Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Posts Tagged ‘biodiesel’

Feeding 9 Billion

Posted by butalidnl on 16 October 2011

This blog post is my contribution to “Blog Action Day 2011 (#BAD11)”. The theme this year is ‘food’.

The world is full! There are 7 billion people on it, and it will become 9 billion by 2050. Help! We will not be able to feed them all!

No need for alarm. We can quite easily feed 9 billion people. Here are a number of strategies that not only will enable the world to feed 9 billion people, but it will also enable us to return some forest lands to nature. Here they are:

Minimizing Eating Beef, Shift to Meat with Lower Feed Grain Ratios
Animals consume grain. Instead of being consumed by humans, grain is fed to the animals. We eat the animals (meat), but there is a loss in the process.  Cows eat 8 times their weight in grain; while pigs only 5 times. So, shifting from beef to pork would tend to save on grain.  Cows also eat grass, though, and this doesn’t  ‘waste’ grain. But the present number of cows greatly exceed the number that could live out of grass, so they are fed grain as a result.

The rising price of grain in the world market makes producing beef more and more expensive. At a certain point, wheat prices will outstrip the growth of beef prices (beef prices have to be at least 8 times the price of the grain they eat, to break even) so that it would no longer be profitable to feed cows grain. When this time comes, beef will be limited by the amount of grazing land.

Shifting to eating meat with a lower feed grain ratio (FGR) will always result in freeing up more grain for human consumption. Eating fish like tilapia (fgr of 2) or chicken (fgr of 2.5-3), would even be better than eating pork (fgr of 5). Eating only plants (fgr of 1) would be best, but we couldn’t expect to convince all people to become exclusive vegetarians (yet).

The world could voluntarily shift to meat with lower feed grain ratios; or, if they wait a while, they will be forced by the market (i.e. in the high price of grain, and thus meat) to make the shift anyway.

Promote Urban Farming
There is a lot of underutilized land in urban areas.  Most houses have backyards which could be devoted to growing food.  Houses and apartment blocks could be built with flat roofs to make them suitable to be vegetable gardens. Also there are many commercial and industrial buildings and yards which could be planted. People could opt to plant vegetables, if they have the time to pay attention to them.  If they have little time to tend to plants, they could plant fruit trees or root crops, which need less attention.

It’s amazing how many people are idle due to unemployment, but who do not do something so fruitful and which would earn them money like backyard farming. Part of the reason behind this is that there are no institutions which encourage and support them to do some farming. And the marketing of the produce may also be a problem, with people being used to buying vegetables and fruits from shops.

Governments could stimulate urban farming by setting up institutions which would provide the seeds, equipment and expertise needed. Governments could also help to set up neighborhood markets for produce.

Plant Food Trees at Edges of Forests
Reforestation need not involve planting ‘forest’ type of trees.  At the edges of a forest reserve, it is a good idea to plant money-making trees. This could be rubber (if climate is suitable), nuts (cashew, walnut, etc.) or fruit trees. These trees are as good in holding the soil and water as ‘forest’ trees, and they will be defended by those who planted them (and who depend on them for income and food) from people who want to cut them down. This will protect the inner area of true forest trees.

A lot of the land that is presently used for cattle ranches were formerly forest lands, and which would be very suitable for food trees.

Stop Producing Biofuels
Biofuels are the ultimate in wasting food. Food grains, oils or sugar are used as the ingredients for various kinds of biofuels. This should stop. All biofuel production eats into food production in one way or the other, and therefore should be stopped.

It is obvious when corn is processed into bio-ethanol.  The corn does not get consumed either by animals (which will eventually be eaten as meat) or directly by people, because it is being made into fuel for our cars. Why not just have more efficient cars? Why don’t we bike or walk more? Is riding a car more important than feeding people? Making bio-ethanol from corn or sugar cane wastes food.

Other kinds of biofuel production also reduces the overall supply of food. Take the plan to turn farm waste (i.e. the part of the plant without the grain/food) to fuel. If this is done at a massive scale, the result will be an enormous drop in the fertility of the farm lands; since the farm waste would otherwise have returned nutrients to the soil.  When you harvest the farm waste, you are depriving the soil of nutrients, resulting in lower future crop yields.

