Saturday, September 4, 2010

Our fragile worldwide food system

We have a food system that is adequate to feed everyone on this planet for a price that they can afford -- at least that's the way it works most of the time.  You may not know this, but there were food riots in 2008 around the world over the price of bread, which reflected the highest price for wheat that we've seen in many years.   There are food riots going on now because of a crop failure in Russia -- the price of wheat again. 

I mention this because it's worth noting that our food system, our food supply, is pretty tight.   It produces the food we eat, and not much more.  When there's even a little bobble (or a big one, like the Russian wheat harvest failing this year) people die.  That's one reason that I think that ethanol is such a bad idea.  If you take a system that is pretty much meeting the need, and add another 2% consumption to it, suddenly the whole thing goes out of whack -- prices escalate, people speculate, there's hoarding, countries ban exports and the whole thing goes down an ugly path. 

What can you do?  The next time time that you hear someone diverting food into fuel, tell them why it's such a bad idea.  Corn is to be eaten, not to be consumed as fuel.  We have other sources of fuel, but little else we can use as food.   The same applies for destroying farmland.  We have precious few places with the fertility, water and climate to produce food.  All of the best land is already cultivated.  There is no excuse for destroying farmland. 

This blog entry inspired by this article in the NY times, U.N. Raises Concerns on Wheat Harvests


Anonymous said...

Well, food IS fuel, but yes, it should NOT be used to generate liquid fuels for machines, not unless it's kept ON the farm (let the farmer decide, but don't encourage export into the market place where this will distort the market).

A few years back I appeared on a biofuels panel at an Green Everett Fair (first annual, I believe). I was the ONLY person who was giving caution (only one to come equipped with a power-point presentation), as four others on the panel were proponents of biofuels (and all seemed to be achieving some sort of direct economic benefit, or looking to do so; I have no affiliation with any group, just wanted to expose the facts). Anyway...

There was one big farmer there who balked at my suggestion that his selling crops for biofuels would have any affect elsewhere, saying that "I can't control what happens elsewhere." I also kept beating him and the others that they were helping to push fuel over food. Quite sad that this farmer/businessman doesn't understand business of the commodities markets. This guy was just looking to get a handout/subsidy from the County.

The other BIG point that I stressed was that if farmers started growing crops for biofuels that they'd soon find that they cannot compete on price and will find that they'd end up selling out to the big corporations (Ag + Energy), which then results in land ownership by folks sitting in offices thousands of miles away! (Does this sound familiar? for much of the world it does- foreign corporations displacing indigenous people in order to clearcut and monocrop.)

If ever there was a justified use of the term "evil" this is it! Thanks for speaking up on this!

Bruce King said...

You're welcome. thank you for making the point in the forum. I think that people need to understand this point, and I hate that it takes people dying before it's made, as is happening this year, and happened in 2008.

Rich said...

For the record, I don't really like ethanol in my gasoline, but I don't think that ethanol production will cause food shortages.

My reasoning is a little counter-intuitive and largely based on my personal experience.

On my farm, most of the cropland has been in continuous winter wheat for up to 100 years. Growing wheat continuously leads to weed problems, disease problems, and fertility problems, which causes yields to drop.

Rotating to other crops such as soybeans, corn, grain sorghum, sunflowers, etc can solve those problems. But, there has to be a market for those crops for the rotations to be an option.

As an example, my farm is more suited to growing grain sorghum (also known as milo) than corn. Grain sorghum can replace corn in a livestock feed ration, so the sorghum I grow can replace any corn that is going to ethanol production. Sorghum prices usually follow the price of corn, so my sorghum is worth more if corn is worth more.

Since I can get a decent price for my sorghum, I can double crop it after wheat harvest, follow it in the spring with another sorghum crop, then replant wheat in the third fall. So, I can potentially get 4 crops in 3 years.

Growing both sorghum and wheat should break the weed cycle, build organic levels in my soil, which should improve both my wheat and sorghum yields. As a bonus, the wheat quality should also improve.

Adding other crops to the rotation will improve the profitability and fertility of my cropland even more.

