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Food Fight

by nb41 Wed Feb 6th, 2008 at 08:38:24 AM EST

This is from the other side of the Atlantic, obviously, but so are many of the ET readers. And food and energy..also worldwide concerns..

Of late there has been quite a lot written (for example, in The Oil Drum - some lengthy reading here) about the conversion of starch and sugars into Ethanol (EtOH) and plant oils into biodiesel (FAEE - fatty acid ethyl esters and FAMEs - fatty acid methyl esters). Well, there is room for improvement with respect to the manufacture of these materials, no doubt. It would be nice if close to zero fossil fuel inputs went into the conversion of foods into fuels, and also close to zero fossil fuel inputs in the production of these foods. And a lot of the hype that EtOH will replace imported gasoline should be examined, and then the notion that EtOH production will keep gasoline prices low could be done away with. Not a popular thing to say, but there is only one way that gasoline and oil derived diesel prices will drop - and that is with lowered demand. Better yet, just don't support Osama Been Forgotten's supporters by sending them money in return for their oil, and/or oil derived hydrocarbons and petrochemicals, such as urea. But I digress.

Diary rescue by Migeru

[editor's note, by Migeru] fold inserted.
As we all know, oil prices are on the rise, and so are natural gas (Ngas) prices. We have consumed most of the easy to get oil in the Western Hemisphere, and a large fraction of the Ngas of North America. In order to keep the same supply rate of Ngas, we need to keep drilling more and more wells, since well productivity is definitely on the decline. And importing LNG from North Africa and the Middle East just puts us into competition for this with countries that have a more stable currency and real money in their bank accounts, like Europe, Japan, India and China. Thus, making the energy we need is going to be really important as time moves along.

Furthermore, using this energy efficiently - well who can argue with that. The U.S. average fuel efficiency for cars is a pathetic 20 mpg or so - we did better with the Model T. There is room for lots of improvement on that aspect. For example, doubling fuel efficiency to that of Europe (which now has a higher standard of living than the U.S.) would allow us to drop gasoline consumption from 9.6 million barrels/day to 4.8 mbpd. the same can be done by moving cargo hauled long distance from truck to train. And freight trains are relatively easy to electrify...since all existing freight locomotives are diesel electrics anyway...just wire up the lines and quit using the diesel, at least so much (it's a nice back-up option, though).

Actually, when we start getting efficient with fuels...that's when renewable fuels start to make the greatest impact. Dropping the hydrocarbon portion of the gasoline from 9.2 mbpd to 4.4 mbpd ups the EtOH content from 4.1% to 8.3%. Increasing efficiency by another factor of 2 (suburbs --> cities, Plug In Hybrid cars @ 100 mpg average efficiency (where electricity powers the initial 20 miles or so traveled/trip), telecommuting, etc) would drop gasoline consumption to 2.4 mppd. That same 400,000 bpd of EtOH could provide 20% of the nation's transportation fuel.

But, gasoline will probably still be a factor in the cost of this fuel mix, even if a small amount of crude oil derived material is actually used in the fuel mix. In fact, crude oil will probably set the price of biofuels for some time. And biofuels won't be able to have much effect on liquid fuel prices, due to the way in which items like fuel are priced.

Anyway, I went and bought some baked corn chips yesterday in preparation for Taco Tuesday - 7 oz for $2.49, or roughly $5.69/lb for essentially corn! That is roughly 56 times the price of corn...even if the corn component cost 20 c/lb (milling, transport, etc)...that is not where the expense is occurring. The next time somebody claims that corn price rises due to converting the starch in corn to EtOH, it's going to be tough to not hurl on the spot. So, there is some needed balance required in the EtOH story, but I'm not seeing it much these days.

So many people must assume that corn is just grown at cost....well, it has been for several years, and that was not a pretty picture, either. And it did not help with the corn chips price, either. Now that prices are getting to the point where profitable farming can be considered....comes the call to feed the poor of the world. But who will buy their food? Odds are, they don't want to buy our stuff, anyway, they would rather grow their own, or buy locally grown material. Will anybody sign a long term deal with U.S. farmers to cover costs and provide for a decent standard of living in return for food...not likely. Besides, if prices are kept dirt cheap, then expenses need to be that way too, ranging from fertilizer to the existence of small towns in farming areas. Example 1 - fertilizer prices are once again on the march...
$505/ton in Tampa in bulk on 1-17-08. Oh well, so much for $150/ton NH3.....

