George Monbiot on the food crisis

George Monbiot has entered the food versus biofuels debate. George blames rising food prices on the biofuels industry.  I largely agree (for what its worth) that biofuels are a disaster (with the possible exception of 2nd generation biofuels) in some instances.  For that section of our book I came across some government analysis from the US which did suggest biofuels of the 2nd generation (that is using non-edible parts of plants) could supply 30% of current US needs by 2050. (I checked their calculations after downloading some papers on crop yields and reached roughly the same conclusion.)  This work assumed almost entirely using waste from crops (not growing Willow for example specially) but with a small “woody” contribution.  The analysis did suggest that crop yields and harvesting technology would have to improve quite optimistically, but did not appear to assume any increase in fuel efficiency in cars.  With US cars at European mileage efficiency levels (roughly double the US ones) than it may be possible to meet 30-40% of US needs this way.  The US is blessed with a huge land area and a relatively low population density (although a rapidly increasing population).  In the UK we would need to turn over 80% of our land area to meet our driving needs so it would really would come down to eating versus driving.

This increase in crop yields of course relies on continuing supplies of fossil fuels and chemicals and the study took no account of this.  In addition as we are seeing with the current weather this year climate change will make reliably growing anything more difficult.  (A fact that seems lost on the climate naysayers posting on the Guardian’s website who say we can adapt.)  They also ignore that the food industry is global so a failure in one place pushes up prices everywhere.

As we write in the book just because something is possible doesn’t mean its a good idea.  There are lots of good reasons why we should drive less, which come under the general heading of health and environment.  Which brings us fairly neatly back to the biofuels debate.  After I read the article I had a look at the BP statistical energy review 2012 since for the last few years this gives renewable energy statistics.  A lot of the debate around biofuels in the US centres around energy security and reducing dependency on foreign oil.  What I keen to know was how much contribution biofuels were making compared to conventional oil.  The answer is surprisingly little but at the same time a vital amount.  Its 1.182 million barrels per day compared to 83.575 million barrels per day of conventional production (includes shale oil and tar sands).  This is 1.4% which is minute, but strip it out and global oil supply would not meet demand.  Incidentally its the same with tar sands I think removing most of Alberta’s surface contributes about 1.5 million barrels a day but remove it and again we would be in trouble from a supply point of view.  This is where I part company with George since I think global oil production is at the top of its peak.  How we react to this may determine our survival.  If we do a wholesale switch to biofuels and tar sands then we are b*****ed.  (There is an argument to say that a little 2nd generation biofuels production would provide us with some useful renewable chemical feedstocks to make pharmaceuticals for example -but we are talking a niche here).  Of course all this is a moral issue because its about altering our lifestyle so we could live without excessive use of fossil fuels or their biofuel equivalent and that brings us back to our book.

Neil

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