So to my way of thinking, using corn for ethanol production has the “unintended consequence” of increasing sorghum production in areas of the country where corn is typically not grown and encouraging more intensive crop rotations, which would increase total food production.

Something similar could be said about biodiesel production, if biodiesel production slightly increased the price paid for soybeans and reduced the volatility of prices it might encourage more double cropping of soybeans in a region of continuous wheat production, which would lead to increased cropland fertility and more total food production.

Anonymous said...

In response to Rich's post:

You're promoting an unsustainable paradigm. What you and some other small-ish farmers do will NOT continue, you WILL be bought out, and the new "owners," the commodities market, will eventually trash your land. We just haven't seen it that close up because most is happening in other parts of the world; but rest assured, that as this economic decline continues here in the US we'll start to see similar abuses.

None of this even touches on the negative EROEI equation. When you look at it from this (proper) angle it all looks really, really foolish.

Rich said...

Anonymous -

In case you failed to read my entire comment before your knee-jerk reaction, I was commenting on whether ethanol production would cause food shortages and not the "sustainability" or the EROEI of my farming techniques.

At the time, I didn't realize that the fate of the entire free world rested on which crop or crop rotation I planted on my small piece of the world.

But since you bring up EROEI, I assume you believe in the typical global warming nonsense that conventional agriculture is destroying the Earth and it should be abandoned for "proper" uses of farmland and approved techniques of farming.

So since I am always willing to learn and am constantly searching out knowledge, what is the "proper" thing for me to do?

Explain what you think needs to be done to avoid a negative EROEI.

If "small-ish farmers" decide (or are forced) to follow your enlightened plans for agriculture, will there be more or less food shortages or riots?

Has anyone ever implemented your properly approved plans for agriculture on a large scale in the world (outside of places like Venezuela)?

I anxiously await your answers, so that I can avert the destruction of the Earth due to my improper farming techniques.

Bruce King said...

Have to laugh a bit. "...So that I can avert the destruction of the earth due to my imporper farming techniques". Indeed!

Demand for food basically follows price. For farms that rely on feeds for their product (swine, cattle, dairy, poultry) there's some ability to switch from a higher-priced food item to a lower one, but that switching leads the prices of all feed to rise, not just the one that is experiencing the shortage, and that rise in feed prices affects human prices, both for human grains, and for meat.

So what I'm pointing out here is that we're all in an intricately linked food system that is worldwide. A drought in chile affects the price of blueberries for a farmer in Canada.

I had a poultry farmer tell me that a fire in a fish meal processing plant in peru drove his prices up by 30% -- even though he buys his fish meal from a closer source. Lots of agricultural items are sold worldwide now, and the market is worldwide.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Rich, I'm pointing at you, or rather your logic.

What you do to manage your land is YOUR business, no problems understanding and accepting that. And no problem understanding the importance of crop rotation. But...

The very fact that your "ethanol" crops (or biodiesel, if rape/cannola) garner tax subsidies (either directly, or indirectly, via subsidies to processors), means that you are partaking in market distortion. This market distortion pushes (and if you care to look out into the larger world of commodities) fuel over food: more land is shifted into fuel crops than food crops.

EROEI has NOTHING to do with climate change, which, by the very fact that you brought it up, might suggest a knee-jerk reaction on your part (from a right-wing kind of angle; LOL, not going to work against me because I'm apolitical). No, I'm not knee-jerking on climate change, I'm "knee-jerking" against poor logic and the overabundance of ignorance about energy. (btw - In my battles against biofuels I primarily found myself up against greenies, the very people that appear concerned with "climate change;" I'd reckon, then, that anyone pushing biofuels would be aligning with these folks.)

[need to break up and continue in another posting]

Anonymous said...

[continuance of previous post- reply to Rich]

If you want to garner "Free" money from the govt, then that's your business. I could accept the fact of you, and others, receiving subsidies for helping to maintain soils; but... to couch this as helping save the world's energy situation, or that you're not participating in a subsidy program, especially one that returns LESS energy than put into it, is disingenuous.

