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March 30, 2009

For GM's Volt Too Much is Too Much
Much has been made of this quote from President Obama's auto restructuring team regarding GM's Chevy Volt:
In an attempt to leapfrog Toyota, GM has devoted significant resources to the Chevy Volt. While the Volt holds promise, it is currently projected to be much more expensive than its gasoline-fueled peers and will likely need substantial reductions in manufacturing cost in order to become commercially viable.
Now, it's true that betting the company on a non-existent market segment (i.e. plug-in hybrids) when even plain-vanilla hybrid sales represent only a fraction of the auto market seems questionable. And the restructuring that GM needs goes far beyond its failure to have a competitor to the Toyota Prius. But then again this was the company that previously centered its business and environmental strategy on the fantasy of the so-called "hydrogen economy" -- a transformation that was as far-off as it was unlikely. There's always been a haze of unreality hovering over GM's "green" initiatives (probably because global warming is a "crock of sh*t"). With the Volt, GM seems to have come asymptotically close to coming up with a winner. At best, GM appeared to recognize that it couldn't compete in today's car market, so why not make a car that might compete (eventually) in tomorrow's.

GM certainly couldn't have imagined it would sell too many $40,000 sedans -- which is how much the Volt will(?) would have(?) cost (while a Prius costs about $24,000). You'd think that affordability would've been an issue during the design phase. Given that the car carried its own recharger (in the form of a gasoline engine that kicked in when the battery charge was low), you have to wonder why they insisted on a battery with a 40 mile range -- way beyond what anyone else was attempting with plug-ins. Sadly, it appears that GM, seeking a game-changer, may have fatally over-reached. Because if there's a fatal flaw in the Volt (especially as GM's silver bullet), it's that darn battery. A Bloomberg article (via Joe Romm) that came out early this month sums it up:

General Motors Corp.'s Volt electric car may be too expensive to buy and operate to displace Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius hybrid as the industry benchmark for cutting fuel use and cutting carbon exhaust.

A rechargeable auto with the Volt's target range of 40 miles on electricity is "not cost effective in any scenario," a study by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found. Plug-in cars with smaller batteries may be a better value, according to the study, which doesn't cite the Volt by name.

"Forty miles might be a sweet spot for making sure a lot of people get to work without using gasoline, but you're doing it at a cost that will never be repaid in fuel savings," Jeremy Michalek, an engineering professor who led the study, said in an interview.

The study is an attempt to test how prices and driving habits may shape consumer choices among current hybrids and new models such as the Volt and a Prius able to be recharged at a household outlet.

With lighter, cheaper batteries, a plug-in with 7 to 10 miles (11 to 16 kilometers) of electric range or a conventional hybrid may provide the best mix of price, faster charge times and efficiency, Michalek said.

In case you're wondering, the researchers based their numbers on $6 a gallon gas. Meanwhile, the battery alone is thought oto cst $16,000 -- you can get a decent small car for that. It's also the difference in cost between a Toyota Prius and (as estimated) the Volt itself. The Volt is a second generation plug-in hybrid when all GM needed was a first. It will be interesting to see if the new management tries to save the Volt by downsizing the battery -- assuming the company's still around to build it.

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March 27, 2009

Power Politics
I haven't had a chance to weigh in on the issues raised by Andrew Martin's recent NYT feature on the food movement. Despite the giddiness that comes with hearing that "a prominent food industry lobbyist... said he was amazed at how many members of Congress were carrying copies of 'The Omnivore’s Dilemma,'" some felt that the article, with its focus on Alice Waters -- who becomes more controversial by the day -- and Michael Pollan as food movement "leaders," was a hit piece. Personally, I think of it as a reality check.

