Thursday, February 19, 2009

Some more of my thoughts on Food vs. Fuel

Please consider a few thoughts I regularly mention when presenting on biofuels and the food-versus-food debate is brought up by someone who simultaneously thinks that biofuels are a net-energy loser but somehow agriculture is more energy positive without it.

Propose the question: "Where does ethanol come from?"

Corn carbohydrate.

Or to be exact something likely to be processed into corn-syrup (a process that takes energy as well) and then sold as a cheap filler to real food. This processed food being most aptly described recently in the book In Defense of Food as being a "food-like-substance".

The only thing sustained by corn-carbohydrate in the US is diabetes. Corn protein on the other hand is highly sought by any agricultural process feeding animals. The corn mash is the real value of corn and it is preserved in the process passed along as a value added good to feed lots.

Ethanol allows a growing corn market with a safer off-take partner in our vehicles appetites versus that of the low-price-leader junk food manufacturer. It also provides more high protein for the market with a wider future market mix for this agricultural input. In short, I don't weep for Lil Debbie's price pressures at my local 7-Eleven.

The next step, sustainability, is to improve our process. Reduce the inputs of petroleum fertilizer, water, and ultimately CO2 emissions while increasing our productivity. To reduce the inputs while maintaining or growing crop yields is the definition of wealth creation. This is the crux of business sustainability and the 'Lever of Riches' presented to us by the new clean tech movement afoot. Making more with less and improving the overall quality of life for those at every step of the value chain.

In the past the focus has always been on more. More calories, more weight, more yields. Now we must focus on quality and ethanol gives us a floor to work with. A floor for the transition from MORE to BETTER.

I realize that there are many who see no value in American mainstream Agriculture. They only see mono-crops, GMO's, and a spendthrift approach to consuming inputs in the ever expanding welfare state of Corporate farming. I on the other hand tend to look at modern American agriculture similarly as to how I consider the Egyptian pyramids. A giant monument of what human ingenuity can achieve. Overlooking the issues of human bondage and destruction these monuments to Pharaoh ego represent. Between the pessimist and optimist positions there is a huge middle ground of progress that can be achieved.

Food versus Fuel is the definitive issue of this middle ground. Where today is not a position of optimum results but it is definitely worth building upon. Progress can be had and I believe that ethanol moves us further towards a total better result than a farm and energy policy that doesn't include it.

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