Biofuel prospects muddled

Biofuel boosters have admitted that what we really need is cellulosic conversion — turning the bulk of plants like corn, not to mention inedible plants, into ethanol rather than relying on their seeds. Now comes news from the USDA that to do so threatens the soil in which those biofuels will grow. If farmers harvest the stovers, or corn stalks, rather than leaving them on the land, they risk depleting the organic matter in the soil in addition to severe soil erosion. That cuts the value of maize for ethanol even more.

Meanwhile, carries a long report on the recent FAO meeting on biofuels. FAO tried very hard to be balanced:

Joseph Schmidhuber, Senior Economist at FAO’s Agricultural Development and Economics Division, explained that the impact of the new bioenergy market on food security could be negative or positive, depending on whether a country’s economy was a net exporter or importer of food and energy. The same held true at household level, indicating that the rural landless and the urban poor were most at risk, and special measures would be needed to protect both countries and groups.

Everything is possible, no? But I find it hard hard to conclude that the emphasis on turning food for people into fuel for cars and trucks will be a good thing on balance.

India needs small farmers

Vandana Shiva has a long post at outlining some of the ways in which small but biodiverse farms could make a greater contribution to food security in India. She lambasts the government for its policies and quotes some very favourable figures for harvests and incomes, alas without supporting references.

Perk up people, it’s about your survival

Someone called Bradford Plumer, whom I had not previously come across, has a longish post asking why people don’t seem to care about the ongoing mass extinction and wishing that more writers on the subject “would really hammer home why humans should care about the loss of biodiversity”. Funnily enough, he couches his entire argument in terms of natural processes and ecosystems and what their collapse might mean. And he quotes agriculture, and especially monoculture, exclusively as problem, not solution. But the only example he gives of the sort of example that might might “get people to perk up” is the possibly looming pollination crisis caused by a shortage of bees.

Until there is a wider understanding that agriculture is part of nature, and not separate from it, and that we humans are far more dependent on the food providing services of agriculture than on any other ecological service, I doubt that there’s going to be much perking up anywhere.

There’s not a lot of understanding of that in Brad’s posts or the comments on it, but I live in hope.

Science weighs in on biofuels

Donald Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief of Science magazine, thinks there is a “biofuels conundrum”. He agrees that growing corn for ethanol results in huge distortions and problems elsewhere. Ethanol from sugar cane is better, but blocked by corn-state Senators in the US. Palm oil, as biodiesel, is better yet, but still carries considerable downsides. So, Kennedy says, we need more investment on research into biofuels derived from cellulose. Fair enough. But not a single mention of actually reducing consumption of liquid fuels. Not one word. I guess Kennedy, like so may others, isn’t quite ready to sign the bio-temperance pledge.

Are Kenyans ignoring diversity of diet?

A long press release from Tufts University in Boston, USA, tells us how faculty members have assisted Kenyan policy-makers in a series of workshops

“to build strategies for implementing Kenya’s National Food and Nutrition Policy. … The scope of the plan ranges from agricultural production, strategic grain reserves, and post-harvest protection, to nutritional interventions for high-risk groups, and the interrelationship of nutrition and diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.”

But I see no mention whatsoever of either dietary diversity or the value of local species as a contribution to nutrition. I’m hoping this is just an oversight by whoever wrote the release, but I fear it may not be. Using local food diversity to boost dietary diversity has so many benefits, I can’t imagine how the team overlooked it.