That you claimed that I didn't read your entire posting, I plead guilty. But only because it jumps from the wrong premise and then focuses on a bunch of whole "solutions"/technical speak, which, on surface, sounds plausible: it's like "a miracle happens, but let's not discuss that, rather, here you see that x + y = z." Such as:

"if biodiesel production slightly increased the price paid for soybeans and reduced the volatility of prices it might encourage more double cropping of soybeans in a region of continuous wheat production"

First, take a look at where the majority of the world's biodiesel comes from. It ain't soy, it's palm oil. Check out what's happening to land in places like Malaysia (interestingly there seems to be quite the uptick in "terrorist" activities there- couldn't be because the land is being raped could it? another one of those pesky side effects, externalizations). If you're from a northern latitude you're NOT going to be able to compete with folks closer to the equator: palm oil, sugar cane, these are crops that are FAR more energy dense (though still not returning more energy than put into their raising and processing) than the likes of soy and canola. As you lose out you will, as I noted, end up selling out to the big conglomerates, who will, eventually, revert the land use back to primarily food (because it'll be inferior to growing fuel crops), and it'll be mono-crops for exporting out of the community: the locals will be without the means to grow their own food (yes, I repeat myself here, but one needs to know how the masses are controlled, and controlling food, as Kissinger once remarked, is just that mechanism).

Second, soy is hardly something that we should aspire to spread. Given that the majority is GMO and that its genetics have been proven to have significantly decreased ability to interact with mycorrhizae, this means that future reliance upon soy can only go downhill.

NOTE: I realize that your point is to find a solution to the problem of soils being depleted from too much wheat production. But, given that wheat crops are highly subsidized in the first place, does it really make sense to solve a problem created by market-distorting incentives with yet MORE market-distorting incentives?* I understand the conundrum of trying to keep agricultural lands healthy, but at some point all these unmeasurable subsidies are going to collapse, and then what? People will be walking around believing that, well, I don't know, that one can raise pigs on 90% (pasture) forage? At this point we're really all going to starve to death...

* I repeatedly bang my "liberal" friends over the head with this. Rather than begging for subsidies for "green" stuff, demand an end to existing subsidies to the non-green stuff. We should NOT build up systems that aren't sustainable.

Food, shelter and water. Those are my fundamentals. Converting food substances to fuel misses these core fundamentals. "God" gave us transportation- our feet.

I want more of my money to go toward improving our soils, rather than into the pockets of Monsanto, Cargil and any energy manufacturer.

Again, and please don't take these as a personal attack on yourself, you cannot take yourself out of the larger picture. You either add to (the collapsing system), or you subtract from it. Meaning well and doing well aren't necessarily the same thing.

Rich said...

Anonymous - (if that indeed is your real name)

Am I right in assuming that you have a problem with subsidizing ethanol production?

It appears that answering my simple questions slipped your mind as you pounded away at the keyboard formulating your response to my comment, so I will repeat them.

Explain what you think needs to be done to avoid a negative EROEI. (Isn't EROEI related to the Peak Oil concept which is used as a tool by Global Warming types to further their goals?)

If "small-ish farmers" follow your enlightened plans for agriculture, will there be more or less food shortages or riots?

Has anyone ever implemented your properly approved plans for agriculture on a large scale in the world?

Answering those questions might help further this discussion about food shortages and ethanol production.

Anonymous said...

"Explain what you think needs to be done to avoid a negative EROEI."

Well, "Rich," if that's your real name (like it matters? focus on the issue):

EROEI means Energy Returned On Energy Invested. Like I said, this has nothing to do with climate change: yes, because EROEI is a measurement I suppose that it could be used in some sort of climate change argument.

I cannot state what MUST be done to avoid a negative EROEI, it's not up to me to say. I'm only stating that a negative EROEI is like being in business to lose money. It's stupid, it's a dead-end.

Before I end talking about this I'd like to say that it's not really possible to go negative per se, rather it has to do with a decreased position from which one starts, which, I'd think, if the idea was to INCREASE available energy, that ending up with less than one started with would be, well, negative. So, for clarification, negative EROEI doesn't mean that a process develops some sort of energy black hole, that we get some sort of reversed energy charge or such...

