Biofuels & the Factory Field Mentality

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The sports section of the Sunday Star Tribune included a short article with some big ramifications when it comes to creating a sustainable landscape while developing real energy security. It turns out some key agricultural leaders in Congress are realizing that focusing soley on corn ethanol as our energy savior is economically and environmentally short-sighted.

Specifically, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson told a gathering of outdoor enthusiasts that the 2007 Farm Bill should include a call for planting 5 million acres of grasses or other perennials that could be used to make biofuels. Such plantings would have the added benefit of producing prime wildlife habitat while protecting our soil and water, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by trapping carbon. In addition, since the plantings would be perennial, energy would be saved by not having to till, replant and fertilize the land every year. Peterson suggested that 25 percent of our current corn and soybean acres could be replaced by grass. Hear that? It’s the sound of a panicking herd of lobbyists for multinational grain companies, corn ethanol firms and factory farm livestock producers chasing Peterson down the halls of the U.S. Capitol.

The Congressman’s comments have implications closer to home as well. Members of the 2007 Minnesota Legislature have some real opportunities to make this state a leader in cellulosic energy production by supporting the Clean Energy Minnesota initiative being put forth by the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.

It’s clear Rep. Peterson, who is the Chair of the House Agriculture Committee, has been paying attention to the concerns of outdoor groups that are wondering what the future holds for the Conservation Reserve Program. Even more importantly, Peterson’s comments reflect the influence of some cutting-edge research going on at the University of Minnesota. David Tilman and his colleagues are showing that diverse stands of grasses and forbs could serve as the basis for a cellulosic revolution in biofuels production. We could see prairie ecosystems that provide numerous ecological and economic services to society. Such systems could even allow farmers to derive other economic benefits from that land other than energy production—such as livestock grazing.

Tilman’s groundbreaking research, long recognized by the scientific community, now has real potential to influence public policy and create solutions to some everyday problems. It’s an example of why the land grant research system was created in the first place.

But land grants are also home to scientists who sometimes can’t see beyond current paradigms. That became clear in the same Star Tribune article, when University of Minnesota economist Steve Taff was quoted as saying: “We haven’t a clue how to grow prairie grass on an industrial scale. Not a clue.”

Professor Taff is an excellent applied economist, as anyone who has followed his work on Minnesota land values knows. But expressing doubts about the viability of cellulosic biofuels because we don’t know how to make factories out of stands of prairie is missing the point. The current corn-based ehtanol system is heavily subsidied, and intensely industrial. It may be a good interim step to energy security, but in the long-term it is not sustainable. Our soil and water cannot produce corn for fuel indefinitely. And as communities surrounded by fields of corn have discovered, our rural Main Streets aren’t faring too well in a monocrop economy either.

Like any good industrailized machine, our corn system is good at producing one thing, and one thing only: lots and lots of corn.
The cellulosic system Tilman and others are promoting would be based on diverse stands of prairie plants—about as far from the single-mindedness of “industrial agriculture” as you can get. As a result, such a diverse system could produce multiple benefits beyond biofuels: clean water, better soil, wildlife cover, fewer greenhouse gases, pleasant-looking landscapes.

Yes, such a system will need to be subsidized in some fashion. A system that has the potential of producing so many multiple benefits for our communities and the landscape isn’t necessarily going to attract investment dollars from Archer Daniels Midland or Cargill. No wonder: such firms make money off a narrowly-focused industrial product. But that doesn’t mean something that requires diverse stands of perennial plants on the landscape is worthless. Quite the contrary: it’s a “public good” that is hard to put a price tag on, but which in the end is invaluable to society. That’s why the government subsidizes cancer research: it’s to no single corporation’s financial advantage to invest the time and resources needed to do the basic science.

Minnesota is in an enviable position these days when it comes to the promotion and support of sustainable biofuels. On the federal level we have key lawmakers who are in a position to create a cellulosic-friendly Farm Bill. On the state level, we have legislative proposals that could help push cutting-edge technology to the next, practical level. We are also home to some of the most exciting research being done in this area. And providing a solid foundation to all of this are some of the most innovative farmers around—just champing at the bit to prove our land can produce more than corn and beans.

9 Responses to “Biofuels & the Factory Field Mentality”

  1. tom

    Professor Taff’s comments reminded me of a comment I received shortly after Tillman’s study was released, which was essentially “you can’t harvest and transport grasses.” Anyone who’s spent a little time in their youth bailing hay will tell you that you can.