Obamafoodorama is on to something in seeing that the real response to the Martin piece was the article in the WaPo on Food Democracy Now's founder Dave Murphy (who goes entirely unmentioned in the NYT article). As Ob Fo points out:
[Murphy] has emerged as the most crucial and politically savvy actor in the on-going efforts to help move American agriculture into the 21st century. Mr. Murphy is fully conversant with economic policy regarding agriculture, and the way policy can and must be changed to provide both the eaters and farmers of America with the equivalent of health, job security, good education--the same goals of our President, but in a focused policy arena.
Ob Fo zeroes in on Murphy's policy chops as providing the crucial Fifth Element that will bring the food movement into its own. But though Murphy's policy expertise is crucial to his recent success and a key to bringing about reform, I think his importance goes beyond his grasp of the interlocking, interdisciplinary nature of food policy. In a nutshell, he understands politics.

And that's the missing piece. Forgive me a bit of oversimplification when I say that up until now the media has portrayed the food movement as a fad - a bourgeois leftover from the 60s counterculture. This may be why every article on alternative or organic or local food or food policy must by law use the word "hippie" at least once -- even if it's in the negative (as in "believe it or not, these particular foodies aren't hippies.") It's a movement that has been perceived to offer a choice to those who are in a position to make it, i.e. affluent, educated consumers. Here's how, Waters or Pollan tell us, you can opt out of the industrial food system. It was nothing more than a media phenomenon, a self-help -- rather than a social -- movement.

And why wouldn't it be seen that way? "Foodies" certainly haven't historically been players in the halls of power -- more like a sideshow. As Ezra Klein has observed, it's perfectly rational for politicians to cater exclusively to the needs of Big Ag -- there aren't any political advantages to opposing them. In that way, the food movement is the opposite of the environmental movement. In most parts of the country, simply branding a politician as anti-environmentalist is an effective political bludgeon. The environmental movement can bring serious political, legal and monetary firepower to bear when required. The food movement, to this point, has been almost totally lacking in those abilities. And that's why people like Dave Murphy hold the key.

Or rather why his 90,000 strong mailing list holds the key. As Murphy (and hopefully others like him) are able to mobilize people to directly pressure members of Congress, the movement can begin to gain traction with the congressional committees that have held agricultural reform hostage lo these many years.

Yet, from the perspective of a "movement," it's still early in the game. It may indeed be generous to posit, as Michael Pollan did in the NYT article, that the food movement now is where environmentalism was in the 70s. By that point, after all, the Sierra Club was already over seventy years old and had been lobbying legislators and combating developers since the Roosevelt administration - Teddy Roosevelt, that is. Unfortunately, we don't have another 70 years to wait. Dave, if you're listening, you've got your work cut out for you.

But the tipping point, if in fact we've reached it, may be in the broadening of the food movement base that has occurred over the last decade. As the sustainable ag folks come together with the fair trade folks come together with the international development folks come together with the climate change folks come together with the public health folks come together with the nutrition folks come together with the food safety folks, the movement begins to approach critical mass. Now that these previously disconnected groups have looked around and realized that they're all playing on the same field, an economy of scale, social movement-style, kicks in.

The great failing of the NYT article is the way it seemed to minimize this phenomenon. As Tom Philpott wrote, Martin almost totally ignored, for example, the issue of class except to conclude, as Philpott put it, that "fresh, local, and organic food must be a niche market for the well-off and the food-obsessed." Martin didn't address any of the evidence here and abroad of the viability of programs to bring such food to working class and low-income people. Nor, for that matter, did Martin mention anything having to do with international trade, fair or otherwise, and its role in the food system's unsustainability. Even health and nutrition got shortchanged as they had to play second-fiddle to the fight over ag subsidies, which Martin suggests is "the heart of the movement."

