Gas, Corn, and Consequences

Gasoline prices are at all-time highs here in Texas, including a whopping $3.46 in Houston, home of many oil-related businesses and refineries.  Many parts of the U.S. are experiencing even higher prices, to say nothing of Europe, et al, so I expect little sympathy from most readers. 

So what’s a government to do?  Meddle, of course!  But as Mark Steyn so eloquently puts it, "The real problem isn’t the "problem" but the Big Government solution to it."

To whit, Nancy Pelosi recently sent an apparently pointless letter to John Boehner recapping the many wonderful energy bills passed during her tenure, which include:

The Energy Price Gouging Act — H.R. 1252

The No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels (NOPEC) Act — H.R. 2264

This legislation enables the Department of Justice to take legal action against OPEC-controlled entities for participating in oil cartels that drive up oil prices globally and in the United States.

This legislation will reduce the burden of rising gas prices on American families, providing immediate relief to consumers by giving the Federal Trade Commission (FTC: 28.81, +0.03, +0.10%) the authority to investigate and punish those who artificially inflate the price of energy.

Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act of 2008 — H.R. 5351

With Exxon Mobil ranked as the most profitable company in 2007 today, it is unnecessary for taxpayers to subsidize Big Oil. This bill will end unnecessary subsidies to Big Oil companies and invest in clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency. It will extend and expand tax incentives for renewable electricity, energy and fuel, as well as for plug-in hybrid cars, and energy efficient homes, buildings, and appliances. These provisions are critical to creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.

All of which is nice, except that it doesn’t do anything to solve the fundamental problem:  unreliable energy sources.  In response, President Bush has championed ethanol mandates that call for ethanol consumption to increase by 700% in the next 10 years.  But will this have the desired effects of lowering domestic energy prices and providing a consistent source of energy produced here at home?

Perhaps in the short-term.  But globally, ethanol produced from grain is a ready-made disaster in terms of food prices.  James Hamilton agrees, saying:

If this is what we get in a good year, what will happen when we have a bad crop?

American consumers are starting to see some of the consequences of our ill-fated ethanol policy in the prices of everything from meat to ice cream. While well-fed Americans may gripe, the implications for those in sub-Saharan Africa are quite alarming.

Mark Steyn again:

We are on the verge of a global tragedy, summed up in the characteristically smug bumper sticker Mona spotted the other day: "Don’t burn fuel. Grow it." The ecochondriacs abetted by the likes of Senator Grassley have taken subsistence crops and made them part of the energy market. No good can come of that, only vast human misery.

Even if we were prepared to accept that outcome – and I don’t think that we should be, despite the fact that the grain is ours to do with as we please – grain-based ethanol is not a sustainable source of energy from an efficiency of production standpoint alone.

I’ll close with this quote from C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer:

The enormous volume of corn required by the ethanol industry is sending shock waves through the food system. (The United States accounts for some 40 percent of the world’s total corn production and over half of all corn exports.) In March 2007, corn futures rose to over $4.38 a bushel, the highest level in ten years. Wheat and rice prices have also surged to decade highs, because even as those grains are increasingly being used as substitutes for corn, farmers are planting more acres with corn and fewer acres with other crops.

This might sound like nirvana to corn producers, but it is hardly that for consumers, especially in poor developing countries, who will be hit with a double shock if both food prices and oil prices stay high. The World Bank has estimated that in 2001, 2.7 billion people in the world were living on the equivalent of less than $2 a day; to them, even marginal increases in the cost of staple grains could be devastating. Filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires over 450 pounds of corn — which contains enough calories to feed one person for a year. By putting pressure on global supplies of edible crops, the surge in ethanol production will translate into higher prices for both processed and staple foods around the world. Biofuels have tied oil and food prices together in ways that could profoundly upset the relationships between food producers, consumers, and nations in the years ahead, with potentially devastating implications for both global poverty and food security.

Toxic Food

The Houston Chronicle recently reported some disturbing environmental news:

For the first time, Texas has generated its own “dead zone” in coastal waters, scientists say.

The 1,750-square-mile area of oxygen-depleted water, stretching from Freeport to Matagorda Bay, is potentially deadly to marine life.

Until this summer’s heavy rainfall, Texas A&M University oceanographer Steve DiMarco said, Texas rivers typically were incapable of carrying enough fresh water into the Gulf to create dead zones.

