, there was a time, about 60 years ago, when Americans were prepared to endure food rationing and hardship in order to keep other people alive. No, I'm not talking about World War II, but about the last time in our history that a signficant percentage of the world faced death from famine.

At the end of World War II, in 1945, the US was thriving, but up to 1/4 of the rest of the world's population was facing hunger. Whole economies had been destroyed by the war, and a subsequent drought dramatically reduced crop yields. In 1945, food production world wide was 12% below pre-war levels, and the 1946 harvest was similarly affected.

Europe's harvest levels were 25% below normal. Mexico was in the grips of massive inflation, with tortilla prices out of reach of many - more than half of all Mexicans were spending 90% of their income on food. In Korea, the whole year's food donation supply was consumed by June. Rations in Japan were at 520 calories per per person, per day, vastly below the 2800 calorie norms. 500 million people faced death by starvation. Only a few nations, most notably America, were in any position at all to export grains for relief.

Meanwhile, the US was newly released from wartime rationing, and food consumption rose to 3300 calories per day on average. People celebrated unlimited meats, sugars and fats that they'd been denied during the war. And Americans were preoccupied with the return of family and the recreation of American society - they did not care very much about the starving masses, if they even knew they existed.

In the winter of 1946, Harry Truman made a radio address on the world situation asking Americans to help conserve food in order to earmark 16 percent of the total US harvest for food relief. Among his policies were included the prohibition of wheat use in alcohol production and strict limitations on feeding grains to livestock. He also asked Americans to voluntarily restrict their food consumption, to free up more food to be sent for relief.

What is remarkable is that when Americans turned their attention to the subject, they showed willingness to endure even stronger restrictions than the voluntary ones that Truman and his Aid czar, Herbert Hoover, proposed. 70% of Americans indicated their willingness to endure shortages of meat, butter, sugar, gas and other goods to give food to the hungry in Europe.

Herbert Hoover gave the following speech, after travelling to famine struck regions:

"I have seen with my own eyes the grimmest spectre of famine in all the history of the world. Of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the one named War has gone, at least for a while. But Famine, Pestilence and Death are still charging over the earth...Hunger hangs over the homes of 800 million people - over one-third of the people on the earth. "

Americans were further moved by this - and by the recognition that much of the world viewed them as gluttonous and selfish. Millions of Americans recognized that critics who claimed that America could only meet its commitments to provide food aid with rationing demanded its reinstitution, in face of the powerful opposition of Hoover and the Famine Emergency Committee. Americans wanted to see rationing instituted to ensure fairness, as they reduced their consumption.

In 1944, in the heart of World War II, 85% of all Americans believed that rationing should be retained after the war to prevent hunger and shortages. In March, 1946, 59 percent of the American public was willing to reinstitute full scale rationing to be able to relieve hunger in other nations. After Truman spoke eloquently about the world's suffering, the numbers rose to 70%.

Women's consumer groups spoke out in favor of national rationing. The OPA consumer Advisor Committee, made up of many well known and powerful women castigated Truman for not reinstating rationing, saying,

"The first step is immediately to withdraw large quantities of these foods from the domestic market for shipment abroad...Simultaneously measures must be taken to so allocate the domestic supply so that all the people will be able to get their share at home...Voluntary rationing is patently inadequate..."

More than 700 women's groups signed a letter demanding the reinstatement of rationing. 300 presidents of women's colleges did the same. It is worth noting that women took a leading role here - they they consistently demonstrated greater support for the reinstitution of rationing than men. Since the burden of food rationing fell more heavily on women, this is important - the people who would to give up the most were the most anxious to help

Perhaps the most astounding statistic was that almost 1/3 of the American public acknowledged a willingness to reinstitute rationing *to save the starving Japanese* - that is, despite national fury at those who bombed Pearl Harbor, at the most demonized enemy we may ever have had, fully 1/3 of the American population was willing to give up food to save the lives of their enemies.

In fact, voluntary rationing didn't work very well - America failed to make its food commitments, and people did starve. When America finally did meet its goals, it was because of a growing security threat from starving people in Russia. But that doesn't change the fact that Americans effectively begged their government to help them help others. That is, what matters most in this statistic is this - we not so very long ago believed that we would do a great deal in order to help others.

Does this stand as conclusive proof that we won't starve half the world? Absolutely not. And of course there are real and practical differences between the people who lived during World War II and ourselves. And yet, those differences are not so very vast that they might not be overcome, that we too might stand up, and perhaps do so with greater success, and demand that the need of others to be fed exceed the rights of the internal combustion engine.



Ani said...

But this will also require that the proponents of biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol, such as ADM and the politicians currying favor with the midwestern states here in the US all acknowledge what a terible idea this really is. Americans are being told that this is the way to go and most are so ignorant they believe it willingly. It doesn't hurt that believing it is so allows them to envision that their lifestyle of "happy motoring", as Kunstler would put it, can go on indefinitely.

I myself believe that the only reasonable use for biofuels will be to power farm equipment-and here I'm talking biodiesel.

I would hope that people recognize the sheer injustice of feeding cars and "maintaining our lifestyles" at the expense of feeding people is horribly immoral and injust. But you never know- Americans seem to be ok so far in general with using 25% of the world's oil and spewing 25% of the carbon emissions every year.....

homebrewlibrarian said...

I hacked my way through the Staniford article and it was both enlightening and depressing. I now know way more about biofuels and their potential impact on food resources than I had any concept of. And I'm very nearly clinically depressed because of it.

If such an article was translated into common speak and made available to the American population, I feel the news would be so horrendous that it would freeze people in their tracks. For the ones who care about others that is. At least, that's what I was feeling.

There's this feeling of dread that my choices for transporting myself around where I live are so limited that driving becomes a necessity. I've figured out how to get between home and work by bus but trying to do any other tasks requires more time than my workday allows. The bus system is adequate but painful for timing transfers - sometimes it's faster to walk three miles than wait for the connecting bus. If the weather is reasonable, walking isn't bad but if it's extremely cold, dark and there aren't sidewalks choices diminish quickly.

I could raise my voice for better bus scheduling but it's a deficit running operation now. There's not much my voice will count for until many more people start taking the bus. Which I keep expecting but haven't seen yet.

But it isn't just an inadequate bus system, it's the lack of alternatives to driving. I've cut way back but can't seem to encourage anyone around me to do the same. If I'm having difficulty cutting back on driving and I *want* to cut back, what hope have I of those who don't want to even if faced with it?


Marnie said...

i know that sustaining car culture is not a desirable solution, but it seems that people would rather drive than feed others. what about:


It may be naive, but please, please let it be true? and let it arrive before the big push for ethanol/biodiesels?