Indeed, in Martin's eyes, sustainable agriculture has as yet failed to "prove" that it can feed a growing world. Martin let the head of the National Corn Growers Association dismiss organic agriculture with the wave of a hand without even attempting to acknowledge the body of research that suggests it can indeed feed us all. At the same time, Martin observed that:
Last year, mandatory spending on farm subsidies was $7.5 billion, compared with $15 million for programs for organic and local foods, according to the House Appropriations Committee.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that if those numbers were reversed, I'd bet dollars to donuts that sustainable ag could feed us all just fine. I'm going to go with my gut instinct and conclude that the momentum really is shifting. Of course, we'll know the compost worm has truly turned when the chief executive of the National Corn Growers Association is the one forced to explain how they can possibly feed us all in the coming time of climate disruption, peak oil and depleted soil. Well? I'm waiting...

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March 23, 2009

Keep the Good Food Close

An interesting study out of Columbia University suggests that access to plentiful supplies of healthy food (i.e. fresh fruits and vegetables) matters more than limiting access to unhealthy food (e.g. fast food restaurants and convenience stores). The researchers examined the link between Body Mass Index (BMI) and the prevalence of either healthy or unhealthy food options in NYC neighborhoods. They found that:
[A] higher density of BMI-healthy food outlets was associated with a lower mean BMI, a lower prevalence of overweight adults, and a lower prevalence of obesity. BMI-unhealthy food stores and restaurants were far more abundant than healthy ones, but the density of these unhealthy food outlets was not significantly associated with BMI or with body size categories. The study indicates that retail outlets providing opportunities for healthier food purchases are associated with lower BMI.
If further investigation bears this out, then at a minimum we can call off the fast-food closing shock troops that so worry Anthony Bourdain. But it also suggests that focusing on providing more traditional grocery stores and farmers markets in so-called food deserts offers a significant bang for the buck. Not that we shouldn't look to limit the bad stuff, but it may prove easier to enact plans like Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's foodshed reform if you don't have to worry as much about tearing down all the fast food outlets.

Photo by EssG used under a CC license

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March 20, 2009

Gardenmania!
Clearly inspired by the goings on at Beyond Green World HQ (where planting has already begun), First Lady Michelle Obama today began the work of building a vegetable garden on the front lawn of the White House. Notably, fifth graders from a local DC public school -- a school that already has its own vegetable garden -- will be helping out throughout the growing season.

This is something that many people have wanted to see for many years -- and to collaborate with an existing school garden program qualifies it as an unmitigated boon (and those resident bee hives aren't bad either). The garden plan published in the NYT show the garden to be ambitious and its harvests likely plentiful. Good reactions can be had from Civil Eats and Ob Fo.

But I have to say that at this point I'm with Jill Richardson and Fair Food Fight. As long as this is the camel's nose and not a fig leaf, I'm fine with it. But I need to see some serious reform. I need to see some indication that government will put real muscle behind changing this country's indefensible food policy. Because President Obama, the First Lady, and even Tom Vilsack, can say all the right things (and, with the exception of ethanol, they tend to) - but if the administration wilts in the face of pressure from Big Ag and retrograde reps like House Ag Committee Chair Collin Peterson, it will all be for naught. I will accept the garden on the front lawn of the White House as a down payment. But the balance will come due soon.

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March 18, 2009

Ag Subsidies are Popular

Matt Yglesias questions whether or not "everyone" really hates agricultural subsidies as an example of the worst kind of narrow interest groups politics. This comes in response to the inclusion of ag subsidies in a list by Stephen Walt of areas "where almost everyone agrees the existing policy is wrong-headed yet almost everyone also believes the policy is impossible to change." Yglesias responds by pulling out a question from a recent Pew poll on Obama's proposed budget:

On the issue of reducing agricultural subsidies, more Republicans say it is the wrong thing than the right thing (57% vs. 34%), while Democrats and independents are more evenly divided.


