Food, Fuel and Fiber? The Challenge of Using the Earth to Grow Energy

This article was commissioned by the Japanese energy magazine “Global Edge,” and reprinted also at

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cornfieldIn May of 2008, while visiting Jakarta, I came across a newspaper story about a protest there.  Hundreds of people had gathered in front of the gates of a charitable NGO whose mission was to feed poor people. The NGO was simply unable to provide enough rice, tofu and other staples to meet the need.  The newspaper explained that the protest had been triggered by the global spike in food prices, which made some staple items unaffordable or — thanks to export freezes — unavailable. But poor, hungry people are not able to differentiate between the “invisible hands” of global markets, and the visible hands that are directly feeding them. The people had come to regard this NGO as something like an “official agency” for food distribution, so they took their unhappiness directly to its door.

Actually, the reasons for the protest were more complicated than the simple phrase “spike in food prices” can convey. The chain of cause-and-effect was long, and wove together climate change policy, farmers in the United States and Brazil, and the felling of Amazon rain forest. The story serves as a good introduction to a massive transformation in the global energy market that is similarly weaving together energy and agriculture, in an unprecedented way, with unknown consequences.

But let’s start with tofu.  “The price of tofu has gone through the roof,” said one of my Jakarta colleagues, as we enjoyed some lovely tofu variations at a traditional Indonesia restaurant, “because we import most of it from the United States.  But US farmers are switching from soy to corn, because they can get such a good price for it.  They are growing biofuel instead of food.  And we in Indonesia feel the effect.”

My friend was correct. Soy production in the United States is falling, and corn production is expanding rapidly, in response to subsidized prices and growing demand.  The US government has set ambitious goals for ethanol production, with plants springing up by the dozens throughout the nation.  Corn is feeding ethanol plants, which feed cars … instead of people.  Now that people are “sharing their food” with cars, the price of food has been going up — so much so that dozens of food riots were reported in 2007 and 2008, not just in Indonesia, but in Mexico, Egypt, Haiti, and many other countries.  For the world’s poor, a rise in food price is not a mere inconvenience, but a terrible hardship, and possibly even a matter of life and death.

Doubts about whether the rapid switch to biofuels was responsible for the spike in many food prices were washed away when the UK newspaper The Guardian got hold of a non-public World Bank report on the subject (see “Secret report: biofuel caused food crisis,” 4 July 2008).  A top World Bank analyst had estimated that growing demand for biofuel was responsible for about 75% of the 140% food price increase since 2002.  This revelation fueled a growing chorus of international voices that had already been raising alarms. The director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, for example, made a strong statement about the “incomprehensibility” of subsidizing biofuels and diverting food “to satisfy a thirst for vehicles.”

Meanwhile, the world’s poor and hungry were not alone in suffering the impact of the world’s new love for biofuels; the Amazon rainforest was also “feeling the effect.” Soy production has been increasing in Brazil, partly in response to rising prices for this staple of the world economy, driven by declining US production. Brazil is also a major producer of biofuel, but mostly in the form of ethanol from sugarcane.  Brazilian ethanol is promoted as being “safe” for the Brazilian rainforest, because sugarcane is not grown in rainforest areas.  Unfortunately, US ethanol from corn is not so safe for the rainforest, because the rising soy production in Brazil has been coming, in part, at the direct expense of rainforest areas:  trees are being cleared to make way for new soy production.

Thus it was that hunger protests in Indonesia were part of the same chain of economic cause and effect as rainforest losses in Brazil, through the mediating influence of American biofuel policy decisions.

But there are still other factors at play.  For example, global fiber production is also increasing — and much faster than expected.  Cotton production, for example, was expected to reach 23 million metric tons by the end of 2010, up from just under 20 million in 2002.  Instead, cotton production skyrocketed and hit 26 million metric tons by 2007.  Fiber is thus an increasingly powerful competitor for the same resources used to make food and biofuel:  land, water, labor, and of course energy of some kind, to run the farm.

