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A Perfect Storm is Heading our Way

by Asinus Asinum Fricat Wed Apr 30th, 2008 at 03:00:17 PM EST

With food riots about to topple the Haitian government, from Mexico to Pakistan, Egypt to Cameroon, protests have turned violent. Rioters tore through three cities in the West African nation of Burkina Fasom a few weeks ago, burning government buildings and looting stores. Similar protests exploded in Senegal and Mauritania late last year. And Indian protesters burned hundreds of food-ration stores in West Bengal last October, accusing the owners of selling government-subsidized food on the lucrative black market.

Is this a sign of things to come? The answer is yes, because the world's governments have so far turned a blind eye to this crisis. Was this discussed at Davos in any length? Yes, up to a point, as Evelyn Vaughn would surmise, as Indian Trade Minister Kamal Nath warned that prices of some foodstuffs had doubled in his country. So when are we going to set up a food summit, we ask? Referring to the challenge of providing food at affordable prices, he said: "Next year in Davos we'll be discussing this." Next year! Once again, the Gods of procrastination are smiling. In the meantime, let them eat grass.

Diary rescue by Migeru

Although World Bank president Robert Zoellick also sounded the alarm, saying the cost of the basic nutritional requirements of people in many countries, mainly in Africa, was rising sharply, not much is being done. So let's look at the main reasons behind this. Much has been discussed about the rise of Biofuels. It would be naive to blame rising costs solely on them (the chief financial officer of Brazil's state-run energy group Petrobas, Almir Barbassa, argued that market forces were at work and farmers could not be told what to grow. Brazil is the world's biggest producer of sugar cane, which is used to make the biofuel ethanol as well as sugar). More on Brazil below.

There are many factors behind the spike in world food prices. Australia, a major wheat exporter, has been in the midst of a severe drought for the last two years (Australia, which has a 15 percent share of the world wheat trade, is the second-biggest exporter of the grain after the United States) and the rise of China and India means that the majority of their population is moving from one meal a day to two, as it should; but the real culprit is no less than GW Bush, whose disastrous wars and incompetence have have weakened your dollar to an all time low. Since most commodities are priced in US dollars, and that means sellers are looking for higher prices to insulate themselves from the falling greenback, and that pushes staples beyond the reach of the world's poorest.

Now let's discuss the biofuels and its pros and cons.

The Pros: there are many eco-benefits to replacing oil with biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel (though it should be noted that bioethanol is vastly superior to biodiesel because it can be made from a wider range of raw materials and generates a higher yield and better carbon reductions). Since such fuels are derived from agricultural crops, they are inherently renewable. Additionally, ethanol and biodiesel emit less particulate pollution than traditional petroleum-based gasoline and diesel fuels. They also do not contribute to global warming as much, since they only emit back to the environment the carbon dioxide (CO2) that their source plants absorbed out of the atmosphere in the first place. I am sure that there are a few more reasons than the ones noted above, if you know of any, please comment.

The Cons: first, the many risks associated with them are environmental impacts of monocultures, increased rainforest clearance in developing countries for growing biofuel stock, higher costs than other forms of carbon reductions, harsh agricultural labor conditions, and increased use of genetically engineered crops, in other words, the ugly heads of Monsanto & similar companies strike again. Also Ethanol is ethyl alcohol, often referred to as grain alcohol; E85 is a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Since alcohol is a corrosive solvent, anything exposed to ethanol must be made of corrosion-resistant (and expensive) stainless steel or plastic, from fuel-injection components to the tanks, pumps and hoses that dispense E85, as well as the tankers that deliver it. That's somewhat prohibitive.

Growing corn is an intensive process that requires pesticides, fertilizer, heavy equipment and transport. When considering the viability of ethanol, the total impact of all that activity needs to be taken into account. One acre of corn can produce 300 gal. of ethanol per growing season. So, in order to replace that 200 billion gal. of petroleum products, American farmers would need to dedicate 675 million acres, or 71 percent of the nation's 938 million acres of farmland, to growing feedstock. Clearly, ethanol alone won't kick out fossil fuel dependence. It is worth noting that both the US and the EU use far less efficient biofuels production methods, mainly rapeseed in Europe and corn in the US. Science has shown that, environmentally, the advantages of rape and corn are marginal: for every unit of energy used in the production of ethanol from cane, eight units of energy are created. Corn and rape create less than two units of energy for every unit used in production, both with far lower carbon savings than cane. You could say that since both the US and the EU subsidize heavily ethanol production, thereby using the taxpayers money to pay farmers incentives to switch from food crops to producing an extremely inefficient and environmentally dubious fuel, which in turns exacerbate spikes in food prices.  

Water: my last diary on water clearly denotes why scarcity of water was named by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as a top priority and he warned that conflicts lay ahead if the provision of the vital resource could not be assured.

"Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst. Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon," he said in a speech on Thursday. Ban reminded the gathering of the world's wealthy powerbrokers in Davos that the conflict in Darfur in Sudan was touched off by a drought. "Too often where we need water, we find guns," he said.

The Brazil connection: Brazil's ramped up ethanol production has not had any impact on its food production, not as yet anyway. It's one of the world's few places with ample land available to be brought into agricultural production (and we're not talking Amazon here, that's not counting it into the equation). From the point of view of the Brazilian government, their principal source of ethanol is made from sugar cane which seems to be the most suited to mass cultivation. Problem is that it happens to be a chemical-intensive monoculture and can, in the future, set off a massive deforestation should the government decide to expand its program. Most Brazilians do not want to chop down their rain forests but it could well happen, unless the world's governments come to their senses and address the biofuels conundrum.

Increasingly, poor farmers around the world are asking themselves why should they have to turn their food crops into fuel crops for the benefit of the world's rich drivers, therein lies the rub.

As President Bush noted in his comments on the economy, "Prices are up at the gas pump and in the supermarket."

Really? We hardly noticed!

Don't forget about the openining of the Mato Grosso in Brazil.  Previously not open to soybeans, improvements in ag tech have allowed this area to develop tremendously in the past 10 years. And dump soy onto the world market.  That's part of why Brazil doesn't starve because of its biofuels.

The other two are:

1) Sugarcane is a lot more energy effective than corn making fuel.

and most important, which I'm sure Jerome will point out

2) Brazil has upped its oil production in the last decade.  If they bring the fields the Oil Drum has listed online, they will be pumping 5 million barrels or so a day.

And I'll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage-Billy Bragg

by ManfromMiddletown (manfrommiddletown at lycos dot com) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 12:11:32 PM EST
OTOH as I've pointed out before, much of the enormous productivity of Brazil's sugar cane fields is the result of a one-time accelerated liquidation of centuries of topsoil deposition from the original forest cover.  Dust Bowl redux.

Sugar cane at a near-equatorial location with adequate rainfall is bound to yield more energy than corn in the temperate North, but there's still a physical limit to how much energy you can harvest from a hectare of biomass w/o liquidating the soil.  And so-called "modern, improved" Western methods of farming are all about liquidating topsoil for fast, "cheap," temporary returns.

more later...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 03:31:46 PM EST
Absolutely, cleared-forest topsoil is extremely fertile, until it's exhausted by cash-crop monocultures. In linca's diary I mentioned the exhaustion of North American soils, wonderfully fertile at first after forest clearing, by tobacco and cotton from the 17th to the 19th century.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 03:39:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
it's notable that some ancient peasanty methods of farming, which we "superior" Westerners look down on, managed to sustain human life and advanced civilisations on the same land footprint for thousands of years -- F H King's book Farmers of Forty Centuries describes in some detail the practises of Chinese peasant farmers which prevented soil depletion and ensured continuous, multi-century survival on the same land.  King notes along the way that Asian peasant farmers understood the importance of composting fpr centuries -- maybe millennia -- before the Western wheat/beef culture had a clue.  [it is perhaps noteworthy that the wheat/beef culture is consistently associated with wars of conquest to acquire more land to replace what has been exhausted by that inefficient and destructive farming pattern (here R Manning in Against the Grain provides a good big-picture guide).  hence expansionism is a fundamental myth of the wheat/beef culture and requires myths of Manifest Destiny, Westward Ho and so on to justify its endless hunger for new farmland to ruin...]

King was writing at that critical juncture in the 30's when there was a meme war in agriculture.  several eminent scientists and public thinkers -- King for one, Albert Howard for another -- were skeptical about the whole Liebig school of Reductionist Chemistry Triumphant, but they lost the war.  the winners were the "futurists", in love with industrial Taylorism and a reductionist/technomanagerial approach to food, nutrition, and agriculture that became a nearly mystical cult and has had the most grotesque effects on our culture... the end state is well described by e.g. Pollan in his recent works, especially In Defence of Food...

at the same time, the symbiologists were losing the meme war over biotic systems (to the fanatical crypto-Darwinist "all is competition red in tooth and claw" school which not coincidentally very well suited the emerging ideologies of free market capitalism).  so on all fronts reductionism, compartmentalisation, and narrow mechanistic control fantasies were the triumphant ideology (or religion) du jour.  mix in the century-and-a-half-long drunken binge on nearly-free fossil energy, and the result was several decades of ruthless, reckless vandalism and resource liquidation.  the industrialists partied hearty, had a real good time -- and now we (and even more so our children and our grandchildren and their grandchildren) get to live on in the trashed house and clean up the vomit (and worse).