    I also wanted to pass along word of a study that’s taking place at Minnesota State that is looking into wetlands as fuel sources. It’s a wonderful thought, prairies and wetlands once plowed under for farming being returned to their original state.

    Reply
  2. Brian

    Yes, you can haul grasses and other forms of forage, but not as efficiently as grain and other commodities. But that transportation “problem” could actually be to the benefit of rural communities. To be viable, a cellulosic energy system would require numerous biomass plants that are located close to where the perennial grasses, etc., are being grown. That means the economic benefits of the system could be spread far and wide in rural areas, instead of being concentrated in just a few select regional centers. That could mean more local ownership and more homegrown wealth staying close to the people and communities that are producing it.

    Reply
  3. Ploughshare

    The use of our land to fuel our nation’s insatiable hunger for energy just does not add up for me. As many of us know, the net energy gain from ethanol and biofuels is less than 10%. We all just want technology to save us from the reality that we as a society are being very wasteful with our energy resources.
    I just keep thinking about how much fuel goes into the transportation and processing of most of the food that is trucked into our state. How much oil could be saved if our state legislators promoted local food initiatives in hospitals, schools, and other government institutions?

    The effects of this biofuel industry are taking its tole on the environment very quickly (i.e. land taken out of CRP, and an increase in the deforestation in Brazil).

    Reply
  4. tom

    Exactly! The ethanol economy will be local or regional in nature, with transportation costs and almost universal fuel source availability being the driving forces. Though I don’t know enough about them, I have also wondered whether the public utility co-op model could be applied to ethanol production.

    I think the number of people who grasp the potential are few and far between, mainly because ethanol is such a convoluted issue. Which is why Peterson’s comments are so exciting. He seems to have the vision, and the willingness to move towards it.

    Reply
  5. Ploughshare

    Tom,
    The “big picture” is this… you need energy to create energy. A lot more energy goes into producing ethanol than what is actually gained. Looking at farm production alone, it takes roughly one calorie of oil to produce one calorie of corn (if you factor in fertilizers, tractor use, transportation, etc.). Then you have to convert this corn into a fuel which uses additional energy. So what you end up with is a net LOSS of energy. The use of switch grass is only better in the fact that the environmental damage caused by erosion of row crop systems and heavy pesticide use is reduced considerabilly. But the switch grass uses a considerable amount more energy than corn based ethanol in the processing phase. The use of our farmland for fuel does not make economic or environmental sense. Instead, what we should be doing is using farm land for food… REAL FOOD!! We should not be shipping food on average 1300 miles and wasting the petroleum for processing. Instead we should be supporting local systems of food production. I am not talking about the corn/soybeans which go either to feed cattle or into your corn syrup laden soda pops. I am rather speaking towards supporting local grass fed beef farmers, dairy farmers, and organic vegetable farmers. If you take a look at the history of MN these are the types of farms which created REAL WEALTH in the state. Wealth not propped up by unsustainable subsidies from the government.
    see article below on the energy equation http://www.futurenet.org/article.asp?ID=1475

    Reply
  6. Dave Dempsey

    Let’s look at the amount of water that Minnesota will devote to ethanol. Here is a calculation from Alex Sagady of what just one ethanol facility in Michigan will draw:

    Preliminary indications are that Liberty Renewable Fuels proposed ethanol production plant at Ithaca, MI is planning to use 1200 gallons per minute of Great Lakes Watershed
    groundwater….discharging over half of it to the air as evaporates or steam for
    a transfer out of the Great Lakes basin.

    1200 gallons per minute is a potential for 630 million gallons of water per year. 630 million gallons would cover 3 square miles with one foot of water, each year.

    630 million gallons would be 84, 218,750 cubic feet of water, or a cube of water that is over 438 feet on each side, each year.

    630 million gallons per year of groundwater is about 2.4 billion 1 liter water bottles, each year.

    630 million gallons per year of groundwater is equivalent to 2.78 Nestle water bottling plants like the one at Stanwood, MI, each year.

    For each gallon of denatured ethanol produced, Liberty Renewable Fuels will water-mine 5.2 gallons of water from Great Lakes basin groundwater near Ithaca, MI.

    The price that Liberty Renewable Fuels will pay for use of 630 million gallons/year of Michigan groundwater, a public trust resource: $0.00

    I guess that groundwater is “priceless,” eh?

    Reply
  7. tom

    “The use of switch grass is only better in the fact that the environmental damage caused by erosion of row crop systems and heavy pesticide use is reduced considerably. But the switch grass uses a considerable amount more energy than corn based ethanol in the processing phase.”

