Food is Energy, but Food Takes Energy

It’s an inconvenient truth that across the world valuable people are converting crop lands from growing food into growing biofuels. The crop lands are being converted with government subsidies, and we are about to learn a very harsh lesson. Side by side with that the BRICs nations and their constellations are burning unhealthy fossil fuels like there were no tomorrow.

It’s also true that like it or not for better or worse we are a high energy society in the most populous places of the world. Regardless of that, biomass for fuel is just wrong, and can lead to unintended evil.

From  Spring 2008:

In Egypt we have bread-lines, in Pakistan and India soaring flour prices, and in the rest of the subcontinent rice shortages are the rule.

Lester Brown, director of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, said yesterday that land turned to biofuels in the US alone in the last two years would have fed nearly 250 million people with average grain needs. “This year 18% of all US grain production will go to biofuels. In the last two years the US has diverted 60m tonnes of food to fuel. On the heels of seven years of consumption of world grains exceeding supply, this has put a great strain on the world’s grain supplies,” he said.

The rising price of energy has decreased supplies of food in two ways: it’s made fuel crops more attractive and it’s made export and transport of food staples such as wheat, corn, and rice both more expensive and less appealing.

The outcome? We have breadlines in Egypt, we have spiraling food staples cost, and not enough food, which means people will be starving to death later this year. We passed a tipping point and it was much closer and more easily seen than the one Al Gore correctly pointed out.

Food production and commodities combined with free markets have kept famine at bay across most of the world since the early 80’s. Most modern famines are created by government policies, or strife which interdicts transport, occasionally you see extended drought cause impacts as well. The Somalian famine was due to civil war against Islamists, and the Bangladesh famine was due to failed governance and civil strife.

Any country can feed its people no matter how dense the population if they can farm at the level that 16th century Japanese peasants were capable of, this was postulated and logically proven in “A Step Further Out” by Jerry Pournelle. In the modern world with cheap transport and modern agriculture there’s simply no excuse for Famine, but I fear we’ve passed that point and that we will see some people starving to death this year.

Some future Chomsky will no doubt be writing screeds about Euro-centric Environmental Imperialism and Energy Hegemony, but in the end it’s exactly that sort of person who’s at fault here.

Social liberals and computer models are a terrible combination, as the Club of Rome model tells us. (See here.) In the race to combat global warming, somehow calling crop-raised ethanol “renewable” and therefor green when burning hydrocarbons is exactly what is causing Global Warming is ridiculous. It’s the same sort of propaganda and denialism that brought us that dirty tricks lobby that told us cigarettes do not cause cancer.

One of the few areas where opposition to science is somewhat accepted on the left is opposition to nuclear energy and genetically modified foods however both products of science will be needed to support humanity once world population passes 9 billion.

In the end oil, coal, and food are all foolish to burn, all create carcinogenic compounds that pollute the air – and if you have a ecological concern that should be it, not GM foods nor nuclear energy. However our current eco-movements are headed down the wrong path, with politicians hostage to the coal, oil, and bio-fuel lobbies worldwide.

We have the means to create plentiful, worldwide, cheap energy with Nuclear, Solar, Hydroelectric, Wind, Geothermal, Ocean thermal, and in the future Solar Power Satellites. The chest of options for truly clean energy is full but we mostly fail to open it. Biofuel and other carbon based renewable fuels need to be reserved at best for transport, and we must winnow that use sector down to the cleanest varieties of those if we are to have a secure plentiful future for our great grandchildren’s children.

Our goal needs to be much more than energy independence, if we are truly a great nation then we should set the bar higherwe must create abundant clean energy for the world.

All of the clean technologies are capable of generating electricity at a reasonable cost point which would surely come down if they were put into large-scale use, and all of them are feasible. With the exception of Solar power satellites, they have all been used for large scale electric generation.

The future of the world is bright, but not if we follow charlatans and fear-monger lobbies on the left and right who are really just after partisan gain and dark money from narrow interests. We don’t need carbon credits, we need nuclear & solar power.