But, if we go back to EtOH for a bit...taking the carbs out of corn and making fuel from them instead of making the starch into sugar to feed our young, future diabetics via sugar water drinks...that does not make much sense. Same for feeding a populace suffering from an epidemic of obesity.."pass the carb's please".....or feeding grains and beans to cows that just stand around in feed lots and who have little need for carb's except to grow fat....or toot it out of both ends. Animal proteins don't come from plant carbohydrates...is that too complicated? A very convenient way to stretch the food supply is to eat fewer quantities of animals who are grown on harvested grain...that too could help lessen the obesity epidemic.

There are lots of ways to start making EtOH in ways that minimize fossil fuel usage...for example, the operation at the Corn Plus facility, where the thin stillage is used to provide all steam for the facility, and this in turn drops the need for 1/3 of the energy used to dry the WDG into DDG. And obviously, taking the fossil fuel input out of fertilizer and out of the tractor fuels would be very helpful, too. But, this does not come at zero price, and even if it is not much more than what is currently the prevailing energy/fertilizer prices, it is a bit more..that's all that matters, and external costs be damned. Similarly, making the capital improvements to use less fossil fuels (the CornPlus boiler cost ~$15 million, about 7 times what a normal Ngas fired arrangement would be) would not work unless Ngas prices are high enough to justify this expense...

Anyway, the Food Fight is on. Beware the true believers, who think that food should be grown at cost, and dissemenated around the world at minimal price, so we can bankrupt the third and forth world farmers while we bankrupt our own. Or so we can trade raw materials like grains in return for the manufactured items that could also be "home-grown". And beware those political types who think that home grown fuel can provide sufficient mass quantities of cheap EtOH to replace the 6+ mbpd of gasoline from imported crude needed to keep the SUckV's of suburbia motoring at record rates in a spendthrift mode. Or who claim that my $2.49 x 7 oz bag of taco ingredient is so expensive because EtOH manufacture from corn has raised the price of bulk corn towards $5.60/bshl (10 c/lb), from its previous level of 4 to 7 c/lb.


Better yet, just don't support Osama Been Forgotten's supporters by sending them money in return for their oil, and/or oil derived hydrocarbons and petrochemicals, such as urea

There are many good reasons to reduce hydrocarbon consumption, but that's not one of them. Getting people to blow themselves up in the subway is not particularly expensive. It's not like they'll demand overtime pay and a retirement plan. This notion that economic warfare is a suitable tool to counter international terrorism is one of the more absurd contents of the GWOT marketing package.

Anyway, I went and bought some baked corn chips yesterday in preparation for Taco Tuesday - 7 oz for $2.49, or roughly $5.69/lb for essentially corn!

The price of baked corn chips may not be the best indicator for biofuel influence on food prices. What would happen if corn became in effect a cash crop in third world countries?

by generic on Tue Jan 29th, 2008 at 11:16:26 AM EST
By supporters, I mean many of the wealthy in the "oil bidness" and related "bidnesses" of the Middle East, as well as many of the sympathizers of Osama. I don't mean the "disposable" (human) parts of their operation, I mean the money guys that fund it, and fund covers for it. When the U.S. buys oil from KSA, Kuwait, UAE, Yemen, etc, its quite likely that some oily crumbs fall into friends and associates and supporters of the O-man.

But, it does not matter, as oil junkies will pay just about anything to anyone with oil. Or do nasty things to anyone perceived to be in the way of that oil. Or better yet, have someone else do the dirty business. That was the point; sorry you missed it. Sort of like Bill Mahr's saying that "When you ride alone, you ride with Bin Laden". But maybe I should have used his phrase instead.

As to the GWOT-heads...they really DON'T want to end the fighting, they want it to go on and on...after all, it's not like their children and friends are getting trashed and killed and put through the wringer in Oil War 2 or 3 or 4...If someone came along and mysteriously "solved" the oil import problem (Quark drive for cars....?), they might well kill those who developed the oil replacement idea. After all, what would we need to steal Iraq's oil for? The GWOT-heads make too much money on the sub-contracts for the war effort, derive lots of campaign funds from the war efforts, and so far have found that the fears that can be spread are good for "bidness" and have allowed them to retain power far longer than would have otherwise been the case.