Sharon, do you think this would help, or would it be a band-aid? or could it possibly prevent this starvation?

Anonymous said...

Hate to say it Sharon, but it's not just us who are different to those who lived in the forties.

It's also that (I think) we see ourselves as more distant, more different to the world's poorest (brown people, with clothes we do not recognise, against backdrops that look like Mars) than did the people in wealthy countries in the 40s to the needy of the world then (fellow-white people, in countries with opera houses and civic buildings that looked like ours. Who just fought in the same wars. Etc. Your Japanese point is a great counterexample, but an exception). Our mobilisation task is greater now.

Anonymous said...

"A 15 gallon tank of ethanol is 7 months worth of corn calories for one person."

So filling up a 25 gallon tank of an SUV with ethanol deprives a person of corn calories for about a year.

Our habits of driving gas-guzzlers and consuming industrial measts are truly immoral. I was "floored" when I learned years ago that most of the corn produced in the US goes to animal feeding.

SUVs and industrial meats should be banned. Or, at least, strict taxes applied to the purchase of them.

Probably this won't happen. The corporatocracy rules nowadays!

Anonymous said...

This excellent article by Steve Lendman is relevant to the current topic:

"Reviewing F. William Engdahl's Seeds of Destruction -- Part III"


Anonymous said...

Here's the complete 3 part series of Steve Lendman's expose.


Stuart Staniford said...

Maybe I should just say "Peak Oil needn't be the end of the world"! But there is no situation so bad that poor choices cannot make it worse.

The account of the post WWII rationing situation is fascinating.

RAS said...

Hey Sharon, I think you're missing a crucial point: the American people would never starve half the world's population, but American business and political leaders would -and keep it hid behind curtains so we couldn't see it, and blame it on something else.

jewishfarmer said...

Ani, I don't think it would be required for the proponents to acknowledge this - merely that the voices of those who disagree become vastly larger. It is not impossible for people's voices to become loud enough to overpower the corporate crap - it just hasn't happened.

Marnie, I couldn't get the link to open, so I can't answer you yet. I'll try again later.

Anonymous, I agree with you in some ways - and that would have to be part of the project. Note, I didn't say that this would be easy or anything ;-).

Stuart, with that construction, I'll happily agree with you. And thank you again for the analysis.

And yes, Rebecca, I think that's exactly right.


ulu said...

Stuart's brilliant exposé needs to be copied and circulated as widely as possible. Since the Oil Drum is, to put it mildly, challenged when it comes to media relations, this circulation will not happen unless other parties pick it up.

Assuming Stuart's right, and after reading his numbers I see no more reason than he himself does to think he's not, the window of opportunity is less than five years. In other words, within the term of the next elected US president.

It would thus be blatantly obvious that someone somewhere, with Stuart's data in hand, needs to start a movement that urges voters very strongly not to pick a candidate who is not very clearly very outspoken against US ethanol subsidies and/or further increases in production capacity.

If America elects someone with ties to the ADM/Cargill/Monsanto cartel that profits most from these subsidies, and is therefore pro-ethanol, pro-subsidies, and pro-production growth, we can consider this game over for the first few hundred million of our brothers and sisters. Thus, the decision is yours, and you have 10 months left to effect it. Let that be clear. It’s not 5 or 10 years, scary as those timeframes already are by themselves, no, your deadline in November 2008.

It is possible that Stuart's scenario gets pushed downward to a certain extent by economic factors, i.e. a large scale impoverishment of the broader population. But even if we consider these economics, or one might say because of them, it is still highly doubtful that people will volunteer to use less energy, if only simply because (they feel) it would be a luxury choice, and alternatives would (not) be available to keep warm and dry and maybe driving. That is, poorer people may well make poorer choices.

On the more fatalistic side, we might ponder if man isn't poised to act as all other organisms do, increasing energy consumption until the upper limits are reached, but never voluntarily cutting back. It makes no difference in that view whether individuals mitigate their lives to a degree, the group dynamics decide the outcome of the game. And then we’re back to yeast in a wine vat and bacteria in a petri dish.

After November, it will be much harder to show and convince ourselves we do indeed not function at the yeast level, and it will cost more lives than the past hundred years of warfare and epidemics put together have taken.

Lastly, while most starvation victims will be in the poor parts of the world, many thousands in the US will also die of hunger, while their neighbors drive by with closed windows. The poor in the US will be priced out of the market, and perish while there is still food available. And you might think that you'll be alright, but don't think for a moment that it's pleasant to live in a place where people lie dying by the side of the road.

sylvia said...

Thanks for this post. I've been really, really worried about the biofuels/agflation/famine connection for a while now, and this and Stuart's article gave me a much-needed kick in the butt. I need to get my anti-ethanol efforts back into gear. I started out all fired up, but lost steam a while back after several friends gave me "um, ok, whatever"-type responses. They already think I'm some kind of survivalist nut for talking about peak oil...

Last year, I wrote a few letters to the heads of UN agencies who might be concerned about this kind of thing and didn't get any response.

I was very encouraged to hear the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, call for an immediate 5-year moratorium on biofuels production and state that not to do so would constitute a crime against humanity. Unfortunately, his little press statement didn't get enough attention.

And I have a grand total of one t-shirt made (it was a prize at a Cinco de Mayo Tortilla Riots/Anti-Ethanol party I threw last year) that says "Bush is a Cornhole, Stop the Ethanol Famine, Drive Less". Now I have to figure out to make a kajillion more that have every pro-ethanol presidential candidate's name on it...

This really can't be allowed to happen.

sailor said...

Considering that there has already been a methodical 20 year campaign of genocide in Iraq, just so a few big corporations can get at all that oil underneath the "overburden" of Iraqi society, I doubt if our present collective ignorance of the brutal truth will prevent further genocide when we gleefully switch to biofuels to feed our addiction to driving and flying. But yes, the post war history in this article gives us a ray of hope that people might wake up and change their deadly habits.

heather said...

Hi Sharon,

Great post - I featured it yesterday on our
New Society blog. This whole biofuels issue is more proof that we can't just look for an alternative way to fuel our resource-intensive lifestyle - our only hope is to break the pattern completely and start living with less...

riverbird said...

I think you should be more specific about 'biofuels' and not lump them all together, because your whole argument is only relevent if you're talking about corn based ethanol specifically. In my local area, our biofuel comes from recycled vegie oil. There is also recent data out confirming the 1:1 energy ration for corn, and a 5:1 for switchgrass - which nobody eats. So please don't generalize the term 'biofuels' because it really depends on which flavor of biofuels you're talaking about in terms of how it effects food prices and what it's net energy is.

jewishfarmer said...