To Yglesias, the poll:
seems to indicate that this is a bit more than a question of a narrow group blocking change. What may be happening is that since farm subsidies have passionate defenders in both parties, a wide swathe of people are accustomed to seeing them endorsed by leaders they trust.
I think he's being a bit glib here. The fact that Americans in general don't support cutting ag subsidies is easy to understand (although isn't it fascinating that Republicans overwhelmingly oppose cuts while Dems and independents are split - which is the party of big government again?) The repeated farm crises of the last 30 or so years along with the media drumbeat over the disappearing family farm have at a minimum demonstrated to voters the importance of government support for agriculture. It's a given in our society that farmers need help to survive. I don't think voters who express an opinion on ag subsidies need "passionate defenders" of them in government to tell them to do so.

If anything, this is a case where narrow, entrenched interest groups have subverted for their own ends what is generally perceived to be a public good. Most Americans are probably not well enough versed in ag policy to be aware that subsidies are only available on any scale for a small set of commodity crops like corn, wheat and rice. Or that it's illegal for farmers who receive commodity crop subsidies to plant fruits or vegetables on their land (although there's a bill before Congress to change that). Nor do they likely realize that the current subsidy regime, which encourages over-production and keeps corn prices artificially low, replaced a New Deal-era system that helped farmers far more than it helped industrial food processors (a phenomenon that is now reversed).

I'm sure you could easily craft a set of survey questions that teased out how voters felt about the current subsidy regime. They might not seem nearly so supportive of the particulars, even if they like the general idea. As for the impossibility of change the subsidy system, I'm with Walt on this one. With the entire food system an inverted pyramid balanced on a kernel of corn, it's no mystery that any attempt to "reform" subsidies will be immediately portrayed by agribusiness as a one-way ticket to Price Hike City.

Ultimately, I'm not sure what Yglesias' real point is. The food processing companies like ADM and Cargill are some of the most secretive privately-held companies in the world. They, along with farm industry groups like the American Farm Bureau as well as the food conglomerates, are some of the most well-connected interest groups in politics. Their representatives dominate congressional and executive branch hearings. They have sky-high lobbying budgets and fill campaign coffers of sympathetic farm state politicians to overflowing. They have, by most measures, bent the process to their will. That Americans ostensibly like the sausage doesn't mean they still would if they really knew what was in it.

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March 17, 2009

Three Squares

:a Vida Locavore flagged this op-ed in the SF Chron co-authored by a nutritional biochemist and a doctor. In their commentary, they indicate that current government dietary guidelines might be an eensy bit flawed:
Here is a daily diet that meets those nutrition guidelines: Breakfast: 1 cup Fruit Loops; 1 cup skim milk; 1 package M&M milk chocolate candies; fiber and vitamin supplements. Lunch: Grilled cheddar cheeseburger. Dinner: 3 slices pepperoni pizza, with a 16-ounce soda and 1 serving Archway sugar cookies.

This helps explain why 12-year-old schoolchildren develop thickening of their carotid arteries to the brain, and 80 percent of 20-year-old soldiers, dying in combat, are found to have coronary artery heart disease.

How could the government distribute this information and call it science? Members of the committee had financial ties to industries that benefit from higher protein and sugar allowances, and the panel was partly funded by corporate money.

I couldn't possibly come up with snark to match this - the stat about Iraq vets is frankly shocking. So many problems with our food and health are encapsulated in those three graphs. It's. Just. So. Wrong.


Photo by KRISnFRED used under a CC license

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More Farmers, Less Market

Daniel Duane in Mother Jones warns you about farmers markets becoming "farmers markets":
In 1994, there were 1,755 farmers markets in the United States; by 2008, there were 4,685. In the big scheme of things, this is terrific news; it means Americans are learning to feed themselves properly. But not all parts of the country have seen commensurate explosions in the number of small-scale local organic farmers. And the driving force in opening a farmers market is less often the organic revolution than it is economic revitalization, maybe a local chamber of commerce hoping to tempt people back to Main Street on weekends. When either is true, that chamber of commerce might take the path of least resistance and give the market contract to one of many farmers market associations populated by commercial growers, who then dominate the booth space. Nothing wrong on the face of this, except that, lured by funky folding tables in a parking lot, the consumer ends up going out of his way to buy produce he could get, probably cheaper, at any supermarket.
This should come as no surprise. Honestly, what do you expect when the local chamber of commerce is put in charge of food - you get a yuppie food mall, of course. "The market" gave us Wal-Mart, the Twinkie and Wonder Bread. When you put farmers markets at its mercy, this is what happens. Needless to say, the worst aspect of this development is the idea that commercial growers are taking (some might say "stealing") the farmers market price premium from those whom it's meant to benefit. That's the worst kind of cynicism, on the one hand, and par for the market course, on the other.

