Farming for Food or for Fuel

| 12/1/2008 11:53:15 AM

Tags: agriculture, biofuel, environment,

Yucatan Garden

We haven’t traditionally assigned much value to natural productivity except when it was producing something we could eat, wear or burn for fuel. Predictably, David Tilman’s research is inspired by the hunt for new biofuels — renewable resources that might replace petroleum products. He suggests that someday our cars might run on so-called “cellulosic” ethanol created from grass. Ethanol created from cellulose could be derived from nearly any plant, so why not the plants that naturally grow more profusely, the native plants of the prairie?

Cool idea, unless your children are among the millions currently starving for lack of corn, wheat, rice or some other staple foodstuff that might be grown on that property. We’ve clearly demonstrated that we can spike grain prices with burgeoning new demand from ethanol manufacturers. Poor people around the world are straining to pay for food made expensive this year by the demand for ethanol.

On top of everything else, there’s good evidence that while our population is expanding we’re also wrecking some of the natural machinery we use to create our food. Setting aside the excesses of industrial agriculture and the short-term damage they do to farmland, we’re still tearing down important environmental assets the old-fashioned way, by burning forests and overgrazing grasslands.

criss kraus
6/9/2009 7:19:52 PM

It's true not all food products grow just anywhere. Part of this is the soil, environment and part is just the hybrid seed to begin with. Try waffle and or dry farming which is a practice of the Native Americans for centries. To read more about it try: My neighbor makes his own bio-fuel and doesn't rob his table food to do it! It's just all the scraps and trimmings from his veggies and his used cooking oil. So bio-fuels do not need to rob the hungry to produce. That's just the big OIL companies doing their thing to talk people out of it so they can continue to suck us dry with their prices. -Fossil Fuels are Finite -Fossil Fuels are being consumed faster than the earth can produce more. -We currently have NO, en mass, replacements for Fossil Fuels and all of fossil fuels by products (pharmacuiticals, plastics, fertalizer, anti-pest stuff, etc.). -The worlds economies and civilizations are based on Fossil Fuels. -When Fossil Fuels are gone - then what? Estimates of Fossil Fuel depletion range from 50-250 years.

6/8/2009 2:04:46 PM

Farming should be mostly for food (preferably organic/preferably local). Better fuel efficiency in all vehicles and more available mass transit would instantly reduce our dependency on foreign oil. And the more self-sufficient we get at producing our own energy (wind/solar/geothermal, etc.) the safer our cities will be from terrorist attacks because we WON'T be giving them our money in exchange for their oil. Our economy would improve too! Better education on population control for the countries that need it (i.e. NOT the First World nations like USA or Europe but the Third World) would help many women choose how many children they could afford to raise to adulthood. But what stands in the way is that many religions abhore birth control and will not allow women to control their own fertility which is both sad and cruel. Use of birth control frees up women to become more independent and that apparently scares a lot of men in Third World places.

david collier
5/19/2009 6:59:43 PM

Has anybody ever noticed all the open space even in our biggest cities on which gardens of various sizes could be planted? Just think about all the that space that we all see driving down our Interstates all over the country that could be used for food production or solar power generation? We as a nation need to turn the TV's off and just roll up our sleeves and get busy! There is no reason for anyone to go hungry and certainly no reason we can not break our dependency on foreign oil.

4/12/2009 11:13:53 PM

*** Cool idea, unless your children are among the millions currently starving for lack of corn, wheat, rice or some other staple foodstuff that might be grown on that property. *** Excuse me, but you don’t know what you’re talking about! “That property” just may not grow the crops you want it too. First, rice and corn cannot be grown just anywhere. Rice requires rich soil and flooded land to grow and corn requires rich soil and humid weather to fill. Those limiting conditions are not found in abundance in every country on a world wide basis. Many lands are too dry, too cold, too hot, too wet, too infertile, etc. Wheat is a more tolerant grass plant and adapts well to many climates, however, rust and insects take a major toll on yields, especially in countries with out the chemicals we, in America, now have. Harvest presents its own set of problems, humidity to high for mold free storage (spoilage loss), storms lay the stalks flat on the ground (75% to 100% crop loss), a bumper crop year tops out storage capacity (excess is dumped on the ground and spoils or is eaten or contaminated by vermin). *** We’ve clearly demonstrated that we can spike grain prices with burgeoning new demand from ethanol manufacturers. Poor people around the world are straining to pay for food made expensive this year by the demand for ethanol. *** Stay with me now, you "will" learn something…………. Ethanol had little to nothing to do with the spiking cost of grain. Ethanol Producers are going bankrupt hand over fist because the cost of their raw inputs have made their final product, ethanol, higher priced than gasoline. Grain prices partially spiked because of a world wide, weather induced, reduction in wheat supplies. The major, and I repeat “MAJOR” increase in grain prices was caused by speculators (commodity traders with no crop, looking to make a quick buck – ordinary people just sitting at a desk playing farmer). Just as soon as Wall Street noticed tha

i.m. crawford
3/18/2009 8:10:21 PM

Here is your answer: We CAN replace our fuel needs with ethanol. Go to and read the "Myths about Ethanol" section. For details, read David Blume's book, or ask your library to order it. It is actually possible to not be corrupt, stupid, and greedy while making ethanol fuel. Here is your chance to learn the "Permaculture" way of making ethanol fuel, and lots of it.