Riverbird, I don't think you read Staniford's article carefully, because he does deal precisely with these questions. The truth is that WVO is a tiny, tiny resource, and also in large part a product of the industrial meat system, which is also implicated in the starvation matrix. I'm perfectly happy to seperate out WVO, with the caveat that not only are only a tiny, tiny percentage of all vehicles going to ever run on it, but that that fraction will get much smaller as time goes on.

As for switchgrass - remember, we're talking about timescales of 5years and under for the starvation of a huge portion of the world's population. Switchgrass takes several years to establish, there's very little of it now, cellulosic ethanol is still mostly a lab technique, and the grazing land that we are talking about converting to switchgrass was, mostly producing human food (milk and meat) before hand. That's not to say that the switchgrass shift might not produce a small but decent ethanol harvest with minimal effect on the human diet - that's yet to be seen. But it has at this point, very little to do with nearterm biofuels production and this model.

Read the article, please.


Ani said...


Guess I'm just being cynical again, but where is this whole outcry going to come from and why? Are you expecting that whole hordes of Americans are going to suddenly really care about starving poor people living primarily in other countries; they haven't yet for the most part. People die of starvation and malnutrition every day and I only see attention paid to it rarely- the footage of dying children gets a bit of front page attention for a few days until replaced by the latest important sports news or whatever.

Why should the hordes protest against this really? What is left to take the place of diminishing supplies of fossil fuels? So if the masses protest against the use of biofuels what exactly will they do to fuel their trips to the mall? It's not as if we had a realistic alternative fuel for them to use-what we are proposing is lifestyle changes and restraint......
So what do they obtain by protesting against biofuels? Higher prices for fuel, rationing, etc?? Not going to be too popular I'd guess-don't believe the general American public is into the self-sacrifice bit anymore....

Between the politicans who don't want to face the truth, the automakers who want to continue to bull a gullible public, ADM and the rest of the corporate ag types raking in the bucks, and the general public who really want to believe biofuels are the answer- I don't see a public outcry happening to change the path we are on.

Didn't you KNOW there were no WMD's in Iraq? Didn't many of us know this and protest against attacking Iraq? Happened anyway- don't see anything different here- some old same old......

jewishfarmer said...

Ani - There are certainly historical examples galore in which even public engagement failed. There are also historical examples when it succeeded - the American civil rights movement, for example, or the gay rights movement. That apathy is more common than engagement, and self-sacrifice less common than self-interest is undoubtably true. But that doesn't change the fact that real and meaningful acts of self-sacrifice do occur, that engagement is possible to us as human beings and as Americans.

It is true that all that's in this for Americans is the realization that they prevented human beings from dying - but that's no small thing, and a power that could be harnessed. I don't say it will be - in fact, my bet would be on the alternative, but neither is our present outcome inevitable.

Did I *know* there were no WMDs in Iraq? No, I didn't. I thought the evidence was extremely poor, and moreover, that WMDs were both an excuse and that even if there were thousands of them, it didn't justify the invasion, but no, I didn't know that. And that is a difference between then and now - we do know the effects of biofuels, because we can see them.

And that is the thing that is hopeful here - biofuels aren't just going to starve billions, they will drive up food prices for the large percentage of Americans who have limited discretionary incomes, the ones who already go hungry, and a host of ones who never thought they would. Those people will have personal anger to shape this discussion. And that investment may matter as much as the desire to not bring about harm.

It is perfectly reasonable to be angry at how powerless we have been rendered. But to assume that we also have no means of becoming more powerful is, I think, an intellectual error.


LisaZ said...

Thank you for this information, Sharon. What can I say? I sincerely hope you're wrong. We're doing what we can...Lisa in MN

ulu said...

sylvia said...
Now I have to figure out to make a kajillion more that have every pro-ethanol presidential candidate's name on it...

Yes, something like that. And a good summary of Stuart's main conclusions, that he perhaps will be willing to do himself. And maybe hand out the full article to a brazillion people as well.

Would you happen to know who is not pro-ethanol among the remaining wolf-pack? I'm pretty sure Ron Paul is against the subsidies, but the rest are probably too fond of Iowa votes, and too scared of farmers in general.

The article, or its summary, needs to get published so high up in the media foodchain, think New York Times territory, that ADM cannot get away with not responding, and is compelled to try and refute the conclusions. Something that will be very hard for them to do, because Stuart knows his material. Then again, don't underestimate spin doctors.

Stephen B said...

Thank you Sharon and Stewart for this important read. I must say, however, that I wasn't really surprised by the outcome of Stewart's study or how close corn ethanol is to swallowing our food supply. One merely had to look at the number of kilocalories we use in oil and nat gas, look at how that number is forecast to start shrinking, then compare that kilocalorie deficit to the kilocalorie amount humanity eats and presto, near instant disaster.

I do agree with Sharon that sometimes, folks can be motivated to sacrafice for others, but also have to agree with Ani that sometimes folks, esp. in the US, just turn a deaf ear. If Iraq doesn't prove the point, then look at the situation in Nigeria as detailed in the Vanity Fair article that we've discussed here in the past.

In my work on the large former farm that is the residential treatment center I work in, I have pointed out the impact our oil dependency is having on needy people around the world, even going so far as to pass around said Vanity Fair article and talking about our war against brown people for oil in Iraq, Nigeria, etc., but frankly, nobody really cares there. I work with a bunch of people, from poorer communities of color, largely urban, that one would think might be more sympathetic to these concerns, yet a good deal of said co-workers drive to our exurban work location from the city in large Ford Expeditions and other SUVs. They think it's quaint and comical that I use a bike and bike trailer to come to work, but they themselves make no effort that I can see to use less oil and fossil fuels either at work or on the way there.

We must continue the fight of course, because what else can we do, but know too that it may well be futile in the end.

Stephen B.
suburban MA
from ROE2

Anonymous said...

Powerful and devastating analysis.

How about passing this on to Paul Krugman, the progressive economist who writes for the New York Times? Anyone have a "degrees of separation" linkage in his direction?

jewishfarmer said...

Among the current presidential candidates with a snowball's chance in hell, a purely biofuels based vote would probably come up Hillary, as much as that thought gags me.

I'm afraid I don't have any connections with Paul Krugman. Anyone else?

BTW, Ani and Stephen, one thing that I think is helpful in this is to remember that there are degrees of failure - we may not be able to turn the ship around in time to avoid one level of horror, but maybe we can be that much ahead on the next one, if that makes sense. That is, sooner or later the consequences of this action will be felt - America, for example, will feel it in security difficulties, possibly in trade relations - that is, the choice to starve the poor world will not occur in a vacuum.