"If "small-ish farmers" follow your enlightened plans for agriculture, will there be more or less food shortages or riots?"

Again, I am, unlike many (esp those seeking subsidies), trying to proscribe a solution. But, I have to laugh that someone would challenge agricultural practices that have been going on for thousands of years. Do you know what subsistence farming means?

Will there be less food and less riots? Do you get out much? Do you see the food shortages and riots that take place all over the world as a result of large mono-cropping failures?

And, what's to become of the petro-farming paradigm when petroleum becomes scarce?

There WILL be massive failures regardless of what "system" is used. But, long-term, diversity, which nature promotes, wins out. So, if I were to wager I'd take the side of nature and say that small diversified farming practices will be here long after the short-lived industrial farming practices are gone.

So, the facts are:

1. Subsidies prop up unsustainable practices.

2. Fossil fuels are limited and are declining at a fast rate (I can provide ample data here).

3. Industrial farming has comprised less than 1% of the total of modern agriculture (which has spanned 10,000 years).

4. Continuance of the Green Revolution is starting to fail massively. (refer to GMO soy in my previous post) And, as climate change happens (yes, it does, and will always change, just research what happened to the Greenland Norse), the all-eggs in one basket approach, aka "industrial agriculture," mono-cropping, WILL encounter massive failures.

So, I ask you, how could one expect the existing industrial system to win out in the long-run given that it's a system that is totally dependent upon a dwindling, limited source and has only been in use for 1% of the total time that humans have been practicing modern agriculture? Do you feel lucky?

To get back to your first question:

"Am I right in assuming that you have a problem with subsidizing ethanol production?"

Yes. It's about as unsustainable as you can get. Why would you desire to toss money at something that returns less than is put into it, unless, that is, you are personally profiting from it? And at the expense of others... not only is it logically flawed, but morally as well.

P.S. If it's really so important to know who I am you can easily figure it out via google: I've given enough "hints." You, on the other hand... But do note this, I am not, nor have I EVER profited, from or obtained money from any of my pontifications/appearances/debates about this subject. To me the issue is all about energy, and truth...

Rich said...

Anonymous - (apparently the super famous not-for-profit fighting for truth and energy one who's name is not to be spoken - Google it, it's true I tells ya)

Apparently, you have rarely been exposed to wit or sarcasm. (re-read my comment then Google something to figure out what I mean)

Now take a deep breath and try to answer a simple question, what should I do to avoid a negative EROEI? Or, what would YOU do if you were forced to manage a farm that had cropland that was growing the seeds of Mother Earth's destruction?

Are you actually advocating a return to subsistence farming?

Were there more or less famines (not just riots due to a 30% increase in food prices) when subsistence farming was the norm?

The secret phrase is "RoundUp Ready", if you actually read this far before furiously typing a responding comment and will use the phrase in your comment, I will give you a thumbs-up in recognition.

I never said I was in favor of or supported subsidies. I don't need them to operate the farm and when they go away I will be perfectly happy. Why would you assume that I supported subsidies simply because I stated that I didn't think that food shortages would result from ethanol subsidies?

I couldn't care less who you actually are, but it seems funny that you would question my motives when I used my name and you are afraid to leave yours.

Must you remain anonymous so you can fight the good fight while tilting at windmills, and avoiding the wrath of the corporate conglomerates who are going to force you to grow crops that will be used to make biofuels so that they can take your land from you and destroy it to spite you for daring to speak the truth? Personally if I was in your position, I would frightened too.

Anonymous said...

What do I suggest that you do to avoid a negative EROEI? I've already stated it- don't advocate for biofuels. That's for starters.

One can compute EROEI fairly closely. Take all your farm inputs, measure them in energy units (calories if that works for you), then measure all the energy that goes off-farm.

I'm sure that many would balk at this, saying that it's too much work and that it's not possible. I agree that it's not likely that one can achieve perfection, that's not the point, the point is to get as close as we can, make better and better approximations.

