Who can argue against reducing our dependence on petrochemicals? Even those among us who don’t qualify as dyed-in-the-wool environmentalists shouldn’t have much trouble coming to grips with the understanding that sooner or later we’re going to have to change our ways. As we proceed, the question becomes less and less to what and increasingly how, since there really are limits to the resources based on sequestered solar energy reasonably available to our exploitation. So barring some cold-fusion or alchemistic sleight of hand, we’ll need to concentrate on ways to budget our energy use more efficiently.
But this doesn’t answer the thesis question, which has to do with energy feedstocks and how you go about getting them.
Both here and abroad are efforts to offset a portion of our petroleum requirement by agricultural means—farm subsidies here in the US and deforestation in South America leap quickly to mind—and as you may have noticed, such initiatives have met with positive reviews both here and abroad…and in the case of the US, the transfer of significant taxpayer funds to farming interests to signify its value to our society or perhaps humankind at large.
“Well, it’s for a good cause, after all,” you might tell yourself. “After all, corn is renewable, while oil isn’t.” So what does it matter that the energy balance might lean a little in the wrong direction at the moment, or that maybe the water use is a little high, but what is that compared to the overall good that’s being achieved? Ditto the substitution of bioplastics for those petro-based products that never biodegrade and are filling the oceans?
Well let me offer some thoughts for your and the USDA’s consideration:
- There are numerous life cycle studies comparing the environmental legacy of biofuels and bioplastics with their petro brethren, yielding such different and often contrary conclusions that you can find one or more expert analyses to support whatever position you might want to espouse. The takeaway here is while you may believe what you want, you ought not to consider it incontrovertible scientific fact…or gospel for that matter;
- Factored into none of the studies I have seen or been able to find through Google is the impact of soil loss resulting from the use of prime cropland for the purpose of offsetting our reliance on oil, and while soil loss is a fact of life in even the least invasive of agricultural pursuits, I find it distasteful that my tax dollars are being used not only to divert cropland to what I consider secondary pursuits, but then to promote the activity as some sort of salvation procedure.
- If we were to run out of petroleum today, you can bet there would be a replacement in place by tomorrow afternoon. Ditto coal, gas, nuclear, or Uncle Willie’s Magic Elixir. True, the transitions might be painful, but we would swallow them. But the same cannot be said for bio products where we’re facing what happens to be the bottomest of all environmental lines…the dirt that is the basis for a very large portion of our foodstuffs.
All good environmentalists recognize the panoply of threats to water and air, but they also know that both have been and can addressed with a fairly high degree of success. While true that many of the impacts are severe, for the most part their effects can be reduced to generational.
But topsoil? Folks it takes in the realm of 900 years for nature to produce just one inch of the stuff that most of us take very much for granted, and while we can husband it, we can’t create it.
“Yeah, but there’s a lot of it around,” you tell yourself, “so where’s the problem?” In order to see the problem requires no more than a trip to Iowa, where measurements show that more than 50% of the soil available when plows first broke the plains fewer than 200 years ago has disappeared, and there’s evidence that this trend is accelerating as we speak. You don’t have to be a very devoted student of history to know the relationship between soil loss, desertification, and the death of civilizations.
From a bio-based standpoint, we do have an opportunity to address the energy situation in a manner that has positive benefits, both as an offset to our petroleum cravings and to our waste management practices where, despite heroic efforts on the part of both public and private recycling organizations, two-thirds of the stuff ending up in landfills is organic. To me, the conversion of waste is a far better solution than the conversion of cropland to fuel production, but that’s my opinion.
Then despite the fact that soil loss is a consequence of both food and energy crop production, personally I find the former far more palatable than the latter, especially since I see biofuel and bioplastic production as agenda-driven rather than necessary activities….but that too is only an opinion.
Would you like to give me yours? If so please make your comments in the space below or send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.