Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A well-oiled machine

Big Ag is getting nervous about energy costs. The hand-wringing reveals much about the energy-intensive nature of industrial agriculture--and its lack of imagination regarding alternatives.

Here's an Associated Press article laying out the energy story in terms dictated by the American Farm Bureau Federation, which not innacurately calls itself "the voice of agriculture." It has only forgoten to add a few modifiers: vast-scale, heavily subsidized, energy-intensive.

The AP article cites a Farm Bureau economist complaining that high oil prices will add about 10 percent to farmers' costs this year, or about $3 billion.

If a 10 percent increase amounts to $3 billion, that means US farmers spend about $30 billion per year on fuel and fertilizers.To put that number in perspective, the entire annual economic output of Guatemala--which the US is trying to lassoo into a free-trade pact that has the Farm Bureau salivating--is about $50 billion.

Another way to look at it: In order to sustain industrial ag, the Federal Government from 1996 to 2003 forked over about $131 billion to farmers, the top 10 percent of recipients hording 70 percent of the loot. That's an average of about $15 billion a year, or about half of the energy/fertilizer bill.

No wonder President Bush caved in to industrial-ag pressure and decided to preserve ag subsidies at current levels in the 2006 budget.

Clearly, we're looking at an energy-intensive system here. This 2002 paper by Johns Hopkins scientists Leo Horrigan, Robert S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker claims that:

The average U.S. farm uses 3 kcal of fossil energy in producing 1 kcal of food energy (in feedlot beef production, this ratio is 35:1), and this does not include the energy used to process and transport the food. (Emphasis added.)

Last time anyone checked--according to the Hopkins professors no one has since a 1969 Defense Department study--food travels an average of 1300 miles bewteen farm and table in the US. That's a lot of oil up in smoke.

And the energy efficiency of industrial ag has deteriorated over time. Richard Manning claims that in 1940, just before chemical-intensive agriculture really took hold, the average farm actually produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy used, and that by 1974 the ratio had fallen to 1:1.

What, then, is the Farm Bureau's agenda for addressing the American farm's exorbitant energy bill, and for increasing energy efficiency?

It has none. According to the group's Website, its energy agenda includes urging the government to raid the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve, supporting ludicrous government ethanol subsidies, and opposing "excessive" automobile fuel-economy standards.

Clearly, our food system is wholly reliant on cheap energy. But what happens when the age of cheap energy ends?

Friday, May 13, 2005

A billion acres sold (and counting)

The genetically modified (GM) seed industry is aglow with news of its latest milestone: one billion acres have now been planted with biotech crops. As one industry executive enthused in an Associated Press story, "somewhere in the northern hemisphere, a farmer has [recently] planted the one billionth acre of seed containing biotech traits."

Northern hemisphere? Genetically modified seeds are pretty popular among commodity farmers in Brazil and Argentina, too. And don't some states in southern India sanction GM cotton? In fact, one industry front group boasts that GM acreage is growing at least as fast in the quote-unquote developing world as it is in the northern hemisphere.

No matter. The ascent from zero to a billion acres planted in less than a decade is indeed a remarkable achievement--more stunning still, given all the popular opposition to GM.

Describing the sheer vastness represented by one billion acres, yet another industry front group gushes:

A billion acres is a lot of territory. It would take more than 27 land masses the size of Iowa to fill up that much space.

If you lined up a billion square acres, they would circle the planet at the equator more than 1587 times. They would reach to the moon and back 164 times. They would go all the way to the sun and all the way back--and still have some length left to spare.

A "lot of territory," indeed! Consider, too, that biotech acreage is growing at a compounded annual rate of 20 percent. That means, if present trends hold, there will 1.2 billion biotech acres (five more Iowas) a year from now--and 1.44 billion acres (another six Iowas) the year after that. That's the beauty of compounding interest, as the financial planners like to say.

