Book Review – The Economics of Food

It wasn’t too long ago that the ethanol industry experienced the perfect storm…high energy prices, high corn prices and low ethanol prices. Also during this time food prices rose. Why? While the reality was that high energy prices were a major factor (oil was more than $15o per barrel at its peak), ethanol was blamed over and over again as the major culprit. Today, research papers are still being published saying that ethanol was not the main offender; yet the debate is still active. So this week, I read the book, “The Economics of Food,” by Patrick Westhoff. To disclose Westhoff’s background, he grew up on an Iowa farm, has a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Iowa State University and currently co-directs the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) at the University of Missouri.

Westhoff acknowledges very quickly that ethanol did have a role in rising food costs.”Biofuels played an important role in the rise and fall of food prices between 2005-2009, but other factors were also at play. Anything that affects the amount of food produced or consumed in the world will have some impact on food prices.” After explaining what some of those other factors are, he writes, “Thus, a first rule of thumb: Increasing biofuel production raises the price of food.” (Author’s italics.)

Westhoff presents both sides of the “food and fuel” debate in his book and says that in certain arguments, both sides are right (the proponents and opponents). He then stresses that biofuels did not play as large of a role in rising food prices as detractors claim, but he also said that biofuels played a larger role in food prices that biofuels supporters acknowledge. After he lays out the true impact of biofuels and food prices, he then lays out some possible scenarios for the future. Continue reading

Book Review – Powering The Future

This week I read “Powering The Future,” by Daniel B. Botkin. I was motoring along learning about our current energy mix (fossil fuels, fossil fuels, fossil fuels) and then moved on to the section about alternative energy and his evaluation of the viability of wind and solar. Then I got to the biofuels section and this is where in most books I feel authors are either uneducated or intentionally dismiss the data. Botkin was no different in his assessment of biofuels. He only supports biofuels from algae and soil bacteria and he backs up much of his biofuels with bad data from the likes of David Pimentel.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The goal that Botkin set out in his book was to discuss each major source of energy including how much energy it provides today, how much it could provide in the future, how much it would cost, and its advantages and disadvantages. On this note, I do think that Botkin set out what he meant to do and offered analogies and numbers that most will understand.

Here are some interesting takeaways from his analysis. First, he is not a proponent of natural gas because his data shows that if it were used to fuel the 140 million+ cars on the road, we’d run out in less than 20 years. Second, he is not a proponent of nuclear because there is a limited amount of uranium and it costs more to decommission a nuclear plant than build one. While he has reservations about coal, he does anticipate that coal use will increase for electricity.

So what does he like? Continue reading

Book Review – No Impact Man

So you’re a bit frustrated with the state of the climate and pretty concerned with our fossil fuel use. So what do you do? You become the No Impact Man. Colin Beavan, a writer from New York who was struggling with how to deal with climate change, decided that he, along with his wife, two year old daughter and dog, would spend a year trying to have no negative impact on the climate. This experience, which he blogged about every day, led to the book, “No Impact Man The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet.”

Beavan was extreme. No “throw away” products made from trees, rarely any motorized transportation including elevators (did I mention he lives in NY?), all locally grown food within 250 miles and no meat, no buying of new things (but they could purchase used items), and if that weren’t enough, no electricity for three months! So what did he learn? We should be able to keep the things that improve our lives, yet not at the expense of the environment. And yes, he says, this can be done.

As an energy writer there was one chapter that I felt was extremely compelling and that was when he and his family turned out the electricity. Yep – no electricity for three months with the exception of a solar panel he used to power his laptop. In this chapter, Beavan talks about the true cost of fossil fuel use – something that many are trying to get consumers to understand, including me.

He writes, “The fact of the matter is that fossil fuels are not less costly than renewable energy. Fossil fuels cost us and our planet much more to use. The problem is that the true costs of the use of coal and oil are not immediately apparent in the price.” Continue reading

Book Review – The Surprising Solution

According to Bruce Piasecki in his book, “The Surprising Solution,” globalization has brought new social pressures to the world including climate change, global terrorism, oil wars and oil depletion, billions of poor people, and the need for food, air, water and wood. Yet according to Piasecki, these pressures do not automatically mean a world for the worse – actually the opposite. His goal in the book is to demonstrate that we have reached a tipping point that is actually leading us to a better world through social repsonse capitalism or the S Frontier.

So what exactly is the S Frontier? It is the movement of businesses changing their services and products in order to survive and prosper in a world that is facing the end of oil. Piasecki writes, “In order for them to survive and prosper further, they need to develop and continue to refine the business art of innovation for social needs–they need to find a new and socially responsible way to fill the hole our depleting oil supply is leaving. We call this elaborate social art in business the ‘S Frontier’.”