Almost one fifth of US cropland rolled to energy crops in the quest to reduce carbon and create energy independence – Brazil has about a sixth of its cropland for energy production, and many countries like China are following suit. Why grow wheat or rice with small profit margin when you can grow government subsidized fuel crops, a sure thing?

I read the news today oh boy….. The Government of Haiti fell to food riots.

The World Bank devoted almost their entire session this meeting [April 2008] to the food price crisis. “The food price crisis” is shorthand for the poor of the world starving once more, it’s code for babies dying with grotesquely enlarged but empty bellies.

For more than a decade we’ve kept famine at bay, and it looked as if it were gone forever. That’s not the case as the dire combination of high energy prices and food shortage has driven many countries close to the edge.

From Wapo:

Zoellick said that the fall of the government in Haiti over the weekend after a wave of deadly rioting and looting over food prices underscores the importance of quick international action.

He said the bank is granting an additional $10 million to Haiti for food programs.

Zoellick said that international finance meetings are “often about talk,” but he noted a “greater sense of intensity and focus” among ministers; now, he said, they have to “translate it into greater action.”

The bank, he said, is responding to needs in a number of other countries with conditional cash-transfer programs, food and seeds for planting in the new season.

“This is not just a question of short-term needs, as important as they are,” Zoellick said. “This is about ensuring that future generations don’t pay a price, too.”

The head of the IMF also sounded the alarm on food prices, warning that if they remain high there will be dire consequences for people in many developing countries, especially in Africa.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn had said Saturday that the problem could also create trade imbalances that would affect major advanced economies, “so it is not only a humanitarian question.”

Hunger has a cold calculus that’s much easier to factor and surer of outcome than climate modeling. Many also think that the current path AGW has put us on will create hunger, and perhaps this “food security” crisis just foreshadows more to come.

Eventually people will figure out that there’s money to be made in food as well as fuel crops, more rain forest will be converted to food crops, and famine and death will tire of their race. More forest land will be lost in the US in one of those unintended consequences that people rarely foresee. (The US has been at equilibrium for forest land the past century – with rising demands for crops, that could change.) It will take years however, and the government created shortages will have killed hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions by then.
Update: Biofuels a Factor in Food Prices:

The World Bank report says concerns about oil prices, energy security and climate change have led governments to encourage people to produce and use more biofuels and less petroleum. The report says that means greater demand for raw materials, including wheat, soy, palm oil and corn, which means costlier food. The World Bank also blames the food price increases on more expensive energy and fertilizer, as well as export bans and a weak dollar.

With that in mind, Kimberly Elliott, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, says it’s time for governments to stop placing so much emphasis on corn-based biofuels such as ethanol. “So it’s driving up food prices because we’re shifting corn from food to fuel, and not doing very much for the environment, if anything, and it is very costly, so it’s really a policy that just doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Haitian Prime Minister Removed

Think Haiti’s just an anomaly? More here, here, here, here, here, here
Food Crisis Deepens, Calls for Summits, Riots in Haiti
How Global Warming Activists Manipulate the News at BBC
Gore Lied; People Will Die

The other factors creating hunger are also incumbent with eco-luddism, global warming is also being used as the latest stalking-horse for the real goal of making energy too expensive and scarce to use from the old guard anti-nuke, anti-GM crowd. The environmental approach of using less and conserving is laudable, but… if it’s not working now for six billion people, it will never work in 42 years when the population is 9 Billion.

When looking at the environmental movements from a distance en-masse you have to be careful or you understate the real problem and the needs; e.g. as this article seems to want to pin current hunger all on corn ethanol, and that’s not the entire case. Other articles also question the need for global policy based on the suspect data, as this article points out.

Collectively the inter-meshed muddle of environmental movements have ensured that the dirtiest source of power (coal) is still the most heavily used for the past thirty years. They’ve done this trough opposition to new gas exploration, drilling, and refineries. They’ve done this through tax and regulation of fuel standards. They’ve done it through intense opposition and regulation of new nuclear plants, and NIMBY opposition to large scale wind and solar farms. They’ve opposed hydro-power wherever it’s been attempted. It seems that the only power that’s good or green is that used specifically for their house, and none other.