Food, fuel, or fiber?  Farmers have suddenly (sudden, that is, in historic terms) many more choices about what to sell to the increasingly globalized market.  And those choices are, as usual, strongly influenced by prices.  Why grow soy beans for tofu to be eaten in Indonesia, if you can make significantly more money growing corn for bioethanol to be used in American cars?  The farmer makes a rational switch, triggered by the price, which sets a chain of events in motion … and ends in riots and rainforest clearing.

These kinds of systemic linkages, with their unpredictable and nonlinear side effects, are becoming more and more common as previously separate markets begin merging into one.  Agriculture has always been divisible into food and fiber production:  lands might be used for edible grains and vegetables (some of it eaten by animals, some by people), or wearable cotton and flax.  But as long as food production was keeping ahead of population growth and demand, food and fiber were not really in direct competition with one another, at least in any problematic global sense.

But the entry of fuel into the picture (that is, “biofuel”), coupled with accelerating demand for both food and fiber, is changing the global picture considerably.  Suddenly, the arable land on Earth is a scarce resource that can be used either to create the food we eat, the materials we use in clothing and textiles, or the energy we need to power our vehicles.

In fact, the picture is even more complicated than the phrase “food, fuel or fiber” suggests, because of the increasingly complex interactions between agriculture and industry.  For example, Henry Ford’s decades-old dream of “growing” a car using agriculture materials instead of mined minerals is becoming partial reality:  the 2008 Ford Mustang reportedly includes soy-based seatbacks and cushions.  As one American corn farmer noted in a recent newspaper column, “Corn and soybeans alone are commonly used to produce baby powders, Duracell batteries, charcoal, shampoo, flooring, trash bags, bedding and linens, crayons, candles, hand cleaners, packing materials, and furniture.”

Of course, the price of oil has something to do with this picture as well.  Oil is a major input to food and biofuel production, of course, as well as being the energy source that biofuels are intended to replace.  When oil prices go up, food prices go up.  Biofuels also compete with oil to power vehicles (some cars can run on either ethanol or petroleum, for example, allowing the user to choose).  But at the bottom of the chain oil is still there, running the tractors that harvest the food/fuel/fiber, powering the tankers that deliver these and other goods to the consumer, and playing a decisive role in setting the world’s prices. When thinking about biofuels, we still have to think about fossil fuels.

Then there is the question of land.  Do we even have enough to grow all the food, fuel, and fiber we are likely to need?  Many people are familiar with the “Ecological Footprint,” a measure that calculates the total amount of land that humans use to support current consumption.  The global number has been “greater than one Earth” for years now.  But the Footprint is not actually measuring land, but rather using land-area equivalents as a “common denominator.” This makes it possible for the Footprint to combine different kinds of consumption and impact, including water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, into one measure.  The result is a useful tool for communicating overall impact trends — but it is not the answer to the question, “Do we have enough actual land to satisfy our growing needs?”

The answer to that question appears to be yes — but only in theory.  The International Energy Agency notes that estimates on the potential for growth in biofuel production “vary considerably,” and that the most optimistic numbers “are based on the assumption of no water shortage and increased food agriculture yields in the coming decades, partly due to genetically modified crops.”  This is a controversial assumption, to say the least; so let’s look at some primary data.

Surveys from space show that there is still quite a lot of natural-plant-covered Earth remaining, which could be used for producing food, fuel, and fiber for human use. NASA recently studied how much of the Earth’s total land-based “Net Primary Productivity” — that is, the amount of solar energy captured by plants — is being used by humans, and it amounts to only 20% at the global scale.  (The numbers at the regional scary vary enormously.  In East Asia the figure is already over 70%.)  In other words, we could theoretically grow a lot more of everything on the productive land that remains.

But of course, “growing more of everything” means converting more natural ecosystems into human agricultural and industrial systems.  According to the Millennium Ecosystem Report, humans have already used up about half of the earth’s ecosystems, by converting them not just into agricultural land, but into houses, roads, cities, industrial installations, and even (unfortunately) deserts.  To make matters still more complicated, draw-downs in things like ecosystems and other forms of “natural capital” are not predictable, linear processes.  There are “tipping points” in those systems, points of no return beyond which gradual change switches to sudden, irreversible change.