Piasecki writes that the S Frontier is already here and there are several companies leading the way including Toyota, GE and HP. These are companies that have changed the game of creating more socially responsible products that have had such an impact, others are forced to follow. For those companies who get left behind, they will fail paving the way for those companies that are able to refine and create products that change with the new global marketplace or actually cause the global marketplace to change. Continue reading

Book Review – Enough

As I write this review, I’m sitting on my deck looking out at dozens of acres of avocado, orange and lemon trees. Yesterday, I helped to plant a vegetable garden – the produce being grown for a local restaurant. The irony is that as I am surrounded by abundance here in America, I’m reading about those in other countries who have less than nothing. “Enough Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty,” written by journalists Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, details the struggle of countries, especially Africa, to feed their people.

Agriculture is the lifeblood of the world. As a matter of fact, is it the largest industry in the world. Yet many countries cannot compete with world prices in part due to subsidies in other countries such as America and the European Union as explained by the authors. These subsidies keep commodity prices artificially low, so low that most subsistence farmers in third world countries can’t compete. Traditionally, the answer to this problem has been food aid. Give the enormous surplus grown in places like America, to third world countries.

While food aid is a matter of life or death for millions of people each year, it does not lift the people out of poverty. It does not solve the problem of widespread starvation. The farmers of Africa must have a way to make a living – one that allows them to buy food. According to the authors, more “food” aid needs to be given in the form educating farmers on how to grow more crops with less. Helping them to build irrigation systems, giving them access to affordable hybrid seeds and fertilizers and allowing the commodity markets to work in a way that farmers from around the world can sell competitively sell their food.

The reason that more educational aid is not given, say the authors, is that food aid is a way for American or European farmers to sell their surplus crops. If other countries have enough food, and begin to compete in world markets, then farmers from first world countries will lose money. Continue reading

Book Review – Climate of Extremes

I have a question for you. Is the debate over global warming over? The next logical question is: Should it be over?

According to authors Patrick J. Michaels and Robert C. Balling Jr., human-induced climate change is indeed real, but this will not necessarily lead to an environmental apocalypse. This is the premise of their book, A Climate of Extremes. They write, “The data lead us to conclude that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is indeed real, but relatively modest. We’re not arguing against AGW, but rather against DAGW (dangerous anthropogenic global warming).”

A Climate of Extremes is about data – the data that proves (or disproves) the existence of global warming and the potential effects that it could have. The authors spend the majority of the book debunking the science that leads us to believe that the polar bears will go extinct, the icebergs are melting and those on the coasts will endure catastrophic damage, and that hurricanes, floods and fires are somehow tied to climate change. Well folks, there is no data to back up these far-fetched claims argue the authors.

The entire time I was reading the book, this famous quote kept running through my mind, lies, damned lies and statistics, a sentiment used to describe the power of numbers. The authors featured a lot of content that has been used by famous global warming advocates, such as Al Gore to prove the danger we face if we don’t curb greenhouse gas emissions, is taken out of context. In other words, the data is fiddled and faddled with to meet a person’s particular needs.

We all know this happens and it is good that people continue to “out” the bad science. However, the biggest irony I found in the book was when they discussed the pervasive bias inherent in global warming research. Shortly thereafter, they offer up why corn-ethanol will cause, rather than curb global warming, and they point to Timothy Searchinger’s original paper¬† – a paper which has not only been criticized by the scientific community but also new research has been presented. My point: maybe the authors should take some of their own advice.

While I am a proponent of offering up various scientific viewpoints, it should never be taken at face value and neither should the data presented in A Climate of Extremes. It is in everyone’s best interest to delve into the issue, farther than what is presented in a few books.

Book Review – Biodiesel America

Since the biodiesel industry is in a struggle for the extension of its $1 per gallon tax credit, I thought I’d spend some time learning more about biodiesel. This week, I read “Biodiesel America,” by Josh Tickell, who also produced the award winning film, “FUEL.” While the book is a tad bit dated (it was published in 2006) the basic information is still good.

Many people perceive biodiesel as a niche fuel, but this is really not correct. Your clothes, food, electronics and toys were all brought to you through a transportation network that runs on diesel. Your children are taken to and from school on buses fueled by diesel. And diesel is highly toxic. According to Harvard University’s Alternative Fuel Vehicle Program, biodiesel emits no sulfur dioxide, 78 percent less life cyle carbon dioxide and as much as 50 percent fewer smog-producing compounds as compared to conventional diesel.