So it is worth remembering that while we may not act entirely from altruism, the odds are good that something will check us at some point. All of our activism now may not fix the problem in the whole, but it may reduce the impact a little, or a lot - there is a huge difference between half a billion dead and 3 billion - perhaps not morally, but practically. Even if the worst we can do is begin creating structures to enable later mitigation, that's worthwhile too

You do what you can - but the fact that we may not be able to fix it doesn't excuse us from trying.


Anonymous said...

The time has come to advocate a return to ox powered agriculture and not continue the existing system using biofuels.

Our foods are now so depleted in phyto-nuitrients that our poplulations are obese and still not getting sufficient nuitrition.

The combination of biodynamics and ox power can return us to health and fitness.

Sharon please take a look at:-

An inspiring film that does not actively promote ox power but in it you can see how it complements biodynamics.


sylvia said...

I forgot to mention, there's a really timely article on the BBC site today (was one of the top three stories today, until it got displaced by Bush's Middle East visit) on food shortages in south Asia: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7178876.stm

And the cover story of the Economist this past month was "The End of Cheap Food".

There is media coverage out there on the issue, and they all mention biofuels/ethanol as one of the culprits. But people are notoriously bad at connecting the dots. Title an article "Ethanol causes global famine: How our road trips to Disney World are ensuring that two-year olds starve to death" and people would start getting the picture. Title it "The End of Cheap Food" and people just think, hunh, guess I'll be paying even more for my brie cheese...

And ulu, yes, we need a little brochure that we can hand out/spam our friends and family with. People just have no idea how big of a deal this is. I don't know Paul Krugman, but I'll ask around and see if I can dig up any connections to media types who could get the word out.

And Sharon, I thought Hillary was just as pro-ethanol as everyone else running? I read her energy policy (there was a link on theoildrum a while ago, i think), purposefully scanning it for some mention of scaling back ethanol production, and found nothing but a vague reference to encouraging more of the same. If I remember correctly.

Ani said...

Hi Sharon-

Please don't misunderstand my comments and believe that I won't keep trying,and hoping, that enough people will "get with the program". It's just that I'm not too optimistic. I know that people did get behind the civil rights movement and gay rights for instance- but I also am aware that despite how some people may carry on about it, allowing two gays to marry doesn't really take anything away from you, thus, it's not really any sort of self-sacrifice to support it. Likewise to an extent with the civil rights movement-I suppose one could argue that keeping blacks down, uneducated and oppressed leaves more jobs, etc for whites- this could be true perhaps-and some people sacrificed their lives for the civil rights movement- so some similarites here perhaps in terms of sacrifice.

It's just that not only do the connections have to be made loud and clear- between biofuels and starvation, environmental degradation, etc, they have to be acccepted by the masses and they have to be willing to realize that we need to make changes in our lives.

What I meant by Iraq and the WMD's was that there are a number of us who were reasonably sure that the whole thing was just an excuse-and many of us protested- but it got sold to a gullible public, elected officials, the works. So I ask how this will be any different....
And yes, you are right I think that we may not toally succeed but some success will prevent some needless deaths from starvation.
Most people just so want to believe that alternative fuels will be the savior. If I hear anything else about the glories of cellulosic ethanol I will probably barf however.

So how do we get this info out there to people who don't want to hear it anyhow? I'm working on it at the state level now- will see how it goes this session. Maybe we all need to do this in our own states? Peak Oil awareness coupled with a primer on the realities and limitations of biofuels?

ulu said...

Sharon said...

I'm afraid I don't have any connections with Paul Krugman. Anyone else?

I just sent him an email. And I would recommend that everyone do the same, and their friends etc, till he pays attention and reads the study. Click here to reach Paul Krugman at the New York Times. You need to click on Send an E-Mail to Paul Krugman, beside his picture.

My message is below. Feel free to copy it or do your own thing. I would recommend that everyone fills in the same under the option "Headline or URL of Article Related to Your Message", namely the title of Stuart's article, Fermenting the Food Supply. That way it becomes a force.



This is urgent, as you will find if you read this study: Fermenting the Food Supply.

The study I'm referring you to here needs to be covered in the national media. As you will see, it's a no-nonsense data-analyst's conversion to the dangers of the current US and world biofuel production prospects.

It's not doom or sensationalism. The scientist in question, Stuart Staniford, is anything but that. He just crunched the numbers, time and again, and found himself unable to escape his own conclusions. Up to 3 billion dead in the next ten years.

If anyone can discredit the data, I'd like to see that. If not, the US presidential elections have a no-contest new prime issue that needs to be discussed ahead of anything else, including warfare and the economy.

The ethanol issue can, and must, be stopped, and it should have a prominent place in all presidential debates form here on in.


Beach Boy said...

Hi folks. I'm a contributor at TOD and thought I could offer some ideas about getting the word out on this most critical issue.

I've been doing it myself on a couple of economic blogs, those of Nouriel Roubini and Brad Setser.

As you will see (the posts come from "RealThink") you can logically branch to this issue from a number of topics.



Beach Boy said...

A caveat: the URLs seem to appear in their entirety only when using small text size.

Just in case, the ending parts after http://www.rgemonitor.com/blog/roubini

daharja said...

Americans will soon have enough of their own problems, and will not be in any position to help anyone else in the world, I think.

The US economy is crumbling, and lately I've been hearing the 'recession' referred to as 'depression'.

The term 'economic meltdown' was mentioned for the first time today (on the Australian ABC news).

The US first became a net food importer in 2005, and does not provide for its own usage of oil, producing roughly 1/3rd of its current needs.

The Saudis were the last of the world's major suppliers to hit Peak Oil, and their production has now started declining quite sharply.

I think the likely attack on Iran is yet another part of the grab for what's left, as was suggested as a likely scenario in Heinberg's "Powerdown".

The US has not, to my knowledge, released any oil from its strategic oil supply to counter the recession, which leads me to believe that the SOS might be lower than the public is led to believe.

If the planet is going to face Peak Oil, I can think of many countries that might be fairly safe places to be. The United States, with its history of civil unrest and its nearly 200 million guns in private hands, is not one of them.

I think we're all in for rough times. But to automatically assume that the United States will be in any position to help the rest of the world is ideologically arrogant and outdated, and I personally find it annoying and offensive.

The world is a small place, and the USA is just one small country. I think what Peak Oil and climate change are about to teach us are just how small this world really is, and how finite its resources.

