1 Tank of Gas or 1 Year of Food?

Well, I don’t want to get boring about this, but it really seems like the makings of a perfect storm. Lester Brown writes, on the Earth Policy Institute site, a must-read article about the growing diversion of staple crops to biofuel production worldwide. An excerpt:

Cars, not people, will claim most of the increase in world grain consumption this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that world grain use will grow by 20 million tons in 2006. Of this, 14 million tons will be used to produce fuel for cars in the United States . . . In agricultural terms, the world appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain to fill the tank every two weeks over a year will feed 26 people.

He goes on to point out that this is setting up a competition between the affluent car-owners of the world, and the larger number of poor, um, eaters.

My gripe with the article will probably surprise no one reading here. Brown mentions public transportation in passing, but overall soft pedals the hard truth. We need to reduce our energy consumption (personal automobile use, mostly) dramatically. The material consequences for not doing so will first be felt by those in poorer countries. But the ethical and psychic consequences will be felt in the American soul.

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11 Responses to 1 Tank of Gas or 1 Year of Food?

  1. Pingback: Cleverchimp blog » Blog Archive » A tank of ethanol or a year of food?

  2. Brad W says:

    I have been reading your blog for some time with great interest. I admire your efforts and your care for the world around you.
    I’ve been meaning to share this for a while now and this seems like a good time as this topic has come up again. The following is an excerpt from one of my favorite sites, journeytoforever.org.

    “Fuel AND food

    In any event, with most biofuels you remove the energy and are still left with the food — or “feed” more often (for livestock). With ethanol the feed value is enhanced: the distillers dried grains by-product is more nutritious than the original unprocessed grain (because of the yeast). With biodiesel you’re left with the oilseed cake after the oil has been pressed out — again, depending on what seed is used, this is usually a highly nutritious, high-protein livestock feed.

    With biofuels you CAN have your cake and eat it.

    As for poor countries, local production of biofuels from locally grown crops, where appropriate, can cut dependence and cash expenditure on imported fuels, increase community self-reliance, and provide a spur for local job creation and growth. It can also cut dependence on fuel wood, which is often scarce and causes immense health problems through indoor air-pollution. And, as we’ve seen above, growing biofuels crops can encourage food-crop production rather than reducing it.”

    This is a complicated issue among many that face the world. The article that you link to has one groups view of things. Perhaps what is quoted above will help many realize that what you are doing, striving to grow your own food and to eat what you don’t grow from the area around you, can make a huge difference in everyone’s life, if they would follow in your footsteps, and if it were an affordable alternative. Where I live, it is not currently so. Hopefully, some day soon it will be.

  3. Holly says:

    Hi Brad,

    Thanks for the comment and the reference. I agree that this is a tremendously complicated issue, and will only be resolved with great work and diffficulty.

    As concerns the idea that with biofuels you can have your cake and eat it. Well, I’ll say again that I think biofuels have potential for certain applications. But what concerns me is the market approach to the problem/supposed solution. As the Earth Policy article notes, this is the latest gold rush. There is no big picture analysis asking questions about how much food needs to be produced, the overall health of the world’s arable lands, or simple equations about how much oil the world increasingly wants and how much can be provided. It is, as is most often the case these days, just assumed that the market will take care of things. I believe that the market will take care of the market, but the market does not take care of people.

    The quote you included above notes that biofuels are a great substitute for for what are called bio-mass fuels—wood, dung, even human manure. These fuels are commonly used in poorer countries for cooking, and, as noted, are a huge cause of health problems, particularly among women and children, because of the air pollutants they release in the confines of a small dwelling. (See the work of Kirk Smith, and his research projects at Berekeley for more on this underrecognized public health issue.) We here in the United States do not recall life before we used clean burning fuels (gas and electricity) for cooking, and so take them for granted. Many people do not have such privelege, and, with the over-consumption of these clean-burning fuels by the world’s affluent, will probably never get the chance to even try such “luxuries,” much less take them for granted.

    The journeytoforever.org site is pretty in line with this perspective. Their support of biofuels is linked to a small-scale localised economies. They note:

    Replacing fossil fuels with biofuels isn’t the answer. Replacing fossil fuels isn’t even an option—current energy use, especially in the industrialised countries, is not sustainable anyway, whatever the energy source.
    . . .

    A sustainable energy future requires great reductions in energy use, great improvements in energy efficiency, and decentralisation of supply to the local-economy level, along with the use of all ready-to-use renewable energy technologies in combination as local circumstances require.

    In large part the issue of energy usage is one of legacy. I will not have to live without the benefits of fossil fuels in my lifetime. (Though I do and will increasingly have to suffer many of the damaging effects of their excessive and careless use.) But if we do not conserve at a much greater rate, the true and real potential benefits of these wonder-fuels—and I mean that accolade, they are amazing sources of power—will be denied many billions of today’s poor in other countries, and generations not too far down the pike in our own.

  4. Kate S. says:

    Thank you for the thought-provoking discussion of biofuels. I followed the link from the Cleverchimp blog, so you can guess I’m a bicyclist. The suggestion that using biofuel byproducts as food for livestock leads to another issue of overconsumption, the cost of eating meat instead of plants. Meat is still an inefficient and polluting use of resources. It takes 4.8 pounds of grain to make a pound of beef and 2,500-6,000 of water. That grain and water could go to people instead. Industrial scale biofuel byproducts would logically go to industrial scale meat factories, which have numerous environmental, health, and animal cruelty issues. There is a good synopsis of the worldwide problems caused by intensive American meat consumption at http://everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1323852. Even though meat is food our current use of it is a major cause of hunger around the world, so I wouldn’t consider it compensation for the effects of using grain for fuel. An exception might be locally produced and consumed meat, used sparingly, working in concert with local production of biofuels, but the negative effects from North American overconsumption would overshadow such benefits.