The fact is that if we want farmers markets to accomplish particular policy ends - whether it's to bring affordable fresh fruit and vegetables to cities or to provide dedicated outlets for small, local farms to sell their wares or both - government has to be involved. To see what I'm talking about, check out what's going on in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Or see Scott Stringers plan for NYC's local foodshed. And I'm not arguing that farmers markets should be one thing or another - but when "the market" is in charge, the result will naturally be a place where space that goes to the highest bidder. If the goal is to maximize profit, that's great. But if the goals are different - and are meant to align food distribution in the public, rather than the private, interests - then we'll have to put the chamber back in charge of glossy marketing materials and let food policy experts design some more appropriate incentives for our farmers markets.

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March 16, 2009

Poisoning the Water for a Nice Green Lawn

This is one of my pet peeves. Starting in the early spring when I see those Chemlawn trucks rolling through my neighborhood, I want to have my Howard Beale moment. I want to run up to these people and scream, "Why are you pouring poison on your lawn?!?!?"

I don't do it, of course, but I do marvel at the willingness people have to blindly pour that stuff on their property and thence into their drinking water. It has always surprised my that municipalities didn't seem to care. Apparently, that's changing:
A new law proposed by Steve Levy, the Suffolk County executive, prohibits lawn fertilizer applications from Nov. 1 to April 1 to prevent nitrogen runoff from frozen ground. The law, which also requires retailers to post signs near fertilizer displays advising customers of the date restrictions, took effect in January. Violators, whether landscapers or homeowners, risk fines of $1,000.

In a county with no other source for drinking water for its 1.4 million residents, rising levels of nitrates are no small matter, county health officials said. Once concentrations in a water supply exceed a longstanding federal and state health standard of 10 milligrams per liter, public drinking wells must be shut down or else costly denitrification equipment must be added at the wellhead. Even at lower levels, nitrates become an environmental concern, health officials said.
The restriction seem pretty mild to me - I'd ban lawn fertilization outright. Heck, in a world where people insist on watering them even in the midst of severe drought and where homeowners associations fine members if they don't, I'd ban lawns! But I'm not really that Stalinist. Not yet, anyway.

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March 13, 2009

Big Pig Strikes Back
In the wake of Nick Kristof's column on MRSA infections among hog farmers, Ob Fo found evidence of Big Pig (the National Pork Board) prepping its response. And here it is in all its lameness:
"They are making a huge leap attributing MRSA in these people to hogs," says Angela DeMirjyn, science communications manager for the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). The pork organization has been researching MRSA for some time, says DeMirjyn, and supports the CDC's statement that most community acquired MRSA infections are caused by a different bacteria than is commonly associated with pigs or pig farms.
There. Now don't you feel better? They're all over it like flies on, well, you get the point. They have, as that nameless intelligence bureaucrat assured Indiana Jones as regards research into the Ark of the Covenant, "top men working on it right now." Top men, indeed.

But wait, there's more rhetorical emptiness waiting for you:
"We also know that MRSA is not just staph bacteria that can be found in pigs, it also can be found in horses, dogs and even marine animals. It is not a problem that is solely related to pigs," DeMirjyn says.

MRSA, in fact, can be found anywhere in nature, according to Paul Ebner, a livestock microbiologist at Purdue University. While he says there has been an increase in the number of these infections and that pigs and other animals can be carriers, the vast majority of infections come from skin-to-skin contact with infected humans.
File that under "Beside The Point."

