Category Archives: food

Red Alert

The United Nations has released another report, Global Environmental Outlook 4 [pdf], on the state of our planet’s ability to support life, yet it has received minimal coverage. Our news media should explain why. Read the below summary of the report (courtesy George Monbiot), and try and imagine what else could be of more importance.

Crop production has improved over the past 20 years (from 1.8 tonnes per hectare in the 1980s to 2.5 tonnes today), but it has not kept up with population. “World cereal production per person peaked in the 1980s, and has since slowly decreased.” There will be roughly 9 billion people by 2050: feeding them and meeting the millennium development goal on hunger (halving the proportion of hungry people) would require a doubling of world food production. Unless we cut waste, overeating, biofuels and the consumption of meat, total demand for cereal crops could rise to three times the current level.

There are two limiting factors. One, mentioned only in passing in the report, is phosphate: it is not clear where future reserves might lie. The more immediate problem is water. “Meeting the Millennium Development Goal on hunger will require doubling of water use by crops by 2050.” Where will it come from? ‘Water scarcity is already acute in many regions, and farming already takes the lion’s share of water withdrawn from streams and groundwater.” One-tenth of the world’s major rivers no longer reach the sea all round the year.

Buried on page 148, I found this statement. “If present trends continue, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity by 2025, and two thirds of the world population could be subject to water stress.” Wastage and deforestation are partly to blame, but the biggest cause of the coming droughts is climate change. Rainfall will decline most in the places in greatest need of water. So how, unless we engineer a sudden decline in carbon emissions, is the world to be fed? How, in many countries, will we prevent the social collapse that failure will cause?

The stone drops into the pond and a second later it is smooth again. You will turn the page and carry on with your life. Last week we learnt that climate change could eliminate half the world’s species; that 25 primate species are already slipping into extinction; that biological repositories of carbon are beginning to release it, decades ahead of schedule. But everyone is watching and waiting for everyone else to move. The unspoken universal thought is this: “if it were really so serious, surely someone would do something?”

When a crowd of people watches something bad happen, the likelihood that someone will intervene to prevent it decreases as the size of the crowd increases. And here we are, the whole human race, watching our planet’s ability to sustain our lives slip away, waiting for someone to act.

Politicians, bloggers, voters: no more games please. This is issue number one. As the most unlikely of newspapers (The Toronto Sun) declared last week, we’re at red alert. The time to hesitate is long past through, and half-measures are not going to cut it.

On Islands

This past Saturday I had the privilege of speaking at Toronto Cuba Friendship Day, an annual event held at Nathan Phillips Square outside City Hall in Toronto. (Audio of my comments here, courtesy Toronto Social Justice Magazine.) The event was MCed by former Speaker of the Legislature David Warner, and other platform guests included city councillor Joe Mihevc, Consulate Generals from many countries, and Cuban Ambassador to Canada Ernesto Senti Darias. (NDP MPP Peter Kormos, who I was looking forward to meeting, unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute.)

One of the more interesting and lesser known facts about Cuba is their position as an environmental leader. They’ve made investments in renewable energy, legislated forest protection, significantly increased their country’s tree canopy, spoken out about the dangers of biofuels from food crops and, perhaps most remarkably, made the transition to 100% organic agriculture while simultaneously improving yields (proving for the rest of us that it can be done).

When it came my turn to speak, most of these examples had already been lifted up by the other panel members. So, instead, I wondered aloud why it was that Cuba had so many positive environmental examples. Here’s a theory: Cuba is not only an island, but one that has in many ways been cut off from the world. Without detracting from their accomplishment, many of their systemic changes have not been made out of a desire to “do the right thing,” but out of necessity. The shift to organic agriculture, for example, happened rapidly when the Soviet Union collapsed and took with it Cuba’s supply of petroleum-based fertilizers (the artificial energy inputs required for non-organic agriculture). In other words, on an isolated island you have to live within your means.

We, of course, do not live within our means. As much as we’ve grown to loath financial deficits, we continue to operate with huge environmental and social deficits that will come due someday soon.

And there it is. This Earth, too, is an island. As Carl Sagan wrote, “on it [the Earth] everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Every breath of air you ever breathed, every drop of water you ever drank. Every barrel of oil you ever burned.

He goes on: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”

We’ll have to learn to live within our means soon. Islands who haven’t have paid a high price.

The Globe And Mail Backs Me On Biofuels

Well, I mean, they didn’t name me specifically. But just in case anyone thought my post earlier this week about the danger of biofuel from food crops needed some further support, the following story was on the front page of the Globe and Mail today:

Ethanol boom helps fuel global run-up in food prices

Food prices are heating up globally as soaring energy costs, wonky weather and an ethanol boom all combine to push grocery bills higher.

Canadian food prices are 3.1 per cent higher than a year ago, Statistics Canada said yesterday, well ahead of last year’s rate of 2.4 per cent. Higher prices for meat and dairy are the main culprits, but the pickup in prices spills into everything from bread and applies to ice cream, eggs, jam and juice.

The reasons vary with each product, but one factor behind higher prices may be an ethanol boom south of the border, with Canadian chicken and dairy farmers saying they’re seeing higher feed prices.

“Corn and wheat prices are putting upward pressure on food in general,” said Ron Morency, acting chief of Statscan’s consumer price division. “We see that right now in our meat prices.”

…”It’s not going to let up any time soon,” said Adrienne Warren, senior economist at Bank of Nova Scotia. “Short term, it might be weather-related. But longer term, it’s growing demand for food in emerging economies, with growing middle classes and purchasing power, and the global demand for ethanol and biodiesel.”

This month, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said higher demand for biofuels is causing “fundamental changes” to agricultural markets that could drive up prices.

They see “structural changes” under way that could well keep prices for many agricultural products higher over the coming decade.