3/1/2009 6:49:25 PM

Not to hijack the blog,but AP News has an article on how the US govt is having a tough time deciding on what to do about their large coal-burning power plant in the middle of the city that heats and cools pretty much all of the federal buildings in D.C.Part of it is natural gas but I had an idea.Why not make it a biomass plant?We have many here where I live that are replacing coal fired plants.The modifications to coal boilers are minimal and very little/no emissions control other that meeting EPA specs are needed(basically they burn wood/grass/corn pellets from agricultural/forest scrap)If there were anywhere to begin this thought process change it would be with their own buildings.If anyone has any pull with this it's just a thought..

12/21/2008 1:15:39 AM

Bio-fuels make sense but only those made from plants such as switchgrass which need no fertilizer or pesticide, produce more alcohol per ton than corn and do not affect the international food supply., Alcohol-based fuels are a practical alternative to petroleum-based fuels for internal combusion engines in many climactic conditions. A research group at Purdue University has developed a new enzyme for use in ethanol production which will allow for the extraction of about 50% more alcohol per ton of organic matter. Big Oil will want to invest in production and distribution, but bio-fuels can be produced locally and do not need intercontinental pipelines for distribution. Think globally, act locally. The overall world food supply has a lot to do with how we use the foods we raise. Imagine this: What if basic foodstuffs were used more for whole foods produced and consumed locally? Do we really need to raise corn, wheat and soy to produce things like high-fructose corn sweetener, bleached white flour and hydrognenated oils for use in so many processed foods? Its not that there is not enough land to grow food, its that we use those foods in ways that are nutritionally deficent and really unnecessary to sustain life. In so-called modern civiliation, we have allowed agribusiness to define our dietary habits and create generations of people who are overfed and undernourished. Do we really need thousands of fueling stations for our vehicles which double as outlets for nutritionally deficient food products?

12/13/2008 7:35:37 AM

As far as the population thing, consider the amish and mennonites: typically large families who typically grow nearly all their own food, and provide for most of their other needs on the farm or in their communities. I do agree with the overinflation of food grain prices caused by demand for use as fuel. There are many alternatives for creating cheap fuel, solar, wind, hydrogen, etc. Crops need to feed the people first.

12/11/2008 11:31:45 PM

Bryan, I am going to have to dis-agree with you on a commonly held mis-conception and that is one of 'over-population'. It seems that many on the fringe have introduced this mis-information so many times it is actually being accepted as a fact despite the real truth behind the matter. Firstly, population most definitely NOT expanding but just the reverse. Russia, Germany, Italy and France is experiencing negative fertility rates despite even the most lucrative of incentives by Mr. Putin in Russia. With the average male mortality rate placed firmly at 59, Russia is loosing key fertility rates to keep itself flat let alone 'expand'. Italy is in a far worse position along with Greece and other Mediterranean areas, except where there are strong religious overtones. The United States is contracting also, far below the average child-birth rate necessary of 2.1 per female just to remain stable. The reason why it is often misconstrued that our population is expanding is because our people are not dying. The morbidity and mortality reports for the American Male is at 78, and many living far beyond that. Especially their female counterparts who are living well into their 90's and 100's. So even though it looks as if we are expanding from a population standpoint our numbers of new human beings is actually dwindling. The Baby-boom was followed by a 'baby crash' in 1974. These Mid X-Generation are just now entering the first real potential earning years, roughly at the age of 33. This rapid de-escalation is actually going to be more of a problem than 'over-population' ever thought about being. Many fertility estimates place us right at the replacement rate which is at 2.1, but an in-depth study performed sometime in 2006 discovered that those numbers were off significantly and places the United States at 1.9 and falling. As the boomers begin retiring (the first of which started retiring just

12/11/2008 10:27:14 AM

The global population is not the cause of global poverty and hunger, but regional poverty and hunger are directly caused by overpopulation in specific regions of the globe, I think.

12/11/2008 10:22:42 AM

I agree that overpopulation will definitely become a problem in the future if not checked, but it's not the source of the current hunger/poverty problem.

12/10/2008 6:28:21 AM

PeakOil is happening just now and it's NOT a smart solution to change from oil to bio-ethanol. Smart is to reduce the greed, to reduce the amount of energy needed, and to change the things inside the head of people. If we could all think about energy, food and consumption with some modesty and if we would really care about where all the products come from and how they were made, under what conditions - we could change a lot! Look at , esp at the Las Gaviotas Project, we CAN change the world - but we need to want a change really and not only to talk about it.

12/8/2008 7:45:54 AM

Yes, globalization is part of the reason both for persistent poverty - and for the ethanol-related spike in last year's worldwide food prices. I've read Moore-Lappe and we've excerpted her books in our magazines. However, neither global regulation nor better farming practices "solve" anything until we creative incentives for global population management.

12/6/2008 2:03:17 PM

This is not a terribly well researched point of view. People are not starving and food prices are not high because of a simple supply and demand issue. Farmers across the world produce enough food per year to feed everyone on earth, plus many more; the problem of starvation is due to the effects of globalization, where the wealthy-by-comparison land owners living in poor countries who need the food they produce to feed their population, are instead exporting their food products to richer countries where their products fetch higher prices. This leaves non-landowners in such countries with far fewer food sources. This problem could be solved through global economic regulation, as well as better farming practices such as crop rotation, biointensive farming, and what Joseph Jenkins terms "closing the human nutrient cycle." Social support by populations in rich countries can also help solve this issue by supporting local food economies. See books by Francis Moore Lappe,

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