They’ve opposed all forms of new energy but it isn’t a vast plot – instead it fits with their general blurry vision and strategy. As stated above they just muddle their way towards a low-energy world, often working at cross-purpose without understanding the ultimate evil effect. That vision and strategy is to make energy scare and expensive, in hopes of stopping environmental degradation. Instead they insure not only environmental degradation, but also hunger and poverty in third world nations, and the eventual destruction of wealth in the US.

Is it a mistake that the high-guru of Global Warming comes from a coal mining state where the coal boom is once again on and the attempts to stop it are being fought in the state Legislature? Is it a mistake that a supposedly “environmental” Senator, Ted Kennedy, opposes windmill farms in his neighborhood?

There’s no doubt that mankind contributes to global warming, the policy question isn’t whether we contribute to global warming, instead it is “do we contribute enough to crush economies with carbon caps, to stifle new energy development through environmental regulation, and starve people through misguided energy policy?”

(2023 Editor: I was a stupid “warmist” back in 2008, the answer to the first couple parts of that question is very obviously “Yes” in hindsight. )

Does being clean warrant people still dying in coal mines or from the pollution burning coal creates — because regardless of what the environmentalists do, the reality is that people still need energy and will get it from one source if blocked from another?

This is one reason why you hear the oxymorons “clean coal” and “carbon sequestration” so much lately. Coal is dirty no matter what you do, and the money spent cleaning it or sequestering carbon would be better spent on nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, oil, and natural gas. That doesn’t mean we can toss coal power out the window tomorrow however. If we do, millions die.

Hunger is also caused by the the Greenpeace eco-nihilists who have led the movement to create a low-energy world the past thirty years. The eco-warrior’s intent was clear at the beginning of the movement – one of the favorite exhibits in the ’80s at ecology fairs was a person peddling a bicycle to generate electricity.

Think about that, and then ponder how many people peddling it would take to generate 50 Peta-watt hours of electricity (low end of estimated need in 2050.) Who would hold the whips and guns, who would wear the chains?

As stated ecology groups have good intentions, but those misguided intentions unalloyed by reason or mathematics lead to unintended consequences of famine, poverty, war, death, and destruction.

“We believe that the financial and safety risks associated with nuclear power are so grave that nuclear power should not be a part of any solution to address global warming. There is no need to jeopardize our health, safety, and economy with increased nuclear power when we have cleaner, cheaper solutions to reduce global warming pollution.” – June 2005 statement signed by 313 national, international, regional, and state environmental organizations, including Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth.

The largest problem facing us this century is simple, it doesn’t take computer models and projections to see it once you know the factors. The factors leading to the greatest challenge of this century are demonstrable in reports and data we collect already.  While some might argue they won’t be able to factually refute these arguments. The real problem is not scarcity of resource as laid out in the original computer-model call to action by the Club of Rome, nor is it global warming, or even the global war on terror — instead it’s scarcity of clean energy.

Where energy is abundant birthrates are lower, infant mortality is lower, life expectancy, wealth, and literacy are generally higher, and looked at as a holistic system the environment is generally cleaner as well; with local exceptions where coal power is used or oil is refined.

I grew up in one of those areas, Fairbanks, Alaska, where the snowbanks by the power plant were always black within a day or two of the snowfall. To get away from black to grey-tinged snow you had to drive miles and miles away. If it’s coloring the snow where you live, then coal or oil is also coloring your lungs.

Where low-energy societies exist, life is short, hunger is common, water and air are dirty, and infant mortality is appallingly high. If you’ve ever been even near a large refugee camp or large city ghetto where meals are prepared over fires and sewage goes unprocessed you will not argue with me about the environmental degradation caused by low-energy lifestyle. Everywhere energy is used abundantly life expectancy is longer — if the pollution from using high amounts of energy is so terrible then why the heck are people living so long in those areas where energy is plentiful ?

