ISIS Report 27/06/06
How to be Fuel and Food Rich under Climate Change
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho rejects
solutions offered by governments and tells us how to survive the climate
change and energy crisis in style
A fully referenced version of this article is posted on ISIS members’
website. Membership details here
Governments spinning for the next big solution
The end of cheap fossil fuels and the rapidly widening gap between supply and
demand have sent our governments into a tailspin for the next big solution.
Tony Blair wants to give Britain nuclear power, and you’ve heard Peter Saunders
on why not (“Nuclear power: A leap
into the dark energy chasm”, this series).
George W. Bush is offering the United States biofuels: ethanol from corn, sugarcane
and hopefully, wood biomass; and biodiesel from soybeans, sunflower and other
oil seeds (“Biofuels for oil addicts”,
A “billion ton vision”
was unveiled  to make available 1.3 billion tons of dry biomass for the
biofuels industry by the middle of this century, to provide 30 percent of
the country’s fuel use. It comes with all kinds of optimistic assumptions,
such as a fifty percent increase in crop yield.
Europe, too, has set a target of 5.75
percent of EU’s transport fuel as biofuels by 2010, increasing to 8 percent
Biofuels Corporation plc is here in Britain.
The first 250 000 Mt biodiesel processing plant is nearing completion at Seal
Sands Middlebrough on the northeast coast of England, and it will be using
vegetable oil crops .
Biofuels from energy crops are bad news
Biofuels from energy crops are bad news, as our Energy Review makes clear (http://www.i-sis.org.uk/ISIS_energy_review_exec_sum.pdf).
To sum up: there isn’t enough land to grow energy crops and food crops.
The pressure on land will accelerate deforestation, and cause huge increases
in carbon emissions, so biofuels won’t be carbon neutral as claimed. Bioenergy
crops will destroy biodiversity, and accelerate global warming and species extinction.
Above all, they will threaten the food security of the poorest nations, and
raise food prices for all countries as food and energy compete for the same
‘feedstock’. Bioenergy crops are also unsustainable, as they deplete soil minerals
and reduce soil fertility especially in the long term. They generally give small
to negative energy returns when you do the life-cycle analysis properly. The
processing wastes have substantial negative impacts on the environment. And
although biodiesel is cleaner than diesel, ethanol is not; it generates mutagens
and carcinogens and increases ozone levels in the atmosphere.
There is no spare land for bioenergy crops
Calculations based on the
best-case scenario of unrealistically high crop yields and high recovery of
biofuels from processing still end up requiring 121 percent of all the farmland
in the United States to grow enough biomass to substitute for the fossil fuels
consumed each year .
The EU target of
5.75 percent biofuel substitution for fossil fuels will require at least 14
to 19 percent of farmland to grow bioenergy crops . There will be no set-aside
left to protect natural biodiversity, as that’s only 12 percent of farmland
in the EU. So, what will that do to our butterflies, birds and bees?
The latest satellite
data reveal that 40 percent of the earth’s land is already used up for agriculture
, either growing crops or for pasture. There is no spare land for growing
food, let alone bioenergy crops.
Biofuels and deforestation
Greenpeace has photographed
a horrific aerial view of the vast swathes of the Amazonian forest in Brazil
cleared for soybean cultivation. A sample of press reports indicates things
are getting worse.
Fred Pearce wrote
in the New Scientist November
2005 : “From the orang-utan reserves of Borneo to the Brazilian Amazon,
virgin forest is being razed to grow palm oil and soybeans to fuel cars and
power stations in Europe and North America. And surging prices [of fossil
fuels] are likely to accelerate the destruction.”
“The expansion of
palm oil production is one of the leading causes of rainforest destruction
in south-east Asia,” said Simon Counsell, direction of UK-based Rainforest
George Monbiot, writing
in The Guardian December 2005,
quoted from Friends of the Earth Report that between 1985 and 2000 the development
of oil-palm plantations was responsible for an estimated 87 percent of deforestation
in Malaysia. In Sumatra and Borneo, 4 million hectares of forests were lost
to palm farms; and now a further 6 m ha are scheduled for clearance in Malaysia
and 16.5 m ha in Indonesia . These forests are home to the orang-utan,
the Sumatran rhinos, tigers, gibbons, tapirs, proboscis monkeys and thousands
of other species, all of which could become extinct. Thousands
of indigenous people have been evicted and 500 tortured when they tried to
resist. The entire region is being turned into a gigantic vegetable oil field.
Biofuels and food price hike
The confederation of the food and drink industries of
the EU has already expressed concern over the price increases for food ingredients,
especially rapeseed . The rapeseed oil prices were recently up 45 percent
and demand within the EU is forecast to increase by 25 percent. Cereals prices
are also predicted to go up.