Turning used cooking oil into biodiesel is another case. Used cooking oil could be transformed, using a different process, into animal feed. And this would mean that less grain would be used for feeding animals, since they would be eating feed made from processed used cooking oil. Some people say that used cooking oil, when turned into a feed additive, is carcinogenic. Perhaps. But this is only a reflection on the state of technology; with a bit more research, it should be possible to produce non-carcinogenic animal feed supplement from used cooking oil.

Even making biofuels from wood is an indirect problem for food production.  Because the question is: where is the land that they would grow the wood in? Will it be from what are now ‘regular’ forests? I doubt it – it would be too expensive to do so. Much cheaper would be to convert some croplands and plant trees there for that purpose. So, those croplands could no longer produce food because they are producing wood.

Feeding 9 billion people could thus be done without having to make major political moves or technological discoveries. All it needs is a bit of creativity, or the pressure of ‘market forces’.

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Biofuels are not the Answer

Posted by butalidnl on 20 August 2011

Biofuels have been hailed as our way out of the dependence on fossil fuels. In the US, massive amounts of government funds have gone into making ethanol from corn. In the Philippines, the 2006 Biofuels Act targets the mixing of 5% ethanol in gasoline and 1% biodiesel in petrodiesel.

Biofuels as the solution to the energy problem is a myth, especially if you look deeper into its real prospects. Experts have computed that, in order to supply enough fuel for US’ transportation needs, they would have to grow corn in 3x the current cropland of the US. In other words, it is impossible for corn to do the job.

But why is that the case? Well, plants are actually (contrary to the myth) very inefficient transformers of solar energy. Plants transform only about 1% of the energy from sunlight into plant material. And of this plant material, perhaps only 20% (or 0.2% of the total) gets into the corn cob, which is what is processed towards ethanol. Then, the processing uses up energy. The end result is that only about 0.1% (one-thousandth) of the sun’s energy is transformed into ethanol.

Contrast this with silicon solar panels, which transform 16% of sunlight into energy. This is 160 times the energy obtained from corn! Some solar panels can even achieve 30% efficiency; but these are made with expensive Gallium Arsenide, and are thus only used for things like space satellites.

The main ‘problem’ that silicon solar panels face is that they still cost too much to make, making it cheaper to rely on traditional sources of energy. But the cost of making solar panels is rapidly going down; even to the point where it has reached ‘grid parity’ (i.e. solar costs the same as ordinary electricity) for some places or applications.  Reaching grid parity is important because this means that subsidies will no longer be necessary for these applications.

Cellulose and Algae
There are efforts aimed at using cellulose or algae as the source of biofuels. Using cellulose would mean that the full 1% of sunlight that the plant transforms will be used. Algae transforms up to 3% of sunlight, but they require expensive glass containers (which need to be regularly cleaned) so that the net yield of algae would be something like 1.5%.  Another problem with algae is that it grows slowly when it is producing hydrocarbons.

Algae is only marginally better than cellulose. And there is still a long road ahead, in terms of bringing either cellulose or algae to even get to 1-1.5% efficiency. It is a terrible waste of money to spend so much on biofuels of any kind. At the same time, solar is already 16 times more productive than algae and cellulose will ever be. And with further research, it should be possible to raise solar’s efficiency even more.

Use Other Technologies
The logical conclusion to all this would be that governments should stop all subsidies for biofuels immediately, and to rechannel the funds to more promising technologies. I suggest that these be solar, geothermal and wind. With a relatively small amount of research on solar and wind, their efficiency stands to improve a lot. Geothermal needs relatively big investments, but pays off well. Geothermal costs much less than traditional sources of energy to generate.  At the same time, the use of electric cars should be stimulated, so that gasoline and diesel will be replaced by electricity.

The Philippines should rescind the 2006 Biofuels Act. It is already a failure. Both ethanol and biodiesel are suffering from “volatile prices and insufficient supply”.  This is a natural result of the inefficiency of their production; and this basic inefficiency means that prices and supply will never be satisfactory, even with subsidies. Instead of biofuels, the Philippines should stress more on geothermal and solar, which are a lot more cost effective, and for which future price developments are growing more favorable.

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