Cooking with fire

photo credit: Ruiz Mercado



Wood smoke contains over 100 different chemicals and compounds, including

  • dioxin
  • lead
  • cadmium
  • arsenic
  • carbon monoxide
  • methane
  • aldehydes
  • formaldehyde
  • acrolein
  • propionaldehyde
  • butyl aldehyde
  • acetaldehyde
  • substituted furans
  • benzenes
  • toluene
  • acetic acid
  • formic acid
  • nitrogen oxides (NO, NO2)
  • sulfur dioxide
  • methyl chloride
  • naphthalene
  • oxygenated monoaromatics
  • guaiacol (and derivatives)
  • phenol (and derivatives)
  • syringol (and derivatives)
  • catechol (and derivatives)
  • particulate organic carbon
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
  • Fluorene
  • phenanthrene
  • anthracene
  • methylanthracenes
  • Fluoranthene
  • chrysene
  • benzofluoranthenes
  • benzo(e)pyrene
  • benzo(a)pyrene
  • perylene
  • ideno(1,2,3-cd)
  • pyrene
  • coronene
  • dibenzo(a,h)pyrene
  • retene
  • dibenz(a,h)anthracene
  • Na, Mg, Al, Si, S, Cl, K, Ca, Ti, V, +Cr, +Mn, Fe, +Ni
  • Cu, Zn, Br, +Pb
  • particulate elemental carbon
  • normal alkanes (C24-C30)
  • cyclic di/triterpenoids
  • dehydroabietic acid
  • isopimaric acid
  • chlorinated dioxins
Lack of Sanitation

Almost half the population of the world lives without clean drinking water, without waste water treatment and sanitation.

It takes huge amounts of energy to provide clean cooking for millions, and it takes even greater amounts to correctly process the resultant garbage and sewer. It’s an engineering challenge on a grand but ugly scale if you want clean water, sewer, and cooking for everyone on the planet. However it’s one that not only should get done, it must get done.

It also takes an amazing amount of energy to grow food for those people, and the green revolution ushered in by the agricultural scientists like Norman Borlaug is no longer enough to feed the world without abundant cheap energy to aid the processes.

Energy adds to the cost of food at every step, from the fuel in the tractors and combines, to the irrigation pump’s gas, to the high-nitrate fertilizer and the trucks that transport it, it’s an energy intensive operation. If you farm with pesticides and fertilizer, then additional care must be take to clean the run-off water, and that takes energy too.

All that, and so far you still haven’t processed the crop, packaged it, or hauled it to market, which also takes fuel. If you have surplus crops, then they must be frozen, canned, bagged, or stored … which also takes energy and infrastructure. I’ll remind you that infrastructure is cheap when energy is abundant, it becomes more expensive as Energy prices increase.

The eco-luddites have taxed, regulated, blocked new sources, and  created mad carbon cap schemes that have driven energy costs so high that it’s becoming unprofitable to farm for food. It’s become pricey to store and transport the food aid agencies need. It’s become impossible to keep the surplus of food stocked and that’s why banked food supplies have fallen steadily the past six years in the face of rising price.

Demand for food is not only rising, but demand for energy is also on the rise to cope with our dense populations, here’s one of the key findings from an IAASTD report:

5. Projections based on a continuation of current policies and practices indicate that global demographic changes and changing patterns of income distribution over the next 50 years will lead to different patterns of food consumption and increased demand for food. In the reference run, global cereal demand is projected to increase by 75% between 2000 and 2050 and global meat demand is expected to double. More than three-fourths of growth in demand in both cereals and meat is projected to be in developing countries. Projections indicate a probable tightening of world food markets with increasing resource scarcity adversely affecting poor consumers and poor producers. Overall, current terms of trade and policies, and growing water and land scarcity, coupled with projected changes in climate is projected to constrain growth in food production.

Don’t despair yet: given abundant energy all things are possible, and the means to abundant clean energy exist already.