Stephen B said...


RE: "I think we're all in for rough times. But to automatically assume that the United States will be in any position to help the rest of the world is ideologically arrogant and outdated, and I personally find it annoying and offensive."

I agree the US has a host of its own problems, but if using way less oil and resources to avoid pricing others around the world out of the market of those resources so that they may share something to eat is what you mean, then call me arrogant I guess.

Even the poor can share and be thoughtful of the needs of others.

Back in college when I was delivering pizza door to door, I quickly learned that many of the best tipping homes were the lower class, poorer parts of town. Perhaps when the US is poor (whatever that eventually means), then perhaps we will finally have a better feel for the needs of others.

Stephen B.
suburban MA

Anonymous said...

Suppose we don't do biofuels, esp. corn ethanol:

- Oil prices rise, so gasoline prices rise, so transport costs rise.
- So prices of farm inputs rise, prices of food transport rise, prices of food export to needy nations rise.
- Aid budgets, do not rise.

People still starve. Sure, biofuels aren't helping, but they aren't the only hurt either.

Ani said...


I'm not sure I follow your thinking. It's not a matter of American's helping other countries- it's more a matter of not using up more than our fair share of resources- we have 5% of the world's population- we shouldn't be using more than that share of food, fuel and other resources on a global basis. Obviously we are way above that level.

The issue with biofuels is that we would, due to our relative wealth and fleet of cars, divert much of the world's food supply to fuel our transport needs(wishes).So refraining from doing that doesn't require assisting the rest of the world-just avoiding starving them by not switching to biofuels.

RE; the Strategic Oil Reserve- it's not to my knowledge supposed to be used to prevent a recession. It is supposed to be there to handle shortages, etc.

jewishfarmer said...

Darharja, as others have said, I don't think it is arrogance to suggest that if Americans stopped using 32 times the resources of your average Kenyan, stopped eating so much meat and stopped putting the world's grain supplies in their gas tanks that would help the rest of the world. This isn't about charity - it is about the fact that the rich world still has the power to outbid the poor world, and will probably for some time to come.

Ulu, I'll send out an email. Totally coincidentally, a Wall Street Journal writer emailed me last night to interview me on "love miles" and not flying for environmental reasons, and I passed the links on to her and to her colleagues who cover biofuels. So fingers crossed...

Feonixrift, it is true that the costs of shipping food aid will rise over time, and that competition for world grain stocks will also rise - but biofuels and meat are by far the most serious factors affecting this. As much as gas prices have risen, it is still comparatively cheap to ship dry grains - the shipping cost is a smaller percentage of food aid by far than the cost of the food itself.

But the other point is that as transport costs rise, there becomes a greater incentive to sell food where it is produced, and in many aid receiving countries, this would make a difference. It won't fix everything for everyone, by any means, and some places would be screwed, but many aid receiving nations are net food exporters. For example, 40% of Swaziland is starving to death right now, while a signficant portion of their cassava (staple food) crop is earmarked for biofuels. In the 1980s, during the famous "We Are the World" Ethiopian drought, Ethiopia was still exporting grain. So while there are places that can't feed themselves, there are also places that are starving because transporting food is so cheap.

The net negatives of biofuels are so vastly greater than the benefits that they aren't worth it - if what we really cared about was the starving poor, we could easily produce enough biofuels to run tractors and cover the transport costs of getting food to them, without doing any real harm. But that, of course, is hardly the point.


Stephen B said...


Last night after responding to your comments, I checked out your profile and saw that you live in Afghanistan. that knowledge, combined with what I perceived as anger in your post, really stuck in my mind all night.

I've never been to Afghanistan so, despite the stories in our media, I really have no idea what's really going on there, this despite my government's militaristic meddlings there over the past years. I can, however, easily imagine how a Afghanistan-based writer could speak of US arrogance - on world aid, or anything else for that matter.

Furthermore, I too agree with many of the illnesses you assign to the US.

With all that in mind, I am sitting here this morning, wondering as a US citizen and resident, what can I be doing to ameliorate the situation?

Shortly, after considering the situation for a bit, I realize that what I should be doing is just what I have been doing, namely, using far less resources, fossil energy chief among them, growing food locally while sharing the knowledge and bounty with whomever else might be interested, as well as speaking out against my government's innane and diabolical schemes for world hegemony via resource confisgation, both militarily and economically. To do this does not constitute world aid from the US. Rather it's just one person trying not to take more than his fair share, which on a national scale, is certainly one of the US' main problems. I can't fix much of anything the rest of my country does without first fixing what I do, but I'm taking care of the latter to the best of my ability, and hoping folks around me take notice and then take action themselves.

Thanks to the extensive profile you have put up on yourself, I get the idea that you are actively and constructively trying to add to the quality of life around you for everybody on this planet to the best of your ability. (Sorry, I don't have much of any profile posted anywhere that I could point to right now myself, but I'd like to think I'm contributing towards making the world a better place too.) The Internet is a great tool for colaboration and sharing of ideas and knowledge, between people, communities, or in our case here, countries. If anything, the Net breaks down international borders too and lets us see that we are really a world community versus merely a collection of countries.

I thank you for sharing your comments. Reminding me as they do of the terrible mess that we have made ("we" being defined as broadly or as narrow as you wish), they'll motivate me to work twice as hard today.

Stephen B.
suburban Massachusetts

jewishfarmer said...

Stephen, I'm glad you looked at Daharja's profile and wrote this. Thank you.

Daharja, can we distinguish here between two kinds of "help" - one being the American model of sending its economic crap, its military and occasional self-interested foreign aid, and the other being the kind of help that would be offered if we got our military the hell out of other people's countries, stopped consuming like pigs and exporting globalization.

There's a children's song here that I grew up with that has the lines "Some kind of help is the kind of help/That helping's all about/And some kind of help is the kind of help/We all can do without."

Not to make light of this, but it makes perfect sense to me that nearly all the world would feel that they could gladly do very well without the help America has been offering. But might we also acknowledge that there are things we can do to make our role in the world better, to do less harm, if not more good?


riverbird said...

Sharon, I did read the article, carefully and in full. Frankly, it precisely makes and supports my point. The entire article is about corn based ethanol. He does make one paragraph mention of cellulose and that it's a couple years out yet, so I understand your timeline concern. I also get the main thrust of your article here. However, I think the article you reference and base your argument is so full of holes, I don't want to spend 80 pages taking it apart. Call me lazy.

