Going Green

Friday, September 7, 2007

Energy vs Food II

In the short time that this blog has been active I have received numerous "search engine hits" on "energy vs food." These "hits" have come from countries throughout the world. It is apparently a topic of great interest.

There is continuing debate about ethanol production and its impact on food prices both worldwide and domestically. The article below by the Renewable Fuels Association is written from the perspective of a pro-ethanol group. Their contention is that rising food prices are more a result of rising petroleum product prices than rising corn prices. I can't disagree with their argument but I think it is incomplete. Please read the entire article.

Ethanol Facts:Food vs. Fuel

As the U.S. ethanol industry continues to expand, the amount of corn used for ethanol production is increasing dramatically. Corn use for ethanol more than doubled between 2001 and 2005. Critics question whether corn growers can satisfy demand for both renewable fuels and traditional uses like livestock and poultry feed, food processing and exports, and the contrived food vs. fuel debate has reared its ugly head once again.

Recently, critics and many in the media have charged that the rising price of corn due to growing ethanol demand is the major culprit for moderately rising consumer food prices. Absent from the discussion is the chief reason for increasing food costs: escalating energy costs. According to a June 2007 analysis of food, energy and corn prices conducted by John Urbanchuk of LECG, LLC, “rising energy prices had a more significant impact on food prices than did corn.” In fact, the report notes rising energy prices have twice the impact on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for food than does the price of corn.

“Energy costs have a much greater impact...(read complete story here)

All of the issues related to ethanol production impact food prices. It is a tapestry that is interwoven throughout both agriculture and energy industries. Corn for ethanol does impact food prices. We wouldn't be growing corn for ethanol if it wasn't for a desire to become energy independent. Energy prices, in all forms, are a significant part of the consumer's food dollar. It takes energy to grow, process and transport food items.

Most corn in the U.S. has traditionally been grown for livestock feed. Bi-products from ethanol distillation are used as livestock feed. Corn prices impact livestock prices due to the cost of feeding the animals. There is a lagged ripple effect through all segments of livestock production due to the biological delays in the production cycle. Corn for ethanol is unlikely to shift production directly away from human food crops. But, like all economic factors, it does have an impact.


E. R. Dunhill said...

panhandle poet,
This is an important topic that I’ve often seen oversimplified. As you point out, energy costs drive the cost of just about everything. Under scrutiny, the corn-based ethanol / fossil fuel relationship becomes even more convoluted. Energy prices affect not only the food uses of corn, but also its energy uses. While the fuel-stock is itself renewable, most of the production processes are not; production relies on the use of natural gas, a fact which further connects the cost of fuel ethanol to the cost of fossil fuels. Moreover, several studies, independent of one another, have found that the carbon savings of biofuels versus petrofuels is fairly small. After all, we’re cultivating and transporting most of that corn with petrodiesel.
I think an even greater concern for the viability of biofuels as a replacement for petrofuels is that of capacity. In 2005, roughly 20% of the corn produced in the US was used to produce ethanol fuel. The fuel that was produced was enough to fill about 2% of Americans’ equivalent petrofuel demand. At our current levels of consumption, we could only produce enough corn-based ethanol to cover 10% of the gasoline we use (and, obviously, this would mean no more table-grade corn, or corn grown as feed, which is a fairly silly hypothetical situation). Biodiesel from virgin stock is even less able to meet demands. We simply can’t make enough biofuels to fill the demand without other changes.
I increasingly believe that the only way to achieve energy independence is to revisit our usage patterns. Americans (and our friends and neighbors who share our habits) waste an inordinate amount of energy. We need to consider more appropriate use-technologies (like LED lighting), more wide-spread generation-technologies (like the mass-localization of production through photovoltaics, solar hot water heaters, and wind farms), and more effective patterns of development. It doesn’t make sense to buy the biggest home available on the outskirts of suburbia, drive solo to work in an SUV, and then complain about energy prices. Rather, some investment now could save us a great deal in the long run.

Panhandle Poet said...

e.r.: Thanks for that excellent comment. Most problems/issues/opportunites are best served when approached holistically - or with a systems approach. This is a lesson we have learned from environmental science. Nothing operates in a vaccuum; it is part of a system. Each of the various systems interlock with other systems. In nature we see it in the Circadian rhythms, the water cycle, parasites, forest health, and on and on. The energy issues that we face will require a myriad of solutions -- both at the micro and the macro level. Market forces combined with a modicum of Federally supported basic research will take us into the next phase of societal development where our dependence on fossil fuels will become a non-issue. There will be tremendous opportunities for visionary entrepreneurs to prosper during the coming transitional turmoil. Ethanol is not the answer; it is merely one piece of a very large puzzle.

E. R. Dunhill said...

panhandle poet,
Much of this systems thinking predates environmental science. Izaak Walton addressed many of these ideas in the 17th century. The Chinese concept of Tao has explored connectivity both naturally and metaphysically for centuries.
While I remain a proponent of entreprenneurs as drivers of environmental progress, I think it's important to stress the role of the consumer and the voter in this equation. Both consumers and voters must inform themselves in order to mandate better choices. Voters in particular will play an important role in the evolution of energy production. Those who currently hold most of the energy cards have an enormous sway over our elected officials, and will not let go that control without what I would call an unfair fight. We must demand better and be willing to work to make it happen.