As this graph from the IAASTD shows, food is not a problem granted sufficient cheap energy with modern agricultural technique.

Ecology group favored means of clean power are insufficient to the task by themselves. Jerry Pournelle did this same math back in the ’80s in a series of articles that examined all of the proposed means and he reached the same conclusion. People are discovering what Jerry knew in the 80’s, and starting to do the math again, as can be seen in this article:

Drawing power directly from sunlight raises fewer environmental objections than does power from wind. But the biggest objection the massive quantities of land needed for large-scale solar development remains. Solar energy output large enough to displace our current consumption of fossil fuel might easily require 53,000 square miles of land in the desert Southwest – about 6 percent of the combined land area of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas.

If in theory Solar fights global warming, is anyone calculating in the heat rise that will occur from the darkened albedo caused by large extents of land coated with dark solar panels? Can we reverse that by making our roads “white top” instead of “black-top”? What type of  energy will it take to do that?

To plug the gap even if all renewable and clean sources are used, the world must still have plentiful nuclear energy, it’s the stop-gap until we achieve the next-century energy platforms needed (Fusion, Solar Power Satellites, improved geo-thermal, solar, hydro, wind.)

Electricity Required by 2050

E.G. We could carpet the entire Southwest with Solar panels and still not have enough energy, for by 2050 the earth will team with an estimated 9 Billion humans, and energy demand is posited to be between 50-70 Petawatt Hours (the higher end of the estimate posits a world-wide hydrogen-fueled transport fleet supplied by electrolyzing water for fuel.) That’s a lot of power, but it is achievable with a commitment to roll all forms of new energy into their niches post-haste, coupled with a Manhattan-style project to get new nuclear energy plants built in abundance now, not tomorrow.

Why should we do it? That answer is easy – so our children and grandchildren won’t be miserable. So millions or billions won’t die of starvation, so we won’t be a lone island of wealth in a sea of miserable poverty. So we can not only survive, but as Jerry Pournelle stated so we can survive with style, without guilt. In high-energy countries forest, city, and croplands achieve equilibrium as they have here in the US and Europe. In Low energy countries, forests continue to shrink.
The more industrialized the US became, the more forest grew back after the massive log-off of the pre-industrial expansion of the country. (In the early part of the 20th century we had a lot less forest than we do now.)

Low or scarce energy is the first factor of a formula leading to deaths of billions of people over the next century. So here’s a simple mantra even leftists can understand: Low Energy Kills Billions. It will not only kill billions, a low-energy future will destroy the very environment the eco-luddites hope to protect.

What happens to forests when five billion or more people need wood to cook every night? What happens to flora and fauna in low energy countries where people must forage to survive? What happens to rivers and streams with the sewage of five billion humans entering them untreated? What will the air be like with billions of cooking fires?

Eco-luddism has potential to wipe billions of humans off the face of the planet while destroying the very environment the ecology activists purport to protect. Wingnut support for the fossil fuels that are killing us now has the potential to do the same. I’ve been pointing that out for more than a couple decades.  In the old days it was in discussions and arguments with people over bio-mass vs nuclear in the alt-science and sci-energy newsgroups on the Usenet, and the past two years it has been here. I’ll be continuing this series of articles until such time as people begin to grasp and act on the real problem and not bogeymen designed to make some people feel good while others die.

I ask that you gentle reader help me out with this. When you ask your ecology-minded or wingnut friends these hard questions, do so kindly. The mission here is to convince, not confront – this stuff’s too important to fight over, so keep in mind always that most people, left and right have good but sincerely misguided intentions.


Next Generation Nuclear Power



Editor’s note: this is an important article and I am updating it for 2023 – since writing the original the political scales have fallen from my eyes – I’ve drifted from partisan Right center, to more Left center, and partisan things stated in the original ring totally hollow and are mostly being removed. This is a generational challenge that’s much too important to color with politics or snark, so I’m trying to remove that were I see it. If I missed spots, please feel free to point them out.

One thought on “Food is Energy, but Food Takes Energy”

Comments are closed.