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Even the line of conversation pitting biofuel against beef is, as David Blume, the director of the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture, repeatedly illustrates in his new, self-published book Alcohol Can Be A Gas!, a mere distraction from the real issues of supply, demand, and sustainability. In the past few years the traditional news media, spurred by all manner of industry-sponsored, scientifically unfounded, and factually baseless press releases, has stoked a speculative surge in every openly-traded agricultural- and fuel-related future with panic-inducing stories of the world's food supply - as much as 25% in some reports - being "diverted" from the grocery store to the ethanol plant. With 98-percent of corn grown in the United States unfit for human consumption from the get-go (due to a number of factors centered around gene manipulation and chemical application), the notion that the price of oil is taking tortillas off of store shelves is simply not a reality. Blume not only points this out, but ups the ante by illustrating how grain alcohol - better known as ethanol - can play a key role in increasing the global food supply while greening the energy sector.
In spite of the statistical facts, many politicians, particularly in the conservative-leaning Southern and Western states, have bought into (in some cases quite literally) the energy/food hysteria. Earlier this year Texas Governor Rick Perry launched an all-out assault on ethanol in his request for a one-year waiver on the Environmental Protection Agency's ethanol mandate, the Renewable Fuel Standards stemming from the 2005 Energy Policy Act, rightly declaring it a dead-end in terms of a one-stop energy solution. But Perry's position, which was primarily backed by livestock and poultry producers, erroneously tied ethanol to the dinner table. Thankfully, Perry's request was denied by the EPA last month.
Simply put, there is no shortage of corn. Farmers are still being subsidized to not overload the market for corn (and a few other crops). Although the exact number is still under debate (some would say manipulation), the United States had a corn surplus of between 1.4 billion and 1.6 billion bushels of corn in 2007. Using the "typical ethanol conversion rate of 2.75 gallons of ethanol per bushel," that means there was enough surplus to produce more than 3.8 billion gallons of ethanol. Ethanol production has obviously had no direct impact on food production - the price increases for grocery consumers are a result of speculation on the commodities markets - because ethanol and groceries are made from two different types of corn, hence the Taco Bell recall of 2000.
At the heart of the matter the two issues - biofuels and food supplies - are indeed linked, but only indirectly and, as Blume and countless other economists and ecologists have pointed out through the years, artificially. The uncertainty of the world energy bubble has made biofuels much more attractive in recent years and, thanks to the usual channels of industrial lobbying and political porkbarrelling, the biofuel industry has been developed around established corporate agricultural products like corn and soybeans, which in turn have been refined, managed, and developed by the agricultural arms of various multi-national chemical companies. (Though the can of corn in the grocery aisle does not come from the rolling, thousand-acre monoculture fields of Iowa, the image of corn silks gently rustling in the late summer sun is, in the mind of consumers, easily and conveniently tied to a bag of Doritos.) The biofuel industry is, however, a latecomer to the corn market, which has long been dominated by the livestock and poultry industries. Though cows are biologically not meant to eat corn (which, in one of the many tangents to this dysfunctional industrial web, is why so many antibiotics and antioxidants have to be mixed with their feed), the pop-culture obsession with the fast food burger (and cheap, low-quality meat in general), makes the indigenous grains of Asia and the Americas an unnatural yet financially attractive substitute for the bovine species indigenous to Europe and Africa. The emergence of the ethanol industry, which thanks to the rapidly rising price of oil has a lot of buying power, has cut into the normally unfettered stream of industrial grain at the meat industry's disposal; a boon for agribusiness but a major bust for beef, chicken and pork producers.
This, of course, has led to a bidding war. The more than 200-percent rise in corn prices over the past few years is the direct result of industrial folly and corporate/political meddling, pitting a notoriously unnatural and unhealthy meat industry against the notoriously inefficient corn-based ethanol industry in a battle for the manipulated yields of unfit-for-human-consumption grains. The inefficiency of corn for both applications is remarkable, and an unbelievably potent jumping-off point for Blume's arguments. If only people were willing to listen.
|Corn: The enemy or the answer, it is certainly not in short supply.|
As Blume patiently and entertainingly explains - there are enough cartoons in the book to satisfy even the most hapless 5th grade science teacher - the nine pounds of corn dumped into a cow for every pound of beef is itself largely wasted, coming out the animal's derrière as manure and methane, two major contributing factors in groundwater contamination and global warming. (Seriously, cow farts are no joke.)