Ultimately the overwhelming source of our energy will come down to that provided on a day-to-day basis from the sun (which includes, all sun-driven natural phenomena/systems). That's how it was in the past (before we started dipping into the pool of ancient sunlight that is fossil fuels). Whether one likes this or not doesn't matter- the message is founded in mathematical fact.

I am NOT advocating a single thing except that we all start thinking about sustainable practices. You might not like the term/word "subsistence farming," but the basis is that it's sustainable. I used this term not because I have some sort of desire for it (as most people, falsely, envision), but because it's the closest that I can think of that describes sustainability.

Me afraid of something? Ha ha! I'm a freaking ex Marine! :-) For years I've been telling the lefty-type of folks to not worry about Wal-Mart because it's dependent upon cheap shipping, which will go the way of the Dodo as energy collapses; and to the right-wingers I've been telling them to not worry about any New World Order, as this too will fail due to a lack of sufficient cheap energy. Am I a nihilist? That's what those who can't conjure up any sane defense of their reasons for why these things could continue in perpetuity label me as. Nope, I'm just a hardcore realist (used to be a time when they'd call folks like me "conservative"). So, big corporations WILL fall, and, there's really nothing that I need to do, for they have woven their own nooses (from cheap energy) and are rapidly leaping off of chairs. And, there's always the masses rising up:


Anonymous said...


But, getting back to YOUR/OUR problem:

"Rotating to other crops such as soybeans, corn, grain sorghum, sunflowers, etc can solve those problems. But, there has to be a market for those crops for the rotations to be an option."

Why does there HAVE to be a "market" for these other crops? If one doesn't currently exist then you're basically lobbying for one to be subsidized into existence so that you can improve your soil. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and believe that you are only looking to use any such subsidy to improve your soil and to cover your expenses of doing so (and not extra padding to your pockets, like, for example, what the bankers have been doing lately).

By your own admission the idea of these crops is to rebuild your soil due to mineral depletion by your (staple) wheat crops. So, why not focus on doing that, and not trying to create extra level of complexity/subsidy?

As a wheat consumer, and, believe it or not, someone who is most likely to side with you as a farmer, I'm all for figuring out a way in which you can achieve better health for your soils.

Just for giggles, let's say that your expenses for these soil-building crops are fully recouped? Would you be willing to take no extra profit from growing these crops? Remember, the POINT is to rebuild your soils for your real cash crop- wheat. If the answer is yes, then please continue reading; if the answer is no, then I'd have to take it that you would be exploiting subsidies for profit rather than your stated objective.

Now, suppose that instead of creating some extra (negative EROEI) subsidy for ethanol (or biodiesel) these dollars are used to offset farmers' costs for soil-rebuilding?

Yes, I'm aware that there are programs specifically for this, such as subsidies for fallowing land. But these don't seem to be part of the equation (or acceptable enough vis a vis your situtation).

From what I know, and granted, I don't profess to be an expert (though I do know that there ARE experts in these things out there, such as at the Rodale Institute), it seems that these soil-building crops can be re-incorporated into the soil. Keeping everything on the farm means less energy loss (starting w/trucking the soil-rebuilding crops/biomass off-farm).

I believe, and that's been my point from the start, that you/we can achieve the same results (of soil re-building) without having to engage in supporting yet another subsidy layer: for every layer there are more bureaucrats misallocating resources (energy loss!). Further, and this is where it should really go, as subsidies cannot endure (remember: subsidy means not sustainable), even the subsidy for your/the soil-rebuilding costs should be reflected directly in the price of your wheat. After all, wheat is your real crop, it should command the price necessary to support its growth. Problem is, however, the commodities markets tend to cheapen things up; but, on the other hand one could say (and hope) that the seeds for the soil-rebuilding crops would also made cheaper: I could only hope that there could be actual REAL free markets (no more subsidies of anything, not fossil fuels, not biofuels).


For anyone who might still be following this blog entry (or run across it in the future), here's a great site for seeing who is getting farm subsidies: EWG Farm Subsidies database

Rich said...


Since you didn't use the secret phrase, I guess you missed the part of my comment in which I stated:

"...I never said I was in favor of or supported subsidies. I don't need them to operate the farm and when they go away I will be perfectly happy. Why would you assume that I supported subsidies simply because I stated that I didn't think that food shortages would result from ethanol subsidies?..."