“We haven’t seen anything on this scale before,” Martin von Lampe, an agricultural economist in Paris at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, told Bloomberg News.

Net food importing countries, as well as the urban poor, will likely be hardest hit, the OECD predicts.

Government’s Biofuel Policy Dangerous

“My fear is not that people will stop talking about climate change. My fear is that they will talk us to Kingdom Come.” – George Monbiot

Just a few years ago, the biggest threat to our society’s survival was our willing blindness towards the crisis facing us. Now that we’re aware of that crisis, the biggest threat to our survival is our willingness to believe that there are easy answers; that we’re “on the right track;” that our political leaders are starting to “get it.” This is the threat of greenwash, intentional or otherwise, and it can’t be underestimated.

Last week, Canada’s New-ish-like GovernmentTM announced a $1.5 billion subsidy for biofuel production. You’d be forgiven for thinking that sounds like a positive, “step in the right direction.” In reality, it’s extremely dangerous and wrongheaded. In short, while some biofuel policies make sense, biofuels from crops like the ones targeted by Stephen Harper’s plan (corn, wheat, soy) lead to increasingly higher market prices for those crops, setting up a competition between cars and people for who gets to be fed by the Earth. Further, they’re likely to exacerbate, not mitigate, the climate crisis. And it’s happening already.

The fundamental idea behind biofuel is simple, as is its fundamental flaw. Fossil fuels comprise concentrated energy stored up by organic material (plants and animals) exposed to intense heat and pressure over the course of hundreds of millions of years. Since our dependence on fossil fuel energy is now becoming problematic and unrealistic for at least two major reasons (climate change and peak oil), the thinking behind biofuel is that we should just cut out the middle man and convert organic matter into hydrocarbons ourselves. It should be obvious, however, that we can never hope to produce biofuel rapidly enough to match our consumption of fossil fuels, since they took hundreds of millions of years to accumulate and we’ve already used up about half of that supply in just the past century.

What’s less obvious, perhaps, is that more than simply inadequate, this strategy is actually destructive. The $1.5 billion proposed by the Conservatives is an attempt to meet their own requirement for 5% ethanol content in gasoline by 2010. Europe has a similar target of 5.75% of transport power by 2010 and 10% by 2020. The United States is looking to use 35 billion gallons of biofuel a year. Problem is, according to the International Herald Tribute these targets “far exceed the agricultural capacities of the industrial North. Europe would need to plant 70 percent of its farmland with fuel crops. The entire corn and soy harvest of the United States would need to be processed as ethanol and biodiesel.” Of course, no American president or European leader is going to allow that to happen. Therefore, if these targets were actually met, they would likely have to be met by destroying the food systems of the South. The poor would go hungry while the wealthy pumped diverted human food into their SUVs.

Think this sounds implausible? It’s happening now:

CBC News, May 22 2007 – The rising demand for corn as a source of ethanol-blended fuel is largely to blame for increasing food costs around the world, and Canada is not immune, say industry experts.

Food prices rose 10 per cent in 2006, “driven mainly by surging prices of corn, wheat and soybean oil in the second part of the year,” the International Monetary Fund said in a report.

“Looking ahead, rising demand for biofuels will likely cause the prices of corn and soybean oil to rise further,” the authors wrote in the report released last month.

What’s more, the degree to which biofuels can contribute to solving the climate crisis has been greatly exaggerated. In fact, the wrong kind of biofuel policy could even make the climate crisis worse. According to the BBC, a recent United Nations report found that “demand for biofuels has accelerated the clearing of primary forest for palm plantations, particularly in southeast Asia. This destruction of ecosystems which remove carbon from the atmosphere can lead to a net increase in emissions.”

Even once the initial conversion of wilderness to farmland is complete, biofuels grown by current agribusiness methods require large inputs of fossil fuel energy, which defeats the purpose. As a result, the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) is very weak. According to a U.S. government report, the EROEI for ethanol grown from corn is 1.34. In other words, it takes approximately three barrels of ethanol to produce four. And that’s the optimistic outlook. A study out of Cornell University found that the production of biofuels actually results in a net energy loss.

In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:

  • corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
  • switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
  • wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:

  • soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and
  • sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

Normally, you would expect the market to sort at least some of that out, since biofuels that actually lose energy would not be economically viable, right? Unless of course, the government subsidizes them to keep the price artificially low. (Oh wait…crap.)

Despite all this, I tend to think that most people pushing for biofuels are well-intentioned. George Monbiot, on the other hand, begins a column published recently in the Guardian titled A Lethal Solution by saying:

It used to be a matter of good intentions gone awry. Now it is plain fraud. The governments using biofuel to tackle global warming know that it causes more harm than good. But they plough on regardless.

He goes on to point out that “a report by the Dutch consultancy Delft Hydraulics shows that…biodiesel from palm oil causes up to TEN TIMES [caps his] as much climate change as ordinary diesel.”

Now here’s where this gets really hard to follow: not all biofuels are bad. The same UN report cited above also concluded that “using biomass for combined heat and power (CHP), rather than for transport fuels or other uses, is the best option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade – and also one of the cheapest.” The Green Party of Canada also supports investments in cellulosic ethanol, since it doesn’t set up the same competition between people and cars for food (a competition which, as Monbiot points out, “people would necessarily lose: those who can afford to drive are, by definition, richer than those who are in danger of starvation”). A good shorthand then, perhaps, is that we shouldn’t be making car-food out of people-food, and that we should focus our biomass efforts on CHP instead of as replacements for transport fuels like gasoline and diesel.

It may seem like asking a lot for us laypeople to be able to tell the difference. Even so, in a democracy it’s our responsibility to figure it out. We can’t get the right solutions out of government unless we know which governments (in waiting) are offering them up.