Sep 3, 2008The Wall Between Food and Fuel Is Crumbling
If we could just drink crude oil, think how different the world would be.
There’s so much energy in oil. One gallon of gasoline contains about 31,000 calories, enough to power a working person for 10 days. Humans get great mileage – about 900 miles per gallon. Wouldn’t it be great if we could pay oil prices for food? Imagine if we had to pay food prices for gasoline.
Of course, if we could eat grass or digest wood, we could do away with both oil and agriculture completely.
Better yet, if we could just lie in the sun and soak up energy directly, we wouldn’t need oil or agriculture or even plants. Plants are the only critters capable of capturing sun energy through the process of photosynthesis. The rest of us live off plants – for food, feed, fiber and fuel.
Ultimately, it’s all about collecting the sun’s energy
It’s worthwhile to think about these seemingly silly things, especially these days, when ethanol has put a serious breach in what used to be a pretty solid wall between food and fuel.
From prehistoric times, people have known the difference between food and fuel. The wood was for the fire; the fire was to warm the tent and cook the food. The food was scarcer, harder to come by. Certainly you didn’t burn it like wood.
Back then, people operated within the current carbon cycle. Plants took carbon out of the air and made food or fuel; living things put the carbon back into the air by eating or burning the plants. The carbon, of course, served a dual purpose of constructing plant and animal bodies and capturing sun energy in carbon-hydrogen chemical bonds.
Fossil fuels complicated the picture. The carbon cycle is not perfectly understood. Part of the energy that is captured by plants is not oxidized and not returned to the atmosphere for many years, even eons. Billions of tons of carbon escape. Much of the carbon dioxide fixed by plants in the oceans, for example, rains to the ocean floor, to be trapped in silt – perhaps someday to be recovered as oil or natural gas. Carbon is also “sequestered” in soil by plant roots.
In a sense, fossil fuels are both part of the carbon cycle but isolated from it. There is a short phase and a very long phase. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, we’ve been digging up the fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas. And in combusting them, we reintroduced carbon into the atmosphere is amounts not seen since the Carboniferous Period dating from 360 million to 286 million years ago.
Some scientists believe ancient plants cleared the atmosphere of toxic levels of carbon dioxide, making the world better for animals and at the same time creating the future material for fossil fuels.
In any event, the exploitation of fossil fuels has reintroduced ancient carbon into the current carbon cycle. Initially, fossil fuels strengthened the wall between food and fuel by increasing the supply of inedible fuel energy. Humans, using fuel, could concentrate more effectively on using plants to increase the edible food portion.
As an example, the development of tractors powered by fossil fuels freed up 40 million acres of U.S. land once used to grow oats and hay for horses.
Now, we’re starting to see the negative effects of heavy reliance on fossil fuels. It could be just as the theory says: Plants cleared the air, allowing animals to prosper, and burning fossil fuels is returning the earth to the condition of a warmer place with a hostile atmosphere and climate.
The recent interest in ethanol for fuel reflects both of these things. Concerned people would like to take less fuel from storage and capture more of the sun’s current output of energy.
There has always been some movement of energy across the food-fuel barrier. Corn was burned for fuel during the Great Depression. In the 1950s, greenhouses began to be “fertilized” by burning natural gas and emitting the carbon dioxide into the greenhouse atmosphere, converting fuel to food.
The net effect of fossil fuels has been to allow the human population to grow. Reducing reliance on traditional fuel sources – wood for heating and feed for draft animals – shifted more land to food production as we cleared away forests, used less land for hay and oats and planted more food crops.
Twenty-five years ago, corn growers began a concerted effort to boost the price of corn by finding more ways in which it could be used, and the liquid fuel market was one of the first to emerge. Cheap oil, however, kept the price incentive low. So, Congress helped out by providing a subsidy for use of ethanol. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but Congress apparently never did much arithmetic.
Converting our entire 12 billion bushel corn crop into ethanol would generate 30 billion gallons of it, equivalent in energy to about 15 billion gallons of oil. We use 21 million barrels, or 880 million gallons, of oil a day in the United States. So, our entire corn crop is equivalent in energy to 17 days’ supply of oil.
We have, in fact, diverted about 30 percent of our corn crop to ethanol. While there is much dispute about how much effect this has had on food prices, it is evident that we gained only five days’ worth of oil by doing it. Ouch.
Rather than vilifying Congress or corn growers, however, we need to see the real message. We need fuels from the only renewable source – sunshine – and while that can be captured by solar panels and in wind and running water, the chief provider is – and should be – agriculture. We need more farm products to make their way over the crumbling wall between food and fuel, but we don’t want to overprice food in doing so.
The ethanol subsidy should not be an incentive to turn food into fuel. It should be an incentive to manage land better. Many good farm acres remain fallow. Much sugar and starch is thrown away as waste in food processing. Lots of valuable energy goes to landfills. In Michigan, a quarter of the land is not used for either farming or forestry. Millions of acres in conservation uses could be harvested while preserving benefits to soil and wildlife. Proper forest management could provide billions of BTUs now lost every year to forest fires.
While the ethanol subsidy needs revision to eliminate off-target effects, government incentives are important.
Last month, Michigan passed a law amending the definition of a renewable energy facility.
It is “a facil-ity that creates energy directly or (gathers) fuel from the wind, the sun, trees, grasses, biosolids, algae, agricultural commodi-ties, processed products from agricultural commodities or residues from agricultural processes, wood or forest pro-cesses, food production and processing, or from the paper products industry. Renewable energy facility also includes a facility that creates energy or fuels from solid biomass, biosolids, animal wastes, landfills or materials from land-fills. Renewable energy facility also includes a facility that focuses on research, development or manufacturing of systems or components of systems used to create energy or fuel from the items described in this subdivision.”
A definition is not a policy, but it can help set the stage by defining what products should pass through a gate in the crumbling wall.