For example:  no one knows for sure how much more “ecosystem” we can consume, in our quest to capture more solar energy to fuel our cars and feed our families, before the downward pressure on the world’s species turns into an avalanche.  The trade-offs are stark — and not merely theoretical.  While the IUCN, the world’s largest conservation organization, was preparing its report that a quarter of the world’s mammals face extinction, a scientist for energy giant BP was being quoted as saying that his company was interested in “the green parts” of the entire globe for possible development into biofuel production.

In the long run, decisions about how much of the Earth should be “nature” and how much “agriculture” are ethical and political ones.  But today, and in the near term, the challenge appears to us as primarily economic.  Short-term choices are being driven by a transformed energy economics, caused by the blurring of boundaries between previously separate markets.  Food is energy, of course, in a purely biophysical sense; but now food is substitutable with energy in an economic sense as well.  Food now equals fuel, as well as fiber; these are interchangeable production choices from an agro-industrial perspective.

In systems-thinking terms, this change in energy technology, policy, and markets has greatly expanded and complexified a system that was not exactly simple to start with.  The growth of biofuel and fiber demand has created new couplings, new feedback loops, and new, unpredictable complexities in the global agro-economic system.  As the events of the past year demonstrated, the global energy/food/fiber market has become the very definition of a “wicked problem,” which is a term invented by design theorist Horst Rittel. Wicked problems are “messy, circular, and aggresive” — a very apt summary of how the food-fuel-fiber system is behaving.

Now, toss in a global financial crisis — which might conceivably have been set off by the sudden enormous spike in the price of oil, which in turn stressed already overstretched borrowers to the breaking point — and you get a wildly unpredictable and potentially dangerous beast.  Right now, both oil and commodity prices are falling again, with corn in the US down below its actual cost of production, and oil price drops causing crisis meetings among OPEC producers.  As hundreds of thousands lose their jobs, spending has slowed to a crawl the world over.  Food may become cheaper — but cheaper food does not necessarily help someone whose income has fallen to zero.  And we can be sure that it will not be long before some new turbulence sends this complex beast careening in yet another surprising direction.

So how do we solve the problem of planning for stable energy, food, and fiber, in a world where they are all connected economically, and may perpetually be out of balance?  Where there is no guarantee of price equilibrium, but where sudden surprises — in production, distribution, and price — are a near certainty?

Wicked problems, said Rittel and his co-theorist Webber, are a special breed of problem.  There is no way to get complete information about them.  There is no “best” solution to them.  Trial-and-error is the only strategy; better or worse is the only way to characterize the results.  In the coming years, the world economy will be involved in a vast trial-and-error effort to “balance the books” between fuel, food, and fiber, while also trying to solve the other wicked problem that triggered the increase in biofuel production in the first place:  climate change.

Tackling wicked problems successfully requires a very optimistic outlook.  Failure in the attempt is a real possibility, with enormous consequences for both people and nature.  And yet we must try, and we must keep trying until we succeed.  The alternative is unthinkable.

So can we find evidence of the possibility for success even now?  Fortunately, yes.

Consider, for example, the Castello Monte Vibiano Vecchio farm, which grows olives and grapes in the Umbria region, north of Rome, Italy. They have just announced plans to become the world’s first carbon neutral farm — in just one year.  With arrays of solar panels and mini-tractors fueled by biofuels (local varieties that do not compete with food products), the farm managers believe they can quickly cut their carbon dioxide emissions to zero.

A project like Monte Vibiano is small, when compared to a global, wicked problem.  But it makes it possible to imagine the entire global farming sector following a similar strategy, guided by sustainability principles.  Imagine if all the farms in the world — producing everything from cotton, to popcorn, to Formula 1 racing fuel — were powered by solar cells and home-grown biofuels.  Not to mention the occasional ox or donkey.

Undoubtedly, the world would feel a lot less “wicked.”

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