But I think you're missing some of the larger context of the whole peak oil response which is built around the notion of small local solutions. The idea that US agriculture is going to feed the world through the Decline is ridiculous - so forget 'just food distribution'. Solutions are small and local. In my case, WVO is from making potato chips, no meat industry involved. So while you may have specific argument against any particular solution, ultimately is irrelevant because what works for me in my region will necessarily be different than yours.

I am all for the sentiment of helping all those starving, but again I think this needs to be put in full context. Prior to the industrial age, people were hungry and people died of starvation. After the oil age the same will be true. The problem here is many-fold and to place it on the shoulders of ethanol and biofuels is myopic.

Human consumption of food resources has already surpassed the carrying capacity of the planet, next year it will be worse. We are outstripping the planet because we have been able to with cheap fuel. The planet is overpopulated because we can allow it to be because of the energy capacity made available by oil. The starvation problem you are crying wolf about has been created by our very climbing to the peak of the industrial age, generating overly gross populations and consumption that the earth itself otherwise could not carry. So like it or not, 3 million people will starve to death, but not because of biofuels.

The article you reference also fails, because by the time oil scenarios kick in and food/ fuel prices spike like you're suggesting, the rest of the economy would be crashing around it, so the notion of unaffordable prices won't be relevant, because there won't even be "prices" as money itself becomes worthless. Which gets me back to small, local solutions, trading directly with folks you know and all the LETS. If you want to help starving people in third world countries, donate to heifer.org or pick up your family and move over there and help them get food production going.

Please don't take this as a criticism. I appreciate your work and am a regular reader. I just fundamentally disagree on this post, and not even so much with you as the article you based your work on. I think his original work at oil drum has a very narrow perspective and leaves many factors out, basic economics being one and general application of what this whole peak oil solutions movement is supposedly about. We aren't going to feed the world, the world is going to feed itself - the balance of the population will re-orient itself through a large die-off - we're beyond capacity. He also ignores the fact that the future of transport is most likely to be electric, not liquid fuels, as well as the fact that high corn prices actually help production in third world economies - Mexico is a great example of a corn industry being squashed by nafta and cheap US corn.

I understand the thrust of the argument revolves around the near term, 5 years out, granted. But keep in mind that corn goes into everything. Roughly 90% of all products in your supermarket, cosmetics, etc, included, have corn in them in one form or another. But my broccoli doesn't have corn in it, neither do my neighbors tomatoes. Nor does the guy down the road doing 70 acres of grain with horse-drawn tools. Certainly corn subsidies in the farm and energy bills are a problem. If ethanol was not subsidized, it would not be economically feasible, partly because of it's poor NEV (net energy value).

So again, switchgrass, hemp, and algae are better sources - though development is being sorted out yet. As it is, current refineries can't get enough corn to run at full capacity, which makes their margins very tight and borderline not economically viable. Sure we need to end the subsidies, and we can do this through policy (progressive politics very important), but also real economics and science are already coming through and will slow the whole process down and bring reality to light and eventually shift policy. Not to mention that corn production in the midwest US likely may collapse altogether in our lifetime to a dried up aquifer - what do we do then?

I do appreciate the real effort you are making here, but I think the notion of putting the problems of food scarcity on current corn based ethanol is far to narrow a scope to be looking at this. It fails to take in all the other factors of economics, technology development, a historical context of the industrial age itself, and the root of energy descent solutions - small and local. We can't view this through a globalized lens of feeding the world, a nice idea that just ain't gonna happen. We can't apply globalization ideas to a globalization problem - we should focus on what we can do to feed (and power and clothe) our direct local community and work outward from there. Just for the record, I am voting for John Edwards.

Brian M. said...

OK Staniford's analysis is cool and chilling, but it isn't bulletproof. Kudos to him BTW this is very much meant as impressed constructive criticism, not an attack. A lot of the links in his reasoning are GUESSES, as he points out. Here is my list of reasons to think things aren't quite so bad.

1) the 5-7 year estimate on the Sigismoid curve is for OUR (US) corn crop production, not global food production. Even if Staniford is right, there is every reason to think it would take longer to spread extensively elsewhere. He's Sigismoid centered at 2014.2 for this, but it is still in early enough days that there has got to be a fair bit of uncertainty on that one. (Likewise, I saw the argument that US ethanol is infectiously doubling every 3 years, but not the comparable global argument). The US could be in a bad food situation soon, and if we aren't broke by then we will pay other countries for food, pricing the poor out of the market, but also stimulating agriculture in other parts of the world, that have avoided it because they can't compete with America's massive corn subsidies.

2) A lot depends on the continued profitability of ethanol, and its profitability under different situations. This can be subjected to feedback cycles. You say that oil prices going up ought to trigger an increase in growth of ethanol production, indeed, that corn is indexed to oil prices by biofuels arbitrage. Well that's ONE link. But that isn't the only link! I'll bet oil price is also a major factor in the COST structure of the corn production in the first place. When oil prices go up, but corn prices don't, ethanol growth is triggered, and that LEADS to corn prices going up again. But if oil and corn go up together, ethanol retains its shaky profitability, and there isn't an incentive for growth. 1997-2007 corn has been volitile, but it hasn't been exponential. Sustained corn cost increases might well be enought to knock out the profitability of ethanol, even if gas keeps going up. If gas and corn go up in price at comparable rates, we might keep comparable %s of food supply vs biofuel. Now you talk about this as your second way out. But you describe it as a bidding war between gas tanks and dinner tables. My point is that IF oil is a major component in US corn production costs, then oil prices can trigger food price increases directly, rather than just via bidding war.

3) Just how vulnerable are the world's poor to food price doubling or quadrupling? There is a lot of guesswork here, and a lot could change. The food/income elasticity in a world with 12% food insecurity, may be very different than food/income elasticity in a world with 61% food insecurity. Very poor people have a strong incentive to subsistence farm, rather than rely on trying to earn money and use money to buy food. The powers that be have tried hard, with lots of success, to squelch subsistance farming, and get poor folk to move to the city, and rely on the cash economy for food. But as food prices rise out of reach, it has got to become tempting to go back to the farms, or garden in the informal economy, or get food in ways disconnected from the direct cash economy. Or heck to produce food and sell it. Even people without "secure title to land" may still see significant income increases from food price increases, even if they can't capture all of the difference themselves. You say "The poor will not be able to bid up food prices by factors of two and four and keep eating" it is closer to say, "If the price of food doubles or quadruples, the poor will not be able to continue trading money for food." If they have no other options than BUYING food, they are hosed, but as Sharon never tires of pointing out most DO have other options than buying it.

4) Likewise remember that a chunk of the gas price increases in the US are really devaluation of the dollar. If corn prices in DOLLARS go up by x4 that does not necessarily mean that average global food prices are going to quadruple.