What cows aren't digesting is starch, which is precisely what is used to create ethanol (starch and cellulose are closely related, glucose-based polymers) - in fact, their bodies must use part of the energy gained from feeding on grain, which they aren't adapted for, to simply digest it. According to Blume, if the agricultural products (corn or, as we'll get to in a moment, other plants) were first processed for ethanol and then fed to cows as byproducts - called distillers grains - the animals would gain as much as 17-percent more weight than under the current system. Rather than having the two avenues in competition with each other, biofuel and beef production should be organized as complimentary industries.
With that fundamental lesson sketched out and committed to memory, Blume proceeds to toss the entire schematic out the window, erasing the board to start anew with more logical systems, hopefully ditching the corn altogether. As a raw material for ethanol, corn only produces around 250 gallons per acre, a yield that is in sharp contrast to other crops, like sorghum or sugar beets, which each produce well over 1000 gallons of alcohol per acre, are much more efficient for animal feed, are more geographically adaptable, and require far less maintenance in the way of irrigation and chemical application. A step further in the right direction, Blume argues, lies the Typha family of plants, commonly known as cattails. Not only do cattails provide a remarkably efficient source of alcohol - up to 7000 gallons per acre in some instances - they can be doubled-up on the front end and used as water and sewage filters before being doubled-up on the back end as alcohol producers and animal feed. As any pond-owner like myself can attest, they are also remarkably hardy and prolific - they're almost impossible to keep in check, and even easier to actively grow.
The fact that such an inefficient material as corn is the focus of America's "biofuel" program in government and the media is, again, a consequence of government corruption, industry lobbying, commercial manipulation and plain old ignorance and laziness. Blume's numbers aren't new; they're so old as to be almost musty.
Blume, however, isn't content with a simple ethanol/beef model for agriculture. After all, these points, like global warming and evolution and gravity, are all simple matters of scientific fact, long known and well documented. Blume instead uses the statistical groundwork from his ecological arguments to expand into an even broader vision of an agricultural solution, one that is equal parts economic and social. The answer, as Blume sees it, lies in a vastly integrated system - not a network - of independent, locally functioning fuel stations that would return the American farm to the local input/local output model of yesteryear. Unlike the current system of ethanol production, which is a prisoner of the traditional industrial model of "bigger is better" economic scaling, Blume posits that smaller, decentralized, community-supported ethanol production facilities would not only provide a locally controllable market for agricultural products and a source of fuel, they would inherently increase the efficiency (and in turn drive down the cost) of fuels by removing the energy and materials required to transport raw plant matter and finished products between origin, production, and sales points. As Blume concedes, nearly half of the ethanol in the United States is currently made in a manner similar to a simplified version of this system - by farmer-owned production cooperatives - but on a scale that still requires a large investment of energy to dry and transport the grain as well as the finished ethanol product.
Again, however, such a simple Point A to Point B approach is not enough for Blume, who is, as we all should be, hell-bent on maximizing efficiency. In one of his classic models for systematic efficiency, rather than simply shoveling grain into cows he proposes that, with fuel production always at the top of the chain, the ethanol byproduct be stretched out through various stages to produce not just one or two useable items, but several. For instance, if the ethanol byproduct were to be diverted from a primary destination like livestock and instead used to grow a secondary crop like mushrooms, it would be compositionally altered into a perfect food for fish farming, which in turn produces nutrient-rich water as a byproduct that can be diverted as a growing medium for greenhouse vegetable production. The vegetable stage, while not reproducing a fully cyclical volume of byproduct feed to equal the initial distillers grains, does supply a reasonable amount of animal feed as byproduct (in addition, of course, to the vegetables) and, in Blume's efficiency utopia, can be produced in a dreamscape of integration that combines the ethanol plant (which produces carbon-dioxide and heat in the manufacturing process) with the fish farm and the greenhouse. Just park the cows out back and you're all set without having to overturn too many established carts. Start messing around with offshore algae farms - which can grow plants at a rate of up to 15-inches per day - and the possibilities keep expanding.
With Blume's models of production, which he demonstrates can be made profitable on a scale as small as 10,000 gallons of alcohol per year (underground tanks at individual neighborhood gas stations generally hold from 5,000 to 15,000 gallons), the end points of the system - the farmers and the drivers - maximize efficiency while the only aspects of the current system to lose out are the middlemen - corporate speculators and transport companies. In between Blume finds numerous adaptations, variations, and tangents for the system, laying out examples that could completely remake the economy of the world without having to change the basic building blocks already in place - farmers still farm, drivers still drive, and the internal combustion engine still reigns supreme. While I'd personally like to see human ingenuity finally get over the hump of the internal combustion engine and progress into new technological realms, in Alcohol Can Be A Gas!, David Blume makes a pretty convincing argument for keeping it around. SEE ALSO: www.permaculture.com
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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