In the United
States, huge amounts of corn go to produce ethanol, and corn and ethanol are
heavily subsidized at both the state and federal levels. The total cost to
the consumer is estimated at $8.4 billion a year because producing the required
corn feedstock increases corn prices. One estimate is that ethanol production
adds more than $1 billion to the cost of beef production . Last year, a
$1 per gallon government rebate on biodiesel went into effect. The US livestock
producers are likely to see even higher prices for smaller available supplies
of grain for feed . Currently 11 percent of the US corn crop goes to produce
ethanol, and 15 percent is exported to livestock producers as far away as
Japan and South Korea. The grain operator ADM will construct its first
wholly owned US biodiesel facility in North Dakota to take full advantage
of the multiple subsidies, which will make things worse for farmers, consumers
and the environment without providing a real solution to climate change and
the energy crisis.
So what’s the real
Plenty of solutions
There are many solutions in renewable energies that are
truly sustainable, as described in our ISIS Energy Report.
Solar power, for example, is getting cheaper, more versatile
and more efficient everyday. The world’s energy needs can be satisfied with
solar panels at even a low 10 percent efficiency covering just 0.1 percent
of the earth’s surface. They can be incorporated into existing building structures
and are ideal for local micro-generation .
I want to concentrate
on energy from biological wastes, which has enormous potentials not only in
terms of energy that can be harvested, but also in reducing carbon emissions.
But not I hasten to add, not
incineration, which is also what the Blair government is supporting .
First and foremost is anaerobic digestion to harvest
biogas, which is 60 percent or more methane that can be used the same way
as natural gas.
Anaerobic digestion of biological wastes for a renewable and carbon mitigating
There are numerous advantages
of anaerobic digestion, which has the potential
to provide 11.7 percent of all energy needs, or 50.2 percent of transport
fuels in the UK. Methane can be used both as fuel for mobile vehicles
or for stationary combined heat and power generation.
are already in the market, and they are the cleanest vehicles on the road
by far, ranking top green cars of the year in 2005 . Sweden has thousands
of them, supported by hundreds of filling stations; many operated from locally
Biogas methane is
a renewable and carbon mitigating fuel; it is more than carbon neutral.
It saves on carbon emission twice over, by
preventing the escape of greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide into the
atmosphere and by substituting for fossil fuel.
conserves plant nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous for soil productivity.
In fact, many third world countries started to use anaerobic digestion for
making good fertilisers before they began to use the methane for energy.
prevents pollution of ground water, soil and air with nitrates, methane, nitrous
oxides, and other contaminants. It improves food and farm hygiene, and has
been shown to destroy disease bacteria. It can be adapted to produce hydrogen
either directly or from methane. And if and when research and development
in hydrogen storage and fuel cells become further advanced, anaerobic digestion
can link up quite easily.
There’s a company, Organic Power Ltd, run by Chris Maltin in Somerset here
in Britain, which produces its own biogas methane to run methane-powered Mercedes
people carriers (“Organic
waste-powered cars”, SiS 30).
Anaerobic digestion of biological wastes can provide 11.7
percent of UK’s energy needs and saves at least 15.8 percent of carbon emissions
Here are the calculations
showing how UK’s biological wastes can potentially provide more than half
(50.3 percent) of transport fuel and 11.7 percent of all energy consumed in
UK produces 434 Mt
of solid wastes a year, of which 25.5 Mt of municipal solid wastes and 62.143
Mt of commercial and industrial wastes are organic and suitable for anaerobic
digestion. These numbers are extracted from a report written for the Office
of National Statistics published in January 2005 . From FAO statistics
, I gathered that UK’s total agricultural production in 2005 was 41.6915
Mt, counting cereals, fruits, pulses, vegetables, oilseed rape, sugar beet,
potatoes, and mushrooms. Assuming that waste constitutes fifty percent of
the harvest, i.e., 41.6915 Mt, the total amount of biological waste that can
be treated in anaerobic digesters is 129.3345 Mt. This includes high-yielding
feedstock such as fats and grease, bakery wastes, food scraps, grass silage,
green clippings and brewery wastes, producing 961 to 120 cubic metres of methane
per tonne .
In addition, there
were 11.887 million cows, 43.851 million sheep, 7.719 million pigs and 128.261
million poultry in the UK in 2005 , producing 208.685 Mt of livestock
manure, according to estimates of per capita livestock manure production given
by the report from the Office of National Statistics . The different manures
yield 25 to 80 cubic metres methane per tonne .
Taking a conservative
average of 200 cubic metres for the organic wastes and 30 for the livestock
manure, we get enough to produce 1 285 PJ (1015J)
of methane energy per year. The total energy consumed in the UK in 2005 was
10670 PJ, or which 3643 PJ were transport fuels . Thus, methane from wastes can potentially supply 11.7 percent
of UK’s total energy requirement, or 50.3 percent of transport fuels.
This is quite remarkable.