    I’m not a big advocate of corn-based ethanol, so there is no need to convince me otherwise. As for the cellulosic method, two more benefits that you left out is that there is no need for fertilizers and, at least according to David Tillman’s study, can be carbon-neutral, which is a huge plus.

    Furthermore, the “vision” is not to use farmland to create energy, it is to restore the prairies, or wetlands, and use them as a sustainable resources. Much of ethanol production under this method wouldn’t even occur in the field. Wood pulp, fast growing poplars, etc. will also be sources of ethanol. Ultimately, the technology isn’t there, yet, which is why now is the time to formulate the best possible policies and practices.

    I’m all in favor of locally grown food and grass-fed beef, and I’m also in favor of cellulosic ethanol. Neither is mutually mutually exclusive.

    Dave’s water usage concerns are hard to assuage, though I know some plants in development are making efforts to use water in a closed cycle system and reduce discharge. This, too, will hopefully improve with technology, and I’m optimistic at least because efforts are being made.

    Reply
  8. Ploughshare

    Tom,
    Number one, the term “pesiticide” is a broad term and it includes fertilizers. Though the amount of fertilizers used in perienual grasses is less than corn. It surely is not zero for the long term. Anyone who has cut alfalfa year after year off of a field understands that you have to make deposits of fertilizers.
    On the topic of “carbon neutral.” I encourage you to take a global perspective when you equate the environmental impact due to the demand of biofuels. As more cropland in the US is being used for biofuels it expands the need for cropland for such things as soybean crops worldwide. Brazil and other South American Countries are seezing on this demand for soybeans and expanding their tillable areas into the rainforests even further. As we know, these old growth systems are the most powerful ways to clean up our environment Surely by destroying these systems, we are causing irreversiable damage on the earth’s ability to process carbon.
    The pathway out of our energy crisis is clear, but it will take a kind of discipline which most politicians and glutonous American’s are not able to handle…meaning a change in lifestyle. We all look to politicians and scientists to solve our problems, by doing so we are again giving up our own control. For their solutions tend to only give control and profit to the few. Biofuels will be no exception.
    Much of the waste of our society can be eliminated if we stop giving such power up to the powerful. As a small organic vegetable farmer myself, I am not looking to the government for hand outs for my enterprise. (In fact it has been the government who has screwed me royally–another topic, another time). Instead, I see that it would be much more beneficial for our communities, our economy, and our environment if the government would discontinue all subsidies which tend to benefit the worst players–free money form of subsidies always attracts the most wasteful scavengers(In the case of biofuels, the main dog is ADM). There may be short term gains made by communties due to the construction of ethanol plants and a few more dollars in a few old farmers pockets, but these gains will be followed by a hard loss once the subsidies run dry.

    Reply
  9. Ploughshare

    Tom,
    Number one, the term “pesiticide” is a broad term and it includes fertilizers. Though the amount of fertilizers used in perienual grasses is less than corn. It surely is not zero for the long term. Anyone who has cut alfalfa year after year off of a field understands that you have to make deposits of fertilizers.
    On the topic of “carbon neutral.” I encourage you to take a global perspective when you equate the environmental impact due to the demand of biofuels. As more cropland in the US is being used for biofuels it expands the need for cropland for such things as soybean crops worldwide. Brazil and other South American Countries are seezing on this demand for soybeans and expanding their tillable areas into the rainforests even further. As we know, these old growth systems are the most powerful ways to clean up our environment Surely by destroying these systems, we are causing irreversiable damage on the earth’s ability to process carbon.
    The pathway out of our energy crisis is clear, but it will take a kind of discipline which most politicians and glutonous American’s are not able to handle…meaning a change in lifestyle. We all look to politicians and scientists to solve our problems, by doing so we are again giving up our own control. For their solutions tend to only give control and profit to the few. Biofuels will be no exception.
    Much of the waste of our society can be eliminated if we stop giving such power up to the powerful. As a small organic vegetable farmer myself, I am not looking to the government for hand outs for my enterprise. (In fact it has been the government who has screwed me royally–another topic, another time). Instead, I see that it would be much more beneficial for our communities, our economy, and our environment if the government would discontinue all subsidies which tend to benefit the worst players–free money in the form of subsidies always attracts the most wasteful scavengers(In the case of biofuels, the main dog is ADM). There may be short term gains made by communties due to the construction of ethanol plants and a few more dollars in a few old farmers pockets, but these gains will be followed by a hard loss once the subsidies run dry.

    Reply

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