You know, I think these folks just might be panicked. Funny, Tom Philpott (at Grist) and I (at Ezra Klein's blog) covered the MRSA in pigs issue recently - it didn't get quite this reaction. I guess the Gray Lady has life in her yet.

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Gassy Almonds

First the attack on raw cheese. Then raw milk. And now raw almonds as we learn that the USDA requires that raw almonds, while remaining uncooked, be "pasteurized" using toxic gas. As Jill Richardson put it:
A while back some genius [at the USDA] decided that from now on all U.S. almonds can't be raw. Now, they might SAY "raw almonds" at the store, but they were actually treated either with steam or with a toxic gas (propylene oxide). And I hear that the steam treatment is prohibitively expensive.
A lawsuit brought by almond farmers against the USDA's imposition of this rule was just dismissed (though the farmers intend to appeal the ruling). The USDA is officially obsessed with keeping all raw foods out of consumers' hands. And keep in mind, unlike the peanut tragedy, these almonds are unprocessed and virtually risk-free. It's one more bit of proof that trying to eliminate all risk, rather than reasonable risk, can lead to big-time errors in judgment. The USDA should hire more statisticians as estimating real risk clearly has been thrown out the window - raw almonds represent virtually none. In fact, food science's attack on raw foods helps few entities more than the food processing companies.

Indeed, if many in the food industry had their way, we'd irradiate everything we didn't gas. As Marion Nestle said, "Irradiation is a late-stage techno-fix to a problem that should never have happened in the first place." It, like gassing products that already have a long shelf life, just saves us from having to deal with any of the underlying problems. Let's just disinfect the infected food.

This is also in line with the current fight over the USDA's National Animal Identification System - a system designed to track every food animal in the country from cradle to grave (fascism, it appears, is alive on well on the farm) in the name of tracing the source of disease outbreaks. The Ethicurean breaks it down for you, but suffice it to say that 1) existing ID systems don't seem to do any good and 2) it will put all small livestock owners out of business in favor of, you guessed it, large scale factory farms (aka CAFOs). Here's the perspective from a small farmer.

We're understandably in a "do something" mode on food safety right now. But the only answers we seem to come up with focus on the wrong end of the supply chain. I don't have any real confidence that the vested interests (industrial agriculture, food processors, government regulators) have any willingness to change that.

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March 11, 2009

"Mr. President, Tear Down This Blend Wall!"

So says USDA Chief Tom Vilsack. What he's referring to is the so-called Blend Wall for ethanol in gasoline. The EPA currently sets a limit of how much ethanol can be mixed into gas and then sold at your local gas station -- 10%. That limit is effectively the sales ceiling for ethanol -- once ethanol producers hit that "wall," refiners won't buy another drop.

With fuel consumption and oil prices both tanking which has led to a cratering of demand for ethanol, ethanol producers and their main suppliers -- corn farmers -- are desperate for a government handout. At first they asked for some of that stimulus money in the form of a direct bailout -- Vilsack didn't bite. No loans, no grants, no nothing. At the same time, Vilsack has said he wants to "maintain the infrastructure" of ethanol production while moving away from corn as the primary feedstock. The problem is that you can't do that without supporting the current ethanol industry, which is fueled by lots and lots (and lots) of that selfsame primary feedstock -- corn.

It's hard to imagine just how much corn is required to make a usable amount of ethanol. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute has a great quote that sums it up: "The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year." A year of food for a fill-up? In 2007, the US produced 6.5 BILLION gallons of the stuff. Do I really need to go on?

Fine, I will. Let's look at those 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol. That's a lot of gallons. It must be a big chunk of our annual gasoline use, right? Wrong. We used 142 billion gallons of gasoline last year. We grew all that corn -- corn that could have fed over two hundred million people for a year -- and all we got was less than 5% of the fuel we need. There's a t-shirt in there somewhere -- I just know it.