As for the corn chip prices....it just shows that the expense of food is really not in the production of the crop on the farm, or at the wholesale bulk price level. Those chips cost a huge chunk of money, and whether the
price of corn was 5, 10 or 25 c/lb, its only a tiny fraction of the delivered corn based product cost.  As to what would happen if corn became more valuable in 3rd and 4th world countries...would local farmers get any of that money, or would it be stolen from them? Would the transportation costs make it too expensive to get this to a country like the US which would convert it into EtOH and DDG's. Probably. Would they be able to grow their own country's food...more likely. In the 1998-2002 time period, the U.S. dumped huge amounts of supercheap corn into 3rd world countries, throwing massive numbers of farmers off of their farms. That was not good at all. Now our corn is not supercheap, and we no longer have the need to flood world markets with it.
Like I said, I doubt that foreign governments or wealthy philanthropists are going to set up long term corn buying arrangements with U.S. farmers, who could then finally worry about having a steady income. That would be novel. The somewhat expensive corn could then be sent to wherever it was directed...I just don't see that happening. Instead, every year is another year at the agri-roulette wheel. Otherwise, EtOH has actually had the positive effect of raising crop prices at the farm level by stimulating demand. Besides, most of the food value (protein, vitamins, fiber, oil, complex starches) is retained in the DDG by product. And that stuff tends to be cheaper than the corn.....


by nb41 on Tue Jan 29th, 2008 at 10:56:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
When you ride alone, you ride with Bin Laden

That is precisely the notion I was disagreeing with. There is no significant money part in a terrorist operation. Even if all the oil and the oil fortunes in the mid east would vanish there would be no shortage in funding for terrorism.

economic warfare is a suitable tool to counter international terrorism is one of the more absurd contents of the GWOT marketing package.

What I wanted to point out with the above is that even a lot of progressives have accepted the basic premise of the GWOT: Terrorism can be countered by using the same set of tools you use in conflicts with a hostile state e.g. economic blockade, bombardment, invasion.

What I fear concerning biofuels is a potato-blight-scenario.

by generic on Wed Jan 30th, 2008 at 09:41:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There's a saying I use when choosing where your electricity comes from (one of the few rights we seem to have remaining) - choosing where your money for the generated part of your electricity goes - you vote with your dollars. I realize that there is no shortage of people who will do nasty things for money...the going rate for a human life in this part of the U.S. is probably only a few hundred dollars unless the task would be "difficult". Add extreme poverty, religion and a government worthy of hatred (the Bu$hies)...and no doubt there is an endless set of volunteers, especially if their family gets taken care of after the deeds are done. Besides, in many parts of the U.S., we seem to live in or near all kinds of terror zones - the self induced kind. And for women, there are special kinds of terrors that limit where and when they can go places - all accepted as normal...ugh.

I am not suggesting that in not buying Middle Eastern Oil we could stop the "terrorists", whoever they may be. Or the hatred of women, and especially those who might think of themselves as other than breeders. Etc. But if our way of life is so repulsive that it inspires  suicidalists....why pay to support this line of endless hatred? Don't buy the oil from those who hate us, who hate what they think we represent, who hate us for even the trivial stuff, like boring MTV babes going through the motions so they can be seen on MTV.

As has been pointed out a lot, it's the US addiction to oil that is central to the current Middle Eastern wars/conflicts and of course, the smashing of airplanes into big buildings. There are ways around this mess, but those who are pushing and cheerleading the GWOT are also pushing eternal oil addiction, at least until the oil runs out. Cutting the oil addiction also cuts them out...until they conjure up a new con. Odds are, if Bin Laden came by with a tanker filled with oil...well, most things would be forgiven. There certainly has been a defacto forgiveness for bin Laden from the Bu$hies..after all, he did them such a favor. Without the 9-11 incident, they would have lost the 2002 elections, and also the 2004 ones. This keeps on looking like an adaptation of Orwell's 1984 novel...

As to the potato blight analogy...well, before 9-11, it took a lot of oil to grow mass quantities of cheap food. But oil was cheap, and so was natural gas. Now the food is more expensive to make, but through the miracles of worldwide competition, food is just a commodity, and price and production cost seem to have so little in common. All the oil used to make that food is quite expensive now, and will be even more expensive in a bit. It's so expensive, it cheaper to extract starches from grains and convert it into fuel for transportation. When oil prices double, this will be even more so.