While Tickell notes that biodiesel cannot replace our country’s entire diesel market, and it does face a few challenges that must still be overcome (cold start problems, costs) he writes, “Biodiesel has a bright future as an alternative fuel, both as a fuel blend (B20) and on its own (B100)….While biodiesel does have drawbacks, its similarities to conventional diesel in terms of performance, low cost, and compatibility with our existing fuel infrastructure make it an ideal solution for meeting emerging federal emission requirements and improving air quality now.”

Biodiesel has a higher net energy value than diesel, the feedstocks used are grown or produced here in America, the fuel stays here in America, and it is more environmental friendly and sustainable (all aspects discussed in the book). So why are our legislators in Washington DC dragging their feet in support of this viable alternative fuel? Continue reading

Book Review – Future Scenarios

I read in interesting book this week called “Future Scenarios, How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change,” by David Holmgren. The book focuses on the inevitable “energy descent” that the world is facing and outlines four likely scenarios that include the cultural, political, agricultural and economic implications of peak oil and climate change. Holmgren is best known as the co-creator of permaculture. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, it is “the integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man.”

The book begins with a discussion of four possible broad energy scenarios that are likely to occur over the next century: techno-explosion, techno-stability, energy decent, and collapse. These scenarios range from continued growth to doom and gloom, and Holmgren writes, “There is a desperate need to recast energy descent as a positive process that can free people from the strictures and dysfunctions of growth economics and consumer culture.” He continues, “This is now apparent to many people around the world and is far more fundamental than a public relations campaign to paint a black sky blue.”

There are other factors that will affect our future in addition to climate change and peak oil and these include critical materials depletion, water depletion, food supply, population pressures, financial instability, psychosocial limits to affluence, and species extinction. Holmgren notes that all of these issues combined need to be considered when predicting possible future scenarios.

So what are the scenarios? Continue reading

Movie Review – Crude

Yesterday I reviewed the book Crude World and today I watched the documentary Crude directed by Joe Berlinger. Ironically, Crude follows the multi-year struggle of 30,000 indigenous and colonial rainforest dwellers of Ecuador as they struggle to hold Chevron accountable for what many environmentalists are saying is the world’s worst case of oil contamination ever. This story was told in one chapter of Crude World, but you don’t really embrace the full effect of the devastation and human struggling until you witness it yourself.

The lawsuit was filed against Texaco but when Chevron merged with Texaco in 2001 they inherited the suit. Originally filed in the United States, the suit was dropped and moved to Ecuador where against all odds, the courts proceeded with the case. The people are led by local lawyer Pablo Fajardo who is being assisted by American lawyer Steven Donzinger. The documentary covers three years of the case and follows the plaintiffs to three continents and begins with the judges orders to visit the contamination sites.

Eventually, the judge orders a third party to come in and test the various contamination sites (which Chevron has claimed to test and found no pollutants that exceed U.S. EPA regulations). When the 4,000 page report is released in 2008, it “recommends compensation for environmental remediation, excess cancer deaths, impacts on indigenous culture, and Texaco’s ‘unjust enrichment’ from its operations.” The monetary cost: $27 billion dollars.¬† Continue reading

Book Review – Crude World

Yesterday I declared this the Week of Oil. While the Obama administration is calling for more green jobs and support of the clean tech industry, it is also calling for more research on ‘clean coal’ and more off-shore drilling. It’s these last two items that really seem to fire people up so I decided it was high time I learned more about oil’s world and I began by reading “Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil,” by Peter Maass.

This book takes you on a journey around the world and throws you into the violence that surrounds nations’ quest for oil. It’s not pretty. To reiterate what most people already know, the majority of oil left in the world lies in volatile areas. And not just the Middle East, but areas of Africa and South America. Too many people believe that oil leads to wealth and the revival of a country. However, too often, it leads to corruption by government officials, increased poverty and unrest – not to mention the environmental devastation that occurs.

The sad thing is that despite knowing better (America is all for human rights, right?) our own corporations support these evil regimes. A case in point that Maass discusses is Equatorial Guinea and its corrupt dictatorial President Teodoro Obiang. His reported salary is $60,000 a year (US dollars) but it was recently discovered that he has bank accounts in access of $700 million. The bank accounts reside in the U.S.

So while he’s rolling in the dough, the people of his county are uneducated, underfed and lacking in basic amenities like clean water and electricity. Eventually, the Senate released a report detailing “money laundering and foreign corruption” after being tipped off by journalist Ken Silverstein, and in the report wrote that oil companies operating in the country “may have contributed to corrupt practices in the country.” Naturally, the oil companies denied paying bribes (which is illegal), a few hands were slapped and business as usual resumed. The only true losers were the citizens of Equatorial Guinea. Continue reading