Already, the above-linked AP story reports, 85 percent of soybeans and 45 percent of corn planted in the United States in 2004 were biotech crops.

The story goes one to quote a satisfied customer of the GM industry's goods, one Gordon Wassenaar, 69, of Prairie City, Iowa, who:

farms about 750 acres of soybeans and about 500 acres of corn. All of his soybeans are biotech crops, and his corn is grown from about three-fourths biotech seed. He said he's used the biotech crops for years now and they've saved on cost, cutting down the use of farm chemicals, and saved some on the work because less spraying is required.
"We're pleased," he said. "No complaints at all."

So biotech's been a boon, huh? Well, Bitter Greens Journal respects all farmers, and salutes anyone still scratching a living off the land in 2005. (Although it bitterly deplores the commodity market that most farmers have been forced to sell into; see this post).

But I wonder if the goods proffered by Monsanto, which dominates the markets for biotech soy and corn seeds, have really been such a great benefit after all. I went to one of my favorite Web sites, the indispensable Environmental Working Group's farm-subsidy page. I found that the farmer quoted by AP, Wassenaar, racked up an eye-popping $337,759 in commodity subsidies between 1995 and 2003, roughly the period of GM agriculture's great rise.

Again, all respect to Wassenaar, but if GM is so wondrous, then why does the government have to dole out $37,528 a year to keep his farm afloat?

I doubt the claim that GM cuts down, long-term, on use of farm chemicals. Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed lines evidently require higher doses of the herbicide glyphosate, the key ingredient Monsanto's cash-cow Roundup product.

And if GM increases yield, as its enthusiasts promise, then farmers like Wassenaar will either have to buy and tend large herds of manure-producing ruminants—or boost application of fossil-fuel-laden fertilizers. Why? As the Appalachian State University agroecologist and Maverick Farms mentor Christof den Biggelaar points out, higher yields mean more nutrients pulled out of the soil.

Higher yields can only be sustained by amending the soil, one way or another.

According to an article in Business Week (April 13, 2000), the average yield per acre of corn has surged from 34 bushels in the 1940s to 44 in the '50s to 120 bushels by the late 1990s. The price paid for that leap can be partially measured by the devastation caused by nitrogen-rich fertilizers being washed into waterways from the Mississippi clear down to the Gulf of Mexico. (As for the implications on energy usage, stay tuned for an upcoming post.)

Also, exploding yields led to tumbling prices. Not coincidentally, the same period described by Business Week saw the total number of U.S. farms plunge from 5 million to under 2 million.

There's a lot of despair and pain built into that number, lots of tradition ruined, families and entire areas devastated. The quality of our food, too, has paid a dear price.

And as GM crops continue their awesome ascent, I fear, the unpaid bills of industrial agriculture will continue piling up.

The only salute I can offer Monsanto on the occasion of the billion-acre milestone is a middle finger raised high in the air. I hope more farmers join me in this gesture. (That one’s for the Monsanto flack who regularly checks in on Bitter Greens Journal.)

NC outrage
One way the GM industry spreads its seed, so to speak, despite widespread opposition, is through buying politicians. Monsanto recently got slapped on the wrist by the US Justice Department for bribing Indonesian officials to accept GM crops. A Bitter Greens Journal reader called Sally alerted me to a bit of shenanigans going on right in my own back yard.

According to a environmental group called the Dogwood Alliance, based in the US south, "Members of the North Carolina General Assembly have filed a flurry of bills drafted by corporate agribusiness to preempt local regulations that might restrict genetically modified crops."

Instead of simply preventing local governments from passing ordinances that ban biotech crops-bans which a few towns in California have imposed, evidently spooking the GM industry--the bills try to evade public outrage by through vagueness. They would forbid municipalities "to control any kind of plant or plant pest."

I'll be looking into the money trails of the pols sponsoring these bills. One is NC Sen. Charles Albertson (address: 136 Henry Dunn Pickett Road. Beulaville, NC, 28518; phone number (910) 298-4923); others are Assemblyman Dewey Hill, and senators David Hoyleand Tom Apodaca.