Meanwhile the climate impact from corn ethanol is staggering. Any study that attempts to take factors into account other than the energy content of corn vs. the energy content of gasoline shows corn ethanol to be a lousy option that offers no climate benefits. That's because you simply can't look at corn ethanol in isolation (which is how the corn farms and the ethanol lobby do it). Corn requires lots of fossil fuel-based fertilizer, pesticides, and diesel fuel to grow and harvest. Ethanol is also moved around by truck (rather than pipeline) so you need to take transportation into account - transport from the field to the factory and from the factory to the distributor and from the distributor to the gas station. That's a lot of trucking.

According to a new study out of Duke, the greenhouse gas contributions of just farming the corn entirely offset any carbon advantage from burning ethanol instead of gasoline in cars. Their conclusion: you're better off leaving the soil fallow. But you can't fully estimate the full effect of corn ethanol unless you take land use into account. Let me repeat that in All Caps: YOU HAVE TO TAKE LAND USE INTO ACCOUNT. And the land use issues are huge.

It's not just a question of using food for fuel. You have to calculate how many farmers will switch to corn from other less-profitable crops. You have to determine how much ecologically fragile land will be plowed under in the demand for corn. You have to look at how countries like Brazil will respond to US increases in corn production. Answer: they will burn down their rainforests so that they can grow the food crops we're not growing. A team from Woods Hole Research Center determined that expanding corn ethanol production will thus cause a big jump in greenhouse gas emissions. And Lester Brown points out the same may be true for non-food crops like switchgrass (a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol), "if it is that profitable on marginal land, imagine how profitable it would be on prime crop land."

So here we are with our backs to the blend wall. I should note that Vilsack and industry shills like retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who now works for the new ethanol lobby group Growth Energy, are not in fact asking the President to change the blend wall. They are asking the EPA. In the past, the EPA has evaluated the "safety" of mixing ethanol in gasoline based on damage the ethanol might do to a car engine and/or its catalytic converter. And that's why, as Ob Fo noted yesterday, Vilsack thinks "that this is something that can be done within existing regulations without a great deal of time spent reviewing the science." Indeed, Reuters reports that "many believe the EPA has the authority to allow a temporary jump to 12 or 13 percent" without any meaningful review. That "authority" flows entirely from the EPA's past car engine research.

And there's the rub. Is it possible that EPA scientists will ignore the carbon issue in the course of considering a change in the blend wall? The controversy over corn ethanol's climate impact is fairly well recognized. For all the lobbying (with even climate-friendly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supporting the change), the EPA could still punt and say that the new data on climate impacts require them to look at the blend wall more closely. The EPA is, after all, on the verge of making its official "endangerment" finding, as required by a recent Supreme Court case, that carbon dioxide must be regulated as a pollutant. Any blend wall decision could be mooted by that finding.

This whole ethanol mishegas is what happens when a shortsighted energy policy based on "reducing our dependence on foreign oil" (rather than reducing our dependence on carbon period) meets one of the all-time greatest government giveaways (in this case to industrial agriculture) - aka the corn ethanol boondoggle. As Ezra Klein memorably put it, corn ethanol "is agribusiness's get-rich-quick scheme masquerading as an energy policy." And boy, are we paying for that profligacy now.

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March 10, 2009

Fun with the House Ag Committee

It's easy to focus only on House Ag Chairman Rep. Collin "organic is dumb" Peterson's awesomely dismissive quotage regarding Obama's proposed agriculture subsidy cuts (via FarmPolicy.com). "It's more than dead on arrival." "They're going to have to go back to the drawing board." "This is a really stupid idea." Collin. Dude. C'mon and tell us what you really think!

Anyway none of that's surprising. What is surprising is this:
The House Agriculture Committee will canvass 400 groups for ways that American farmers can make money from efforts to control greenhouse gases, Chairman Collin Peterson said on Monday.