5) Biofuel often works quite differently in other countries that it does in the US. Brazilian sugarcane fuel, just doesn't have the same dynamics as US corn ethanol. Hell, much of the profitability of US corn ethanol come straight from the massive corn subsidies of the US.

OK so where are we overall? The US does systematically prefer to feed our cars and cows than the world's poor, but that isn't news. US corn ethanol is growing infectiously, and may be a serious dent in US food corn production very soon, which will probably effect world food prices too. Staniford is bang on there. Indeed, oil prices ought to cause rises in global food prices for several reasons. Rising global food prices are going to price many poor people out of the market increasing global food insecurity. I agree so far.

But surely the rest of the world will respond by agricultural protectionism, many poor people will increase subsistance farming, and food production outside of the cash economy, and people will work hard to continue devaluing the dollar, and weaning themselves off cheap US corn. Other countries will view dependence on US corn, the way we view dependence on foreign oil. 3 billion back in poverty in the next 10 years I can easily believe. 3 billion leaving the cash workforce to subsistance farm, sure. 3 Billion dead? Maybe, but this isn't yet a smoking gun for that gloomy prescription. Hell, the poor will rise up violently before 3 billion starve, and even the US can't kill billions without it transforming our society.
-Brian M

Brian M. said...

Oh also Riverbird, Greenpa at

has a pretty good discussion of the problems involved with ethanol from switchgrass.

-Brian M

riverbird said...

thanks for the link. and just to be clear, i am not a switchgrass backer, per se, nor even biofuels in general - as mentioned, i think the future of transport will be electric.

jewishfarmer said...

Riverbird and Brian - Thank you for your critiques - I agree, neither my analysis nor Staniford's are unassailable. Nor is it my intention to claim this will happen - merely that it could. I think that's a sufficiently serious claim in and of itself. Just as no one ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of the American public, so too, I think we've all seen the scope of our idiocy grow over the last decade or so. Peak stupid sadly doesn't seem to have happened. If it had, I wouldn't fear this.

Riverbird, I apologize for the suggestion you hadn't read the article. I sort of think we should be giving out t-shirts - "I read Stuart Staniford's whole biofuels article."

Riverbird, I think it is enormously unlikely that any large scale cellusoic or algael biofuels projects will be underway in 5 years - and I think the observation in the comments section that such projects are likely to be supplemental - in addition to food based biofuels - is probably accurate. That is, the total shortfall we're anticipating is so great that we will have an economic incentive to make biofuels out of anything we can. I've not seen any models (and I've looked) that suggest to me that cellulosic ethanol will replace food based biofuels. Brian beat me to pointing out Greenpa's article, but there are plenty of other examples of the limitations of biofuels. The problem is not that it can't be done, but the scale on which it will be done, and the speed at which it will be done.

I'm not sure what gives you the impression that either I or Staniford believes that the US is going to "feed the world" - I didn't claim anything of the sort. Perhaps you misunderstood my argument about the post-WWII famine relief efforts - my claim is not that we will send food abroad, but that Americans were once subject to moral suasion that said it was wrong to allow people to starve. In this case, the response would generally not be food aid (which is after all, a very tiny percentage of our grain crop, and mostly disbursed for highly political reasons) but the stabilizing of market grain prices.

I don't lay all the problems of hunger at the door of biofuels, but it is self-evident that virtually any place we are producing biofuels is a place where we could be producing some amount of food. As the world comes closer and closer to scarcity, the urgency of producing human food where we can becomes greater - there's simply a moral priority there. It is possible to argue that there are certain net gains in food availability from limited biofuel production - for example the use of biofuels to transport food from productive farmlands to other places. But there's no moral argument for the use of food raising land for biofuels if it takes food out of people's mouths *and* there is actual scarcity - period. The right of people to eat is simply greater than the right of people to drive. Ultimately, this is an ethical issue.

Again, WVO is great, but it is such a minute percentage of the biofuels discussion that it isn't really relevant, I don't think. As the food system gets tighter, potato chips aren't going to be as necessary as potatoes.

The assertion that 3 billion people will die anyway, or that the economy will crash if oil and food prices spike would require a lot more support than you have given it - that said, I don't deny that you and Brian have a point - the system may be self-limiting. I'm not sure we should proceed on the assumption it will be, though -I don't know about you, but I've been in the peak oil world long enough to hear people assert with absolute certainty that X gas price will cause demand destruction - and we've now passed several of those X's. So again, I'd require a good deal more evidence for the notion that no one will be buying ethanol because the economy will be toast within 5 years. I don't deny the possibility, I simply deny that you've made a case for it.

It is hardly my claim (which you know if you read this blog) that all our problems are due to ethanol. But neither is it my claim that all our problems are so complex that it doesn't matter what we do about biofuels - the truth is (as always) in the grey areas, and the outcomes are far from certain. My own major concern about this is the very near term issue here - that is, it always takes longer to turn the ship around than we think. Given existing policies, we might well get 5 years into this before we get what happens.

I do agree that in the longer term, this is unlikely to progress towards infinity - but the reality is that we can't afford 3 more years of ethanol growth, or the drawdown of agricultural soils in the midwest, or the aquifer depletion - we need to get out of the ethanol game ASAP. And no, I don't think in that very short term, we have any choice but to give up ethanol production - there is no alternate technology that can be applied that quickly.


Brian, I agre

Ani said...

I'm not sure, when all is said and done, that it is "relevant" whether or not 3 billion people starve, or 2 billion, or only 1 billion. What is most important, imo, is that we confront the fantasy that we've only got to plant more corn, or soybeans or whatever and that we've got the oil monster licked. Or that the answer is hemp or algae or switchgrass- and in just a short time it will all be business as usual, somehow running our fleet of gasoline powered cars on biodiesel produced by algae. These possibilites are there- but they are likely going to be "niche" solutions-not ones that will provide the obscene quantities of fuel that we are currently consuming.

As for electricity powering cars-with what? Exactly what will provide the quantities of electricity that we would require?

I think the OD article was an interesting analysis-I don't necessarily agree with all of it, especially as regards the growth of corn ethanol production globally.I am guessing the the low EROI would end that before it got too out of hand. However, I think the most important point is to somehow shake up those who believe that this is the solution. Educating both the general public and elected leaders is critical- banking on ethanol or other biofuels as the "solution" will only prevent doing the necessary work to restructure our society in a timely manner.

I am glad that you wrote this post Sharon and that we've all had a good discussion on it- I hope it continues in another venue where it will garner even more attention.

jewishfarmer said...