the "productivity" of this brief fossil-fuelled binge of extraction, liquidation, and exterminism further seemed to substantiate the fantasy of compound interest -- liquidation providing enormous quick returns not achievable by any sustainable activity.  so here we are, with a set of ironclad beliefs firmly based in an incredibly fleeting, temporary and disastrous period in human history:  the brief blazing arc of the Age of Kleptocracy and the Industrial Fossil Frat Party...

which, amazingly, is still going on.  just like one of those soused fratboy bashes where some of the hardcore party animals simply will not admit that it's dawn and the party's over... and the reality police have been called...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 09:28:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Very powerful. I have to get the book now.
by Asinus Asinum Fricat (patric.juillet@gmail.com) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 10:29:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
European agriculture was quite sustainable until the appearance of fossil fuels and mined fertilizers in the middle of the 19th century... French population had been more-or-less constant since the Celtic era, at that point, with rises due to more efficient use of the soil's productivity, and two population dips due to systemic (but not necessarily caused by agriculture) crises.

And wars of conquest aren't exactly unknown in China, either.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Sat Apr 19th, 2008 at 04:37:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
European agriculture was quite sustainable until the appearance of fossil fuels and mined fertilizers in the middle of the 19th century... French population had been more-or-less constant since the Celtic era, at that point, with rises due to more efficient use of the soil's productivity, and two population dips due to systemic (but not necessarily caused by agriculture) crises.

I presume you meant from late medieval times to the end of the seventeenth century? France actually had very slow population growth by western standards in the second half of the nineteenth century (the withdrawal method - more effective then you'd think ;)In any case I don't believe fossil fuels were used in French farming in serious amounts until the twentieth century though I'd have to check to see if my memory is correct.

by MarekNYC on Mon Apr 21st, 2008 at 02:01:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My reference to the middle of the 19th century is because it marks the arrival of trains, and thus the use of mined fertilizers which aren't all that sustainable.

As to population growth in the 18th century, indeed it was smaller than in other European countries, but that is also because more land had already been filled by agriculture than in, say, Germany.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Apr 21st, 2008 at 04:28:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No, population growth was faster in France during the eighteenth century, and much slower in the second half of the nineteenth. That's in spite of significant immigration and very low emigration rates. I'm not sure what it has to do with density - France has far more arable land than Britain, and I believe a bit more than imperial Germany (same land area, but IIRC a smaller percentage is arable), both of which had higher populations by the 1900, much higher in the case of Germany. It has to do with the Napoleonic laws governing inheritance and an earlier onset of a cultural norm of small families.  
by MarekNYC on Mon Apr 21st, 2008 at 06:31:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't know which audience King was addressing but the period of WWII rationing had a powerful effect on British attitudes to agriculture. After that, anything that increased productivity was a good thing.

Of course, this led to widespread poisoning of land with pesticides and the ruination of soils with excessive fertilization which means that they are effectively incapable of supporting vegetation without human intervention.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sat Apr 19th, 2008 at 05:20:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
According to 1998 Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, another contributing factor is a shortage of democracy.

"Mr. Sen is famous for his assertion that famines do not occur in democracies. ''No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,'' he wrote in ''Democracy as Freedom'' (Anchor, 1999). This, he explained, is because democratic governments ''have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.'' This proposition, advanced in a host of books and articles, has shaped the thinking of a generation of policy makers, scholars and relief workers who deal with famine. "

If those darn African and Asian countries would just adopt western culture, their problems would all go away!

by asdf on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 09:43:04 PM EST
Given the lack of functioning democracies it's rather hard to prove him wrong.
by generic on Sat Apr 19th, 2008 at 11:30:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Has there ever been anything remotely resembling a "functioning democracy" in a poor country to begin with? They tend to be a product of rich, stable nations.
by Egarwaen on Wed Apr 30th, 2008 at 09:49:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Since such fuels [ethanol and biodiesel] are derived from agricultural crops, they are inherently renewable.

That would be true if corn, sugarcane and so forth were produced without the use of fossil fuels. In fact planting, fertilizing and harvesting corn and converting it to ethanol uses almost as much fossil energy as the ethanol ultimately provides.

That is the main reason why producing ethanol from corn is such a terrible idea. Another little problem is that the food that could otherwise be derived from that corn is badly needed now, when food prices are rising very quickly around the world.

Given all these reasons not to produce corn ethanol, one could have predicted that the US would now be going all out to do just that. The wrong-headedness is staggering to behold.

Though the term "Anglo disease" makes me more than a little uneasy, I understand why Jerome wants to use it. My view is that there is nothing wrong with Anglos. Rather, there are some universal flaws in human political systems.

If some other group had been rich and spoiled for as long as Anglos have, I'm sure they would be doing the same kind of idiotic things which are now being perpetrated in the US.

by Ralph on Thu May 1st, 2008 at 12:33:18 AM EST

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