Oil or food?

Kurt Cobb of Resource Insights wrote a good summary of the problems with biofuels—the current favorite magical solution for saving our asses from peak oil. The comments on the post focused on some studies he used that argue that corn and soy biofuels are net energy losers—that their energy return on energy invested (EROEI) is 1 to 1, as opposed to the 10 or 20 to 1 for oil and natural gas. Apparently there are some new studies arguing that these figures are flawed and that you may get a small energy gain, or even a decent energy gain on biofuels. I did not, I confess, go read all these bickering studies and counter studies. This is because these commenters are MISSING THE POINT. For god’s sake people—these crops are being used for fuel because of a huge expenditure of our tax dollars on corn subsidies, not because they are efficient sources of energy! These subsidies for corn are damaging so many aspects of our civilization it makes my head spin and my blood boil—I wonder what the EROEI is on that? (see Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma for more on the ravages of corn). We cannot continue life as we know it using biofuels instead of petroleum. Biofuels offer a possible source of fuel for critical purposes, but not for the American or Chinese auto fleets, or for our current methods of food production and distribution. We are destroying our agricultural land at a terrifying rate—Cobb notes that close to 50 million acres of farmland are lost to salinization and erosion every year. Is this getting through to anyone? If we are going to give up all our farmland to grow oil, what are we going to give over to grow food? Are we so desperate to keep driving that we will stop eating?

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11 Responses to Oil or food?

  1. arif says:

    if you phrase the choice that way, I suspect folks would say no. But it won’t be phrased that way, it will be more like “would you be willing to have fewer types of fruits and vegetables at the grocery in return for reducing dependence on foreign energy resources.”

    And I suspect that we all know how that question would get answered.

  2. Scout says:

    Well, now you’re just being ridiculous! Food doesn’t come from land… food comes from little boxes in the supermarket, which rely on fuel to get there. You are so silly.

  3. Pingback: Cleverchimp blog » Blog Archive » Bicycle MPG

  4. Holly says:

    I was just chatting with Todd about what causes the variation in the MPG-equivalency figures for cycling that he talks about in his comment. It turns out that the low figures—around 100mpg—are based on an industrial-agriculture–based diet, so the person riding the bike is being fueled by petroleum and natural gas. So eating local also raises our cycling miles per “gallon.”

  5. Xanx says:

    Do these accountings ignore or include the large portion of a bicyclist’s diet that is a fixed cost? To find the true mpg rating for the bicyclist I’d think, one would not need to add up all food the bicyclist consumed, but only the food that was consumed in order to meet the extra fuel requirments to operate the bicycle.

    Otherwise, you are compairing apples and oranges since cars don’t burn fuel in the garage.

  6. Holly says:

    Ha! True. People do many things with the food they consume, whereas cars do nothing but drive.

  7. toraji says:

    Thank goddess you’re talking about this…when I tell people that biodiesel is not the answer, then they reply with “Well, then I’ll get a Prius!”

    OMG. Yes. Buy a new car. That’s the answer. Especially one that runs on toxic batteries.

  8. Holly says:

    Yeah, the buy-a-new-car solution is a tempting one for people. I’m not sure where I’ve read this, but my understanding is that the greatest expenditure involved in the life-cycle of a car is in its production making ditching your current car not a good energy-saving strategy.

    This just isn’t something we can buy our way out of. Quite the contrary.

  9. Josh says:

    Thank you! I’m so tired of being the only normal eco-conscious person saying these common sense things! At least common sense if you know even a little about corn and these other issues. It’s terrible. And even if we could somehow replace all that oil, it still wouldn’t be cheap! If you have to MAKE oil instead of essentially just pumping it out of the ground, then obviously it will be more expensive. Add to that the fact that you have to both grow the crops over a whole season, and then refine it into a fuel, all of which takes a lot of energy, and work in general. And then consider that if there is a net energy gain, it is a small one, so you are only making a very tiny amount of NEW fuel, because the rest of it is just replacing what you used to make it. Basically, you are turning fossil fuels into biofuels, and getting all the negatives of both! And because the return is so small, it means you will have to grow so much more to feed the usable supply.

    Between drinking water supply and agricultural soil, and just plain planet Earth, my future is a scary one. Although, the scariest part may just be what we’ll do to provide all the energy we want to use, including the use of coal and nuclear, only to find out that when the cards are on the table and the universal subsidy that is easily pumpable oil and natural gas is gone, all of it will be a losing battle. And many of the polluting and consuming “solutions” will not be able to self-support themselves on their own energy production.

    Of course that isn’t to say we won’t still need some biofuels for essential needs. But, come on! Why doesn’t anyone think? If you ask me, the only real help we’ll get will come from the same free sources we have always used throughout history – sun, wind, and water. And of course, good old human/animal power.

  10. Holly says:

    Hey Josh,

    Watching corporations go hell bent for leather to scrape up more “cheap” energy out of the hide of our poor planet is perhaps the most depressing aspect of this. Because, as you note, the game is up. So we are degrading the quality of everyone and everything’s lives in a futile attempt to keep things the same.

    Richard Heinberg, in his great book on peak oil The Party’s Over, notes that every American has the equivalent of 150 “energy slaves” working for them. That equation is going to change as our daily lives lose that energy subsidy. But we’re a pretty soft people these days, and not very capable of each doing the work of 150 people. Perhaps our lifestyles will have to become a bit more modest . . .

  11. Brad K. says:

    To Arif, it would not be “would you be willing to have fewer types of fruits and vegetables …” — it would be less fruits and vegetables. There is a finite amount of production — diverting land used for one fruit won’t increase the production of another until more trees are planted. Same with vegetables. There is a small amount of flexibility in the system, but diverting land to biodiesel also diverts agricultural equipment, operators or farmers, and support infrastructure. And some farmers will be scrapping or trading equipment not used after diverting land for biodiesel, increasing the cost and reducing the likelihood of reverting to producing fruits and vegetables.

    We have created lots of ‘limited resources’ in today’s agriculture.

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