Dogwood Alliance says similar bills have been floated in nine other states. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Ethanol and 'peak oil': an aside

Responding to one of my periodic tirades on ethanol, reader Roger Dennison recently wrote in to say:
Tom, the thing you don't mention in your blog, which will certainly impact agriculture in a big BIG way, is the inevitable onset of 'Peak Oil'. I must assume you know what I'm talking about. I am so certain about the future fuel supply crisis, that, when it comes, I want to be (A) living in a place that sells ethanol or E85, (or biodiesel) and (B), have a Flex-Fuel vehicle that will run on it. By that point, and it could happen sooner than later, the "glut" of ethanol will suddenly transform into a shortage.

I'm curious to know what you have to say on this matter.

Bitter Greens Journal responds
I'm familiar with "peak oil," the idea that humans have consumed crude oil so rapidly over the past 100 years that the world's deposits are severely diminished. The argument goes like this: All of the "easy" oil has been sucked out of the earth or will be soon; what's left will be expensive to extract, both becuase it's concentrated in politically unstable countries, and because it lies deeper under the earth's surface than the easy stuff. Thus oil production has peaked or will soon--and the world faces ever-tightening supplies of oil and ever higher prices at the gas pump.

The oil industry, and its champions within the White House, downplay the peak-oil scenario. Sure, they say, oil production will eventually peak, but not anytime soon; thus no need for serious conservation/alternative-energy efforts.

Yet I find the peak-oil argument generally persuasive, especially after having read Paul Roberts' bracing 2004 book The End of Oil. Anyone who thinks peak oil is a fringe theory should read that impeccably documented work. Note also that Richard Lugar and James Woolsey, respectively US senator and former CIA chief, essentially put forward a "peak oil" analysis in this 1999 essay in Foreign Affairs, that trumpet of establishment thinking.

Indeed, those two worthies were essentially arguing my critic Dennison's case: that ethanol provides a way out of an imminent energy crunch.

I disagree.

Studies about how much energy gain ethanol delivers conflict. The USDA, that long-time underwriter of ethanol production, recently came out with a study claiming that ethanol delivers a little more energy than it requires to produce.

Tad W. Patzek, a geoscientist at Berkeley, begs to differ. He claims that accounting for "the myriad energy inputs required by industrial agriculture, from the amount of fuel used to produce fertilizers and corn seeds to the transportation and wastewater disposal costs," ethanol consumes six units of energy to produce just one.

So USDA posits a marginal gain and a Berkeley scientist posits a significant loss. Either way, if petrol prices skyrocket under a peak oil model, how will we come up with the energy needed for mass-scale monocrop corn production?

Indeed, I find the idea that we can rely on industrial agriculture to fuel our 211-million-strong fleet of cars in the US fanciful, at best.

Richard Manning, in his Harper's 2004 essay The Oil We Eat, has this to say:
Ever since we ran out of arable land, food is oil. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1. And this understates the problem, because at the same time that there is more oil in our food there is less oil in our oil. A couple of generations ago we spent a lot less energy drilling, pumping, and distributing than we do now. In the 1940s we got about 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil we spent getting it. Today each barrel invested in the process returns only ten, a calculation that no doubt fails to include the fuel burned by the Hummers and Blackhawks we use to maintain access to the oil in Iraq.

In short, an agricultural system that depends so heavily on fossil fuel represents a dubious option for replacing fossil fuel.

If Bitter Greens Journal ruled the world, the government would stop subsidizing industrial agriculture and ethanol production and start building a real train system. Keeping 211 million vehicles on the road, nearly one for every man, woman, and child in the US, may simply not be sustainable.

Amtrak's annual budget is about $1 billion a year. Corn farmers get at least that much in subsidies in a typical year, and the highways suck up many more times that.