And yet, countries like the US are supposed to keep growing mass quantities of stuff and flood the world market with these crops so that food stays cheap? We should just stop growing so much, and quit exporting grains - less oil consumed, less Ngas converted to ammonia, less greenhouse gas pollution. And convert about 1/3 of the U.S. midwest states back to prairies, with essentially no humans present. This would have the same effect on bulk food prices on the world market as would converting the starches in them to EtOH, and extracting the oils to make fatty acid ethyl and methyl esters.

Actually, that was occurring before a new market for foods opened up in 2003 with oil price rises. In the 1998 to 2003 period, there was lots of economic devastation due to low food prices, caused by too much food and not enough buyers (= food consumers with money). This excess food then got dumped onto world markets, especially in Mexico, forcing huge numbers of their farmers into bankruptcy and to migrate elsewhere. While the cheap food may have been OK for consumers (though food prices and bulk grain prices are quite different), it certainly was an economic disaster for those who produced the grain, and their communities.

In the U.S we need to make gasoline more expensive, but that is really unpopular, and preferably by taxes. At some level, this will lower demand, and raise fuel efficiency. We really need to stop importing petroleum, especially from countries and cultures that hate us for many reasons. This will mean that just about anything that can get grown and converted into fuel in the U.S., will. The rest of the world will either have to compete with the price of petroleum for food grown here, or not buy it and instead, grow their own. The rest of the world should stop relying on the U.S. for bulk food, sold for prices that don't pay for the cost to grow it - or even for mildly profitable prices. And odds are, the practice of feeding grains (and especially the starches in grains) to animals to then feed humans is also going to get scaled back - too inefficient, when those starches can get made into fuels.

Anyway, prices of  5 c/lb for corn or 10 c/lb for corn seems to make little difference in the price of the products made from corn. But it makes all the difference to those growing it, and the communities surrounding/based on food growers. If that's a potato blight...maybe the rich people of the world can pay some taxes (a fee on money exchanging..stock and bond and derivative trading...) and provide salaries for lots of people to grow food at a living wage. But I doubt that that will happen either. The days of supplying food  to the poor based on impoverishing farmers are gone, due to the economic demand that starches and sugars now have as food. Somebody else will have to pick up the tab. It would have happened anyway without the biofuels option, as most of the current generation of farmers in the U.S. is averaging near 60 years of age. They would have retired/been made bankrupt, abandoned the farms, sold out to sub-urban developers and/or died off, and the farmland would have gone to seed if crop prices stayed where they were in the 1998-2003 era. Less farmers, less farmland, less food grown. No local towns near the farms; these were/are still vanishing/getting scarcer. It would have had the same effect as growing more food for conversion of sugars and starches into fuel.

Oh well.

by nb41 on Thu Jan 31st, 2008 at 12:06:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"it's the US addiction to oil that is central to the current Middle Eastern wars/conflicts"

A small point, but it's more than just the U.S. that causes the problem...the U.S. is huge, but is not by itself on the excess consumption side...

by asdf on Wed Feb 6th, 2008 at 10:34:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The U.S. average fuel efficiency for cars is a pathetic 20 mpg or so - we did better with the Model T. There is room for lots of improvement on that aspect.

This is precisely the sort of statement that destroys the credibility of the progressives.  While there is a lot of bad information about the mileage of the Model T and good records are hard to find, those folks who lovingly restore Model Ts get 12-14 mpg--a MUCH more believable number.  The Model T engine was VERY inefficient getting roughly 22 hp. from 177 cubic inches (2.9 liters).


And freight trains are relatively easy to electrify...since all existing freight locomotives are diesel electrics anyway...just wire up the lines and quit using the diesel, at least so much...

Your definition of "easy" is obviously MUCH different from mine.  In USA we build precisely ZERO electric locomotives.  Hanging tens of thousands of miles of catenary wires is a HUGE job--hardly easy.

In fact, finding much efficiency improvement in an advanced society will require HUGE amounts of human and resource investment.

I have covered this problem in much more detail at:

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Tue Jan 29th, 2008 at 02:52:38 PM EST

Where I live in NY State, electric locomotives for freight were quite the rage once the problems of transmitting electricity were solved by Mr. Tesla, and his machines were mass produced by Westinghouse and others. Niagara Falls was then used to power a lot of railroads, as were many small coal fired plants. NY, and Western NY, had lots of electric freight and passenger lines, but these were ended by the 1950's with the widespread use of cheap diesel, as well as the general demise of railroads that corresponded to the rise of highways and cars and trucks. By the 1960's, most of the rail lines in this part of the country were bankrupt, or close to it.