  5. Rian Murnen says:

    I recently read an excellent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. He follows the industrial food chain from its source on the farm all the way to the meal it produces. He explains how our food chain in the United States is extremely reliant on imported oil.

    It takes 4.8 lbs of grain to make a pound of beef.

    What is worse in my opinion is that cows don’t even like eating grain. They are built to eat grass. But instead they are fed corn blended with antibiotics and other medicine. The corn makes them sick, bloated, and beef producers have to heavily medicate them as a result.

    Why do they feed them corn and not grass? Because corn is cheaper. The federal government subsides corn, which makes it unsustainably cheap. Unsustainable? The true cost is shifted to the health of the animal and to the health of the environment. Turns out the average farmer, because of the subsides, ends up only raising corn, making the farms into monocultures (basically one species). As a result the land gets starved for nitrogen. So the farmer uses nitrogen fertilizer, which it turns out is made from — you guessed it — oil.

    So not only are we trucking food all over the country using oil, we are fertilizing our fields with oil.

    From the standpoint of industrial efficiency, it’s too bad we can’t simply drink petroleum directly, because there’s a lot less energy in a bushel of corn (measured in calories) than there is in the half-gallon of oil required to produce it. Ecologically, this is a fabulously expensive way to produce food–but “ecologically” is no longer the operative standard. In the factory, time is money, and yield is everything. (see What’s Eating America for complete article)

    The corn subside actually produces more corn than we know what to do with. So we process it into chemicals for our processed foods (High Fructose Corn Syrup, maltose, xanthan gum) to put into pretty much every processed food.

    Then we still have some left, so we feed it to beef, chickens, pigs, in giant feedlots.

    Still a surplus of corn, so we try dumping it on third world countries. Flooding their market and impoverishing their farmers. The farmers cannot make their grains cheaper than are corn, so the loose their farm and turn into more mouths to feed.

    But guess what, we still haven’t used up the corn surplus, so the market starts getting creative. They see the peak-oil, and imported oil issues as opportunities to dump their corn into a new market — biofuel. And why not, we have too much corn. But in replacing the disappearing oil they miss the bigger problem. The environment. It cannot take any more burning of fuel, or single crop farms.

    I’m rambling a bit now, but I would highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma for the whole picture in detail.

    Basically no matter how we try to solve these problems technologically it down to imbalance. We don’t need more oil, much less fuel. We need more sustainable systems. We need less. Less oil, less fuel, less cars. More bikes, more locally grown food, more conscientious people.

  6. Holly says:


    I agree re: industrial-scale biofuels and industrial-scale meat production. I consider myself an ethical omnivore, and confine my consumption of meat to that which is grown sustainably, and in a fairly close radius to my home. This means, as you imply, that I do not eat a whole lot of meat: in many public settings I am effectively vegetarian. I do believe that truly sustainable, local food production requires animal husbandry, because they produce the most effective non-fossil fuel-based fertilizer, and in an integrated farm system, they play an essential role in various recycling chains. I assume you’ve seen Meatrix? If not, see the button on the side menu of our blog. Thanks for reading—and riding!

  7. Holly says:


    . . . and here I think I reference Michael Pollan in every single post I make—I thought his book was brilliant and I pester everyone to read it. Hear that everyone? Read it! The corn thing is way too upsetting. I have started seeing corn/HFCS everywhere. Of course, it is everywhere. I love the formulation of Americans as “corn people.” Except that it somehow sounds more mystical and connected than it is!

  8. Hello,

    First comment here.

    I’m a vegetarian because I feel sorry for the animals. Animals provide good fertilizer though, so even if nobody ever ate meat, I suspect we would still need cattle on the farms.

  9. Rian Murnen says:

    I love the formulation of Americans as “corn people.” Except that it somehow sounds more mystical and connected than it is!

    Agreed. Corn people does sound a little too mystical in a positive sense. The phrase I have kept in mind is “Children of the Corn”, as in that creepy movie franchise (they made six sequels) based on a Stephen King short story.

    A young couple wander into a mid-western town where all the adults are apparently dead and the children participate in a cult that worships a malevolent force in the corn fields. (synopsis from the IMDB)

    I remember flipping channels when I was a kid and coming across the film and being so horrified by the first half hour that I couldn’t force myself to eat corn for the rest of the summer.
    I wonder, was that malevolent force in the fields really petroleum based fertilizer.

    Regarding The Ominvore’s Dileema, I think Michael Pollan made an important choice not to focus on the horror / grotesque in the industrial food chain. He does not turn away from it, not at all, but he choose not to be a fear monger. It makes all the difference.

  10. Holly says:

    Rian, sorry I mispelled your name last time!

    Children of thh corn is perfect. Much more the feeling you get about those fields of goelden kernels.

    Yes, I think Pollan’s strategy was perfect. He is approachable and calm. He speaks from the ground, not from on high. And it seems like the “disgust” tactic is not really effective. People either go vegan/vegatarian, or just ignore the sources of their food, because they feel the problem is too overwhelming or just horrible. We have done enough turning away.

    It is time to look at where we are, not drive out to the next exurb to try again.

  11. Pingback: Dunc Nuggets » Blog Archive » A tank of Petrol, or a Year of Food.. your choice..

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