Thursday, December 28, 2006

Burning the Candle at Both Ends

My husband and I recently rented “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Not exactly the cheery, mind-numbing holiday classic that most of the rest of the country was undoubtedly watching. It got me thinking. Not just about how I’m going to boycott the auto industry by refusing to buy a new vehicle until fully electric cars are back on the market, and not just about how I’ll continue my on-going boycott of fossil fuel by continuing to severely limit my driving and keeping my home at a tepid “European” temperature, but less reactive and farther a field thoughts about the economic impact of biofuel on our dinner tables.

I’ve written before about the impacts of global warming, depleted water resources, and dust-bowl level droughts on the food supply (which translates into higher costs for grains), but I failed to see the other end of the equation – the fact that some of our grains are further being used as fuels, thereby increasing the demand and cost of the very grains we are finding increasingly difficult to grow.

Historically, countries have kept surpluses of grains on hand to feed the people in hard times. Increasingly these surpluses have been whittled away, for political reasons in the past, but now also because of decreasing yields due to environmental impacts. I recommend you read the full article yourself, here, but in case you don’t, at least read the following excerpt. Keep in mind, this was written in 2004, two years prior to the most current “dust-bowl” harvests in the mid-west:

It has been an almost unprecedented run of misfortune: four back-to-back meagre harvests, as heat waves, drought and pestilence took their toll -- something that hasn't happened since at least 1960.

As a result, since the turn of the millennium, the amount of grain held in the world's stockpiles has been falliing. At the end of the 2003 harvest, the amount of wheat, corn, rice and other grains had fallen to about 280 million tonnes. In 1999, it was more than 500 million.

That seems like a lot of grain because bakers can make about 2,000 loaves for every tonne of wheat milled into flour. But considering that the grain has to support both the world's population and its billions of livestock, there is precious little to go around.

Measured against consumption, there is enough grain left in the planetary larder to last for only 59 days, one of the lower figures on record. After it is used up, people will go hungry if the next harvest fails.

The same article gave the following statistics:

Reserves as a percentage of consumption
1980: 21.4%
1990: 28.9%
2000: 29.3%
2003: 16.2%

Now consider some of the reports for the most current growing season. In particular, Australia is so hard hit they are considering curtailing exports and re-energizing their grain stockpiles instead.

A more contemporary article than the 2004 one above, echoes the concern about dwindling stockpiles, but details the case of corn (currently being promoted as an important alternative energy source), in particular:

"The concern now is what hapens next year. If we have poor conditions for growing wheat again, supplies could get very tight and we might see some demand rationing," said Dan Cekander, grains analyst at Fimat.

James Barnett, grains analyst for Man Global Research, part of the Man Group, said there is more concern in the global corn market after the USDA cut crop estimates in the US by 209m bushels to 10.9bn after it said that 800,00 fewer acres were growing corn than had previously been expected. The US is the world's largest corn grower.

"We are looking at a structural change in the corn market, because demand is going to increase next year from the ethanol industry, and we might not be planting corn in enough acres to satisfy that demand," said Mr Barnett.

Analysts estimate ethanol to consume between 20 and 25 per cent of the US corn crop next year, which is estimated at about 11.1bn bushels, and forecast to account for about 35 per cent of the following year's crop.

What all of this effectively points to is the rising cost of our “daily bread,” whether you are eating corn bread, artisian loaves, or wonder bread. “In 2006, corn and wheat prices in the US jumped by 70% and 60% respectively. Much of this jump occurred between September and December.” (click here for full article, Asia Times)

There is already a widening economic gap between the uber-filthy-rich and the working poor (soon to include the former middle class). When those who can afford it are driving ethanol burning SUVs around town, what will the rest of us be eating? Certainly not factory farmed meat, because we won’t be able to afford a corn-fatted cow on our table. Sure this is an extreme picture I am painting, one we hopefully will never experience, but one that merits consideration, I believe.

According to the “Who Killed the Electric Car?” website, E85 (fuel composed of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline by volume) is an inferior source of alternative fuel, although pure ethanol is, in fact, a minimally-polluting source of fuel. “E85 is as costly or costlier for consumers as gasoline and few fueling stations, mostly concentrated in the Midwest, offer E85 for sale. On balance, ethanol derived from corn is not an energy-efficient product or a significant clean-energy improvement over petroleum.”

What really ticks me off about the disappearance of electric cars from the market is the fact that an electric car doesn’t have a combustion engine, and therefore does not have all the maintenance nightmares of the cars we drive today.

But, back to my main line of thinking -- Even as many of their crops have failed in the withering heat of the summer of 2006, people in the Mid-west are apparently discovering that it is much cheaper to heat their homes with their corn crops. Just one more example of how, “The continued rise of global energy prices in 2007, paired with growing demand for renewable energy, will produce further strong increases in international grain prices.” (Asia Times article again)

Unless you are independently wealthy, start tightening your belts. Your grocery bills may start to sky rocket in the years ahead. Don’t expect your government to pick up any slack, if times get bad. Most aren’t storing anything for “rainy” days.


At December 29, 2006 5:59 AM, Blogger ericswan said...

The multi-nationals pulled down most of the "local" grain elevators that spotted the country-side of the grain belt throughout the prairie provinces. Now the federal government wants to disband the Canadian government grain co-op and will hold a plebicite in January. This will lead to more pressure on family farms and bigger is better corporate farming. Added to that problem, Prime Minister Harper is requiring all gas products in Canada to contain 5% ethanol by 2008.

It's hard to wrap your mind around this situation. I don't think we will be feeding the hungry in Africa or anywhere else in the very near future.

At December 29, 2006 7:54 AM, Blogger Paul Scott said...

We are asking good folks to call the car companies and tell them you are not going to buy a new car until it has a plug on it. Further, please contact you local utility and ask that they provide a green power program so that you can get all of your electricity from renewable sources. Over 200 utilities already offer this. If possible, but a solar PV system and generate your power from sunlight. We surveyed EV owners in California and found that a full 48% of them already use solar for running their house and car.

At December 29, 2006 9:20 AM, Blogger Jade said...

Ericswan: I'm sorry to hear about all those developments up north. It seems to me that they could be making ethanol from inedible plants (switchgrass apparently) and maybe growing them where food crops are difficult to grow, for whatever reason (maybe poor irrigation potential or depleted soils, or other factors which would not effect the growth of inedible plants so much as they would crops). Troubling developments for those already stretched thin (Africa, Mongolia, etc.). I hate to watch this sort of thing go down.

Greetings Paul Scott! Thank you for the information and suggestions. I think I may just write letters to a few car companies that I would otherwise consider buying cars from. I also thought a bumper sticker would be fun for my current car: I'd rather be driving electric. I've been dreaming of solar roofing shingles for a while, but we live near some very tall conifers, so it wouldn't be a very efficient system for us in the winter months. I do plan to start buying solar products on a smaller scale, however. I purchased some solar/LED outdoor lighting already, and am very excited about it.


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