Brian, you are, of course right that the arguments are not unassailable. In fact, in the comments of the original article I actually tried to do some assailing.

I think critique #1 may be very important - Staniford acknowledges in the comments that he did not factor in the increasing ability of farmers who are being well paid to buy supplemental food, or the increasing value of food in general to farmers. But there are more than a billion poor slum dwellers today who do have little option about growing food - they have to buy it. So maybe this will be self-limiting, but perhaps not as self-limiting as you imply.

The other point that Staniford makes is that many people in the poor world don't have legal title to their land, and this is a simple fact, that has driven the expansion of industrial agriculture in foreign nations - it was not uncommon, for example, in Mexico for people simply to come home one day and find their land taken, becuase they could not prove title. Land ownership, and the right of access to land is a huge and growing global issue, and this provides an enormous incentive to displace farmers - in fact, one of the concerns I have about marginal cellulosic crops is that they *might* work - the UN FAO estimates that 2 billion people feed themselves from subsistence agriculture, mostly on marginal land it is not worth farming. Although I have deep doubts about cellulosic, I'm not especially anxious to see us come up with a way of turning very marginal land that is now feeding poor people into land that is profitable for large agricultural enterprises to claim.

Re: #2 - I get what you are saying, but as I see it, that reinforces the larger claim - that is, we'll see food prices rise on a number of grounds. Clearly I'm not following you entirely - can you clarify a little?

#3 - I agree with you that Staniford's great weakness is that he underestimates gardening and food production. But I do think there's one other major issue - the impact of this on NG fertilizer. Now we all know that's not the only way to grow food, but it is pretty much the only way to grow a lot of corn all the time. That means that fertilizer shortages, which are already occuring, may cause the biofuels industry to outbid small farmers for most fertilizers. Now I think that most small farmers shouldn't be using commercial fertilizers anyway, but that doesn't change the fact that many are dependent on them now and that the transition does require time. Again, we're at the short end of the curve here.

But yes, I think the absolute weakness of Staniford's thinking is his underestimating (he says he's softening on it) of the power of small scale food production. That said, however, biofuels do have a feedback loop here as mentioned above - they reduce the available land to do it on.

#4 - A good point

#5 - yes, but part of the reason that ethanol works in Brazil is that there's been no attempt to scale it as in the US - Brazilians already drive 1/10th (or something, I'd have to look up the exact figure) what we do, so getting half their fuel from biofuels isn't the danger that it is if we were to say we wanted to get half our fuel from biofuels (not going to happen, but you know what I mean). I think the whole point here is the scale. And even Brazilian biofuels are implicated in food security in complicated ways.

The objection I've come with is this - if corn based ethanol really has a negative EROEI as the most pessimistic analyses show, then it may be self-limiting. The other point is that if the military costs of political instability rise high enough, that may be enough.

Again, I don't claim this is all the truth in the world, but I suspect we're all better off knowing this as a possibility than not knowing it.

Thanks, as always, for the critique.


Brian M. said...

OK Point #1: Staniford and you are right, its urban poor slum dwellers most at risk here, and there are a billion of them. I think it is very hard to change people's behavior without photogenic suffering. But as more and more 3rd world urbanites in more parts of the world begin starving, I think that WILL begin to cause political changes both in their home countries and here. Political Will doesn't magically come from nowhere, but it can be legitimately created when people are forced to confront hard truths. Like they are going to starve unless they revolt soon. The same point is true about land title. You can push peasants off their land a little at a time. Especially if they think they can survive in the cities. But when the cities look like death traps, and you start trying to displace a lot of peasants, you get rebellions, and peasants beginning to organize. Like Chiapas. Often they fail. But even failed rebellions effect the SQ. Many, many things will change before you get to even 1 billion deaths.

#2: Oh that point totally reinforces rising food prices. What it does is argue against rising % of ethanol/total food production (the sigmasoid curve). There are 2 worries, 1) maybe there won't be enough food to go around because too much land is used for ethanol 2) maybe such food as there is will be too expensive for many people to buy. Part 2 is the status quo. It can get worse, but it is how things already are, and long have been. My point here was just that there is reason to think that food prices will rise enough that some people will continue producing food, even if ethanol keeps increasing, and even though the poor can't afford to bid up the food prices enough.

#3: Yeah I hadn't read the fertilizer competition point in the comments yet when I wrote that, its a very good point. In the short-term NG fertilizers, by 2030 peak potassium may look like a huge problem.

#5: No, I suspect the reason Brazilian ethanol works is because they grow sugarcane in such a different way than we grow corn. They use lots of cheap labor, instead of very little labor and lots of equipment and oil. Brazil still has a functioning poor peasant class. This means they can get much better EROEI. It also means that the plantation bosses have a real incentive to keep food affordable (barely) for the peasants doing their labor for them. Brazilian ethanol will NEVER make food too expensive for local peasants, because the feedback loop is built in. If it is close to happening, the bosses will plant food to sustain enough peasant to do the labor to turn the rest of the crop into ethanol. US Corn mostly lacks this feedback mechanism because you only have to keep so few people alive to bring your crop in.

Don't get me wrong, I think Staniford is on to something here, and that many first-worlders would gladly wreck the global food-system for a little extra profit. But as that happens, the wise nations-states will increasingly opt out of the global system, and try to put their national economies in order, and use more protectionist techniques, and strive for increased self-sufficiency. As he points out Russia is already working on nationalist agriculture protectionism. The worse the suffering gets, the more powerful the protectionists and revolutionaries will get. Resistance does not precede suffering very often, but long before 3 billion have died, or even 1 billion there will be plenty of resistence. It will take a lot of resistance to alter first-world behavior. But the resistence will be ramping up infectiously, as the food prices are.

-Brian M

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It doesn't help the hundreds of thousands who aren't, but how many of the billion urban slum dwellers were peasants who couldn't make enough cash to pay their land taxes? It's not that hard to turn them back into farmers (or farm labor) when local and export prices are high.

My neighborhood is about half spanish-speaking immigrants, and a really large number of them are sending money home to save the family farm. Maybe because we're in the Midwest, so all the guacheros come up here and work on dairy farms and in packing houses, but every little business in the immigrant business strip is either paying a mortgage here and a mortgage back home, or sending cash to the people who are still living in rural Guatemala or Mexico or Panama.

daharja said...

Stephen b,

Just a quick clarification. I'm not based in Afghanistan. It's a blogger bug that when you select 'not specified' as your country option, it switches to Afghanistan on some browsers. (For the record, I'm not based in the US either).

However, thanks for not automatically assuming that *everyone* in the world is a US citizen! :-)


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