Why do you assume that each and every farmer is actively seeking each and every subsidy available? Why do you think that every planting decision I make is solely dependent on which subsidy program I can exploit?

Except for my perpetual motion machine plans (hoping to achieve that positive EROEI) that I eventually abandoned when I found out it wouldn't be subsidized, I don't actively pursue any subsidies other than the ones I am practically forced to take.

Isn't it supposed to be "once a Marine, always a Marine"? What do you have to do to be an ex-Marine?

Anonymous said...

You are suggesting actions that LEAD directly to the formation of highly subsidized practices. I swear, you're starting to act just like that farmer guy on the biofuels panel that beamed on about how he knew better, even with his head firmly planted up the behinds of the local politicos in a scam to extort money out of the masses.

You cannot state on one hand that you are NOT in favor of subsidies and then on the other state that you will TAKE them- "other than the ones I am practically forced to take." Unless, that is, you're a hypocrite.

You're thrashing because you don't know which way things are coming from or which way things are going. Much of this confusion is based on market distortions, and here you go clamoring for MORE (market distortions).

"Why do you assume that each and every farmer is actively seeking each and every subsidy available?"

Another mis-direction ploy. I NEVER stated that every farmer was seeking EVERY subsidy available. I'm beginning to think that you're feeling a bit insecure, that perhaps you're aware that you have an unsustainable practice and that you're looking to force others to subsidize your bad business practices.

"Why do you think that every planting decision I make is solely dependent on which subsidy program I can exploit?"

See my reply above.

As to disjointed comment about perpetual motions machines- we have one, it's called the "earth." Extract more than it can replenish and you get smacked down, such as what is, and will continue to happen to the market distorting farming practices that promote fuel crops over food crops.

BTW - I'm an EX Marine because (and here we go getting personal again, distracting from the ISSUES) I bleeping hate the military-industrial complex (which, BTW, helped to foster the modern agricultural system), and I know that this phrase annoys the crap out of people.

Rich said...

Anonymous, (the humorless one who DEMANDS that you stick to the ISSUES, dang it)

Either you are completely humorless or I am not as cleverly witty as I think I am. I tend to believe that you are completely humorless (the alternative is unthinkable).

Since you are obviously impaired in the wit department, I will try hard to be less witty (so that you will have less problems understanding what I say)

Have you ever convinced anyone that is actively involved in farming to accept your line of thinking?

Have you ever actually planted and/or harvested an agricultural crop? Have you ever had to deal with FSA?

Call me a hypocrite if you wish (isn't everyone a hypocrite in your rigid worldview?), but I live in a pragmatic world and I don't have the luxury of not applying for subsidies. To maintain the base acres on our farm and rented land, I must register that cropland with FSA.

Since there is a new Farm Bill every 4-6 years, if I didn't maintain those base acres, I couldn't guarantee that I would even be able to farm in the future (it hasn't been very long since there were quotas on what could and how much could be planted). Lose the base acres, and I could lose the right to plant something in the future.

You accuse me of "thrashing", but the only solutions you give are:

-nonsensical statements about EROEI, (there is always going to be a negative EROEI and it is a red herring to demand otherwise)

-a disjointed statement about what should and shouldn't be planted, (I should grow cover crops and just break even instead of growing crops that actually make money at the same time because subsides are always paid if I make a profit or something like that)

-a conspiratorial rant about all powerful corporations taking over the world by forcing farmers to grow fuel instead of food so that the corporation can then steal land and then convert it back to food production,

-a condemnation of "modern agriculture" and a half-hearted plea to return to a subsistence form of farming, (I'm not sure how that will work out without some sort of land reform and the formation of a vast peasantry),

BTW - there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine (another one of my clever attempts at levity that apparently readily exposes the humorless), and the fact that you don't recognize the impossibility of actually building one (with or without being subsidized) makes me question all of your arguments while also making me believe that you have probably failed to convince anyone else of your position on this subject.

You still didn't use the secret phrase, so you get a big thumbs down.