Peterson said the committee probably would hold hearings in three or four weeks on the issue. A bill could follow the hearings, Peterson said on the sidelines of the National Farmers Union convention.

"We need to get out ahead of this and figure out how agriculture can be a beneficiary of this," Peterson said.

That's the spirit, Collin! As I surmised, the proper carrot (preferably green two ways) might get Rep. Peterson on board the good ship Reform. Meanwhile Sen. Tom Harkin - chair of the Senate Ag Committee - voiced similar sentiments regarding carbon offsets recently. Any hope of cutting subsidies is thus tied to this emerging "ecological services" market. But Harkin and Peterson are mistaken about one thing - that agribusiness as it functions now would actually benefit from carbon credits. Big Ag gets it, though:

[T]he president of the American Farm Bureau Federation told reporters last week that climate-change legislation may hurt, rather than help, the farm sector.

AFBF President Bob Stallman said emissions legislation could drive up the cost of fuel, fertilizer and pesticides while the payment per-acre for carbon control is low.

Exactly, Bob! That's the whole point - we're trying to change the way you do business, my friend. I wonder what happens when the AFBF mentions this little fact to Collin. Will that be the end of that? Or will Big Ag finally be forced to green up their act? Stay tuned.

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March 5, 2009

Rainforests: It Gets Worse
Well, I needed something to replace my fear of an imminent catastrophic melting of the permafrost. Looks like I found it (via Grist):
Drought is killing off trees in Brazil's fragile Amazon rain forest and depleting the region's carbon reservoirs -- an ecological double-whammy with devastating implications, according to a study published Thursday.

Researchers said the total impact of the drought was an additional five billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere -- more than the combined annual emissions of Europe and Japan.

The research from more than 40 institutions around the world was gathered during the particularly harsh 2005 drought, which had a severe impact on the flora of the Amazon.

The drought that year dramatically reversed decades of carbon absorption, the researchers said.
Oh well.

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Linkage
I have a piece up at change.org on the Obama administration's attempt to link agricultural subsidy cuts with a new market-based "enviromental services" program.

Since I wrote that, however, USDA Chief Tom Vilsack decided that it would be a good idea to pit farmers against hungry kids. I'm doubtful.

And look what I said about Alice Waters! Don't get too mad at me...

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March 4, 2009

Big Mac-Free School Zones

While I don't support sending squads out to close all McDonald's, the IFA's Sara Mead ran across a study that suggests maybe the squads should close some McDonald's:
A new study by economists from Berkeley and Columbia University finds that 9th graders who attend schools within a tenth of a mile of a fast food restaurant are 5.2 percent more likely to be obese. Such students consume 30 to 100 more calories a day than their peers.
Let's remember that a tenth of a mile is only a little more than 500 feet. It's also worth noting that the study indicates the proximity effect drops off rapidly. Have a fast food restaurant a quarter mile from a school? No problem!

If we can have drug-free school zones, why not fast-food-free school zones? Given that 100 daily calories is what some scientists believe to be the difference between maintaining a normal weight and overeating, if you cut those extra calories out you're talking about much healthier kids. Seems like it's worth a few zoning updates.

Photo by bee-side(s) used under a CC license

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March 3, 2009

Don't Count on the Rainforests

Scientists in Australia have discovered that one of the primary assumptions surrounding tropical rainforests - that they can continue to absorb massive amounts of carbon as the climate warms - is dead wrong. Business Green reports that according to this new research:
...even a two degree increase in average global temperatures will see the "carbon sink" effect currently provided by the world's rainforests cut in half.

It also calculates that should temperatures reach four degrees above pre-industrial levels, the rate of forest die-off will reach a level where rainforests become a net contributor to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, potentially triggering runaway climate change.

We're on a path to more than two degree warming right now. I wonder how this will look when NASA or the IPCC plugs this new data into their climate models. I'm thinking bad.

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