U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently told reporters that we should caution against blaming biofuels for higher food prices, stating that the food versus fuel debate is based on the assumption that where we are today remains static relative to production.
Vilsack went on to say he’s convinced that within 10 years, with just seed technology, we can produce a 100 bushel increase in yields.
Now, the food versus fuel debate is a tough one — there’s just too much special interest involved, on both sides of the debate, to get much in the way of objective data. So it’s hard to take a position on this one.
However, we still need some clarification on a few other issues before we start cheering 100 bushel increases in yields.
How much water do we need to produce fuel crops?
The fact is there is no more water on the earth today than there was hundreds of millions of years ago. There is no less, either. We can’t make it or destroy it. And while our planet may be over 70 percent covered with water, less than 2 percent of it is freshwater, some of which is perpetually tied up as atmospheric moisture or as frozen saturated soil (permafrost) that we can never use.
Put another way, if all the world’s water was inside a one-gallon jug, fresh water wouldn’t account for even a teaspoon of it!
So is it wise to strain our remaining water resources further just to fuel our vehicles?
How much synthetic fertilizer do we need to produce these fuel crops?
The folks in D.C. really need to start spending more time analyzing the negative impacts of synthetic fertilizers — which, as you may or may not know, are mostly derived from oil, natural gas, and mined minerals.
This stuff is extremely energy intensive to produce.
You see, in the early 20th century, German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed the Haber-Bosch process: a method for creating ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen. And this ammonia synthesis accounts for over 99 percent of all inorganic nitrogen that is used in farming today.
Of the roughly 130 million tons produced globally (110 of which is fixed nitrogen), 4/5 go into fertilizers.
Now, according to a report from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, “The Energy and Economics of Fertilizers,” nitrogen (one of the three macronutrients in inorganic fertilizer) sucks up massive amounts of energy: 22,000 cubic feet of natural gas feedstock to make one ton of ammonia that is 82 percent pure nitrogen. And the processing, packaging, transportation, and application require 52 percent of the total energy inputs in nitrogen fertilizer.
The U.S. General Accounting Office stated that natural gas is the most costly component used in manufacturing nitrogen fertilizer. So when natural gas prices increased in 2000-2001, U.S. companies that produce nitrogen fertilizer reported adverse financial consequences resulting in much higher production costs.
Of course, even beyond the energy-draining, synthetic fertilizer production — farmers still need to distribute it. And tractors don’t run on sunshine and rainbows!
There are the environmental issues, too.
We know that synthetic fertilizers have a tendency to leach excess nutrients into the water — which can cause contamination, endangering fish and amphibians.
It’s also important to note that synthetic fertilizers can cause a decrease in organic matter in the soil because they feed the plant, and not the soil. This results in a reduction of soil organisms, making it much more vulnerable to insect and disease infestations.
How much extra pesticide do we need to produce these fuel crops?
Between the very real human health risks associated with pesticide use and the potentially devastating impacts on the food chain (breaking one link in the chain means all of the organisms above that link are vulnerable), we may want to reconsider our feedstock options if it means showering our crops with more of this stuff.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for finding new sources of fuel. But we have to be responsible about it. We know there are better feedstocks for biofuels than corn. Especially when it comes to biodiesel, where we can use non-food crops such as algae and jatropha.
Just something to think about.