It's not like this is new technology. If the word came down to electrify the major railroad freight lines, it would be done. There is no shortage of labor to do this, or wire to do this, just shortage of will to do it. Especially considering where diesel prices are headed in the next few years. That, and the right financial incentives that would allow trains to compete with subsidized trucks (essentially free of charge roadways).

As to gasoline efficiency, going from the pathetic 20 mpg to 40 mpg should be easy - these cars already exist. The average of ~ 20 mpg is due to so many driving ridiculous cars and trucks designed for power, or which weigh more than 2 tons (we used to call those "tuna boats", as in 2 tons of boat). That, or switch to a Harley, which gets 60 mpg. Or change the place of residence from that blot on the countryside to a place in a city, if commuting to a city is done every day.

Going from 40 mpg to 80 or 100 mpg will be more of a challenge, although the basic idea - electric cars or plug in hybrids - seems to be in place. Manufacturers could motivate if prodded sufficiently, or if self-motivated, but even on the edge of bankruptcy, due largely to the car makers love affair with SUckV's and big trucks and muscle cars, they still have not "gotten religion". We did not win (or at least, do our share of the effort against those nasty dictatorships in Japan, Germany and Italy) WW2 with the attitude currently displayed by our government-auto company complex. I guess it boils down to the fact that gasoline is still too cheap, even at close to 90 c/liter/$3.30 per gallon. That, and the the focus on short term profits at the expense of the bigger picture/longer range view.


by nb41 on Tue Jan 29th, 2008 at 10:18:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There's an interesting novel, titled "City Of Light" about Buffalo and The Falls back around the Pan American Exposition time. One of the main characters is an engineer working for the Tesla faction. It's just a story, but it describes a lot of Delaware Park, the downtown mansions, and the docks; and it involves a lot of the local color of the time concerning Albright, Rumsey, McKinley's assassination, Grover Cleveland, and so on.

paul spencer
by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Thu Jan 31st, 2008 at 04:39:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You're 100% correct on the Model T Ford fuel economy thing. Another small point is that the Model T has a top speed of only about 45 mph. A modern car with Model T performance could easily get better than 100 mpg.

Regarding electric railroads, out here in the west it would be pretty expensive to string the wires, but perhaps it would be an acceptable cost compared to the ongoing maintenance required of highways.

I think that the real elephant in the living room is that there are simply too many people. We're living beyond Earth's carrying capacity, and arguing about ethanol cars versus electric locomotives is only an interesting distraction from the underlying problem.

by asdf on Tue Jan 29th, 2008 at 10:58:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In fact, finding much efficiency improvement in an advanced society will require HUGE amounts of human and resource investment.

The US surely is an advanced society, but finding efficiency improvements is easy: as the OP notes, just switch to the tech used in the rest of the advanced world. That will surely cost a lot of efforts, but if they could do it, you can too.

by GreatZamfir on Wed Feb 6th, 2008 at 11:40:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Its not technically demanding.

Now, of course anything that replaces any substantial component of the current oil-addicted transport system will be a massive undertaking.

Among the options, however, electrifying the main trunk freight rail lines can be done with the kind of money the US federal government normally deploys on transport infrastructure in a given year and with off the shelf technology.

A big portion of the freight locomotives built in the United States in a given year are electric traction ... they just generate their electricity on board rather than pulling it from the wires.

And once started, each oil price shock will accelerate the transition from freight diesel-electrics running under the wires to freight sparkies running under the wires.

There's nothing we can do that will transfer an equivalent amount of transport from crude oil to electric traction at a net energy savings that is any easier ... which makes it the easiest first step down a road we must travel in any event.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Feb 6th, 2008 at 02:21:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Promoted, with "lazy linking" corrected.

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Feb 6th, 2008 at 08:39:20 AM EST
the ammonium economy on the reliance on electricity generated from wind farms (and CSP) to generate ammonium to replace Natural Gas as a fertilizer feedstock and diesel as a mechanized farming fuel.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Feb 6th, 2008 at 02:23:50 PM EST

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