That changed a month ago, when a National Marine Fisheries Service boat taking fish counts also measured oxygen in the water. Those scientists passed their results to DiMarco.

“I’m looking at this data and I’m astounded,” he said. “We’ve long expected that Texas had the potential for this to occur, but it typically doesn’t rain in Texas enough for this to happen.”

DiMarco said he plans to travel to the area, at the mouth of the Brazos River, as soon as this weekend to take further measurements and gauge the impact of Texas’ dead zone, which extends about 25 miles offshore. So far, he said, he hasn’t had any reports of detrimental effects, such as lower fishing catches or marine animal die-offs.

The rains of June and July have pushed the Brazos beyond all known discharge records, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Texas has been received large amounts of rain, true, but there’s something fundamentally problematic about the news that a 40 mile by 40 mile stretch of the Gulf of Mexico is toxic to plant and fish life.

For years the Mississippi has been doing the same thing off the coast of Louisiana. Compared to the new Texas dead zone:

A larger dead zone, caused by farm fertilizers, soil erosion and discharge from sewage treatment plants carried into the Gulf by the Mississippi River, forms annually off the Louisiana coast.

While there are undoubtedly other causes of the poisoned ocean aside fertilizers there is no denying that our hunger for food and the resulting pressure to grow more and more of it is responsible for polluting the Gulf’s waters.

Population control is not a sexy subject anymore – the green movement has gone on to different issues like the vandalism of Hummers and actresses’ furs – but it is still a fundamental problem in that humans demand a relatively fixed amount of food to keep themselves alive. More people means more food is needed and this necessarily leads to fertilization as farmers try to meet the demand.

It seems obvious that there are either: A) too many people already living on Earth; or B) about to be too many.

Even the esteemed Melanie Phillips doesn’t seem to understand the rather basic fact that we’re demanding too much from the Earth’s environment:

Back in la-la land, the new head of the Science Museum in London, Professor Chris Rapley, turns out to be a global warming zealot. In an interview with the Telegraph, he not only asserts that that there is an ‘unequivocal’ link between mankind’s fossil fuel emissions and the global temperature rise seen over the past few decades, but he turns out to be an advocate of — guess what— population control.

It is Rapley’s view that the ‘jury is still out’ on the prediction by Thomas Malthus, the 19th-century demographer, that the human race would exceed its food supply by having too many children.

Hello?? The jury is not still out on Malthus. It came in a long time ago. Malthus has been proved wrong. Nevertheless, his highly unpleasant and dangerous philosophy – essentially, that mankind is the enemy of the good — which went underground in the wake of the eugenics and Nazi movements to which it contributed, has surfaced again in the apocalyptic green movement and man-made global warming theory. The real target of the global warmers is not carbon dioxide; it is not even the internal combustion engine; it is the human race.

Malthus has hardly been proven wrong. If anything the chronic food shortages in various parts of the world and the environmental damage and chemical-laden production techniques used in agricultural nations like the U.S. are indicators that we’re well on our way to proving him right.


As if to prove the point:

Britain tried to contain an outbreak of highly infectious foot and mouth on Saturday, culling cattle at a farm outside London to prevent a repeat of the ruinous damage caused by the disease six years ago.

The Environment Ministry said the strain of the virus found in infected cattle in the county of Surrey, southwest of London, was one not recently found in animals.

“It is most similar to strains used in international diagnostic laboratories and in vaccine production, including at the Pirbright site shared by the Institute of Animal Health (IAH) and Merial Animal Health Ltd, a pharmaceutical company,” the Ministry said in a statement.

The Pirbright site is a few miles (km) from the infected area and is used to test foot and mouth samples.

This disease is spread by via air and contact.  It seems obvious that animal density is a factor.  Said density is also obviously related to the production of more meat and dairy products on a fixed amount of land.

What would Malthus have to say about this?

Agriculture: Good or Bad?

This is an interesting re-print of a nearly 20 year old opinion piece printed in Discover.

I’m curious as to other opinions about it.

The concept that social parasites, all too common in modern-day America, originated with agricultural society caught my attention because it has the ring of truth about it. This is not to say that hunter-gathers didn’t have a social hierarchy, they did, but rather that once a population settles into a location from which an individual’s relocation is difficult or impossible the tendency for non-merit-based dominance becomes much more normal than in a non-nomadic society.