The carbon emissions saved is even more astonishing.
The total volume of methane potentially available from
biological wastes each year is 32 070 million cubic metres. Assuming
a global warming potential of 22, this is
equivalent to 508.0 Mt of carbon dioxide, which comes to a whopping 90.6 percent
of the national emissions of 561 Mt ! The same amount of methane substituting for fossil fuels save 88.8 Mt,
a more realistic 15.8 percent of the national
carbon dioxide emissions. These figures suggest to me that we have
seriously underestimated the greenhouse gases emitted by the mountains of
biological wastes in this country, indeed in any
country that go into landfills; and that methane mitigation will contribute an extraordinary amount to reducing
actual greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Green algae for carbon capture and sustainable biodiesel
A league table compiled
by the Guardian newspaper showed
that the five biggest polluters in the UK are all power stations, and together
produced more carbon dioxide than all the country’s motorists . EON UK,
the electricity generator that owns Powergen, UK’s top, emitted 26.4 Mt carbon
dioxide in 2005, slightly more than Croatia.
The five (EON UK, RWE Npower,
Drax, Corus and EDF) together produced over 100 Mt, while the country’s 26
million motorcars produce 91 Mt.
Another big solution considered by the UK government
is CCS, carbon capture and storage. It is a process literally to capture the
carbon dioxide from the exhaust of big power stations and store it deep underground.
This method is clumsy and uneconomical, and even the US Department of Energy
appears not to favour it . So what is the real alternative?
Green algae actually don’t mind growing in the exhaust gas from power generation
(“Green algae for carbon capture
& biodisel”, SiS 30).
A suitable species can mop up 40 percent of the carbon
dioxide, and 86 percent of nitrous oxide when bolted to the exhaust, where
it grows prolifically. Some species can yield up to 50 percent oil by weight,
and you can get up to 15 000 gallons of biodiesel an acre a year, as opposed
to 60 gallons from an acre of soybean.
Putting all the appropriate technologies together
How can we put all these technologies together to be food and fuel secure or
even food and fuel rich? Just as we cannot depend on imported energy,
we may not be able to depend on imported food. All the predictions are that
global warming will impact negatively on food production, particularly as water
is also depleted as well as oil, and conventional industrial agriculture is
addicted to both of them  (“Sustainable
food system for sustainable development” SiS 27).
To make things worse, our globalised food
trade uses up a lot of energy and spews extra mega tonnes of carbon emissions
into the atmosphere.
The social, environmental, and economic costs of food transport in the United
Kingdom estimated in a report commissioned by DEFRA amounted to £9 billion a
year, or 34 percent of the total value of the food sector  (“Food
miles and sustainability”). There is every reason to be self-sufficient
in food and to consume food produced locally. It is healthier, more nutritious
and saves on energy and carbon emissions.
The same goes
for energy. Energy use at the point of production saves 69 percent on efficiency
alone, as the ‘waste’ heat can be used in combined heat and power generation,
and also avoids the average 7.4 percent loss incurred in long distance transfer
of electricity through the grid .
Farm I for energy and food self-sufficiency
Things all come together in Prof. George Chan’s idea of integrated food and
waste management system, which I have described as  (“Dream
farms”, SiS 27), “abundantly productive farms with zero input and zero emission
powered by waste-gobbling bugs and human ingenuity.” We are very fortunate to
have Prof. George here to say a few words to us ( “Complete recycling of all
resources for sustainability”, this series).
In George’s farm,
which I call Dream Farm I, the anaerobic digester is the key technology. You
can have two, three or more in series or in parallel. The anaerobic
takes in livestock manure plus wastewater, and the naturally occurring bacteria
in the manure ferment the wastes and generate biogas, which provides all the
energy needs for heating, cooking and electricity. The partially cleansed
wastewater goes into the aerobic digester, shallow basins where green algae
produce by photosynthesis all the oxygen needed to detoxify the water, making
it safe before it goes into fishponds. The algae are harvested to feed chickens,
ducks, geese and other livestock. The fishponds support a compatible mixture
of 5-6 fish species. Water from the fishponds is used to ‘fertigate’ crops
growing in the fields or on the raised dykes. Aquaculture of rice, fruits,
vegetables and flowers can be done in floats on the surface of the fishpond,
saving backbreaking work involved in weeding and watering. Water from the
fishponds can also be pumped into greenhouses to support aquaculture of fruits
and vegetables, where the remaining nutrients are removed, and the water polished
clean to return to the aquifers. The anaerobic digester yields a residue rich
in nutrients that is an excellent fertiliser for crops. It could also be mixed
with algae and crop residues for culturing mushrooms after steam sterilisation.
The residue from mushroom culture can be fed to livestock or composted. Crop
residues are fed back to livestock. Crop and food residues are used to grow
earthworms to feed fish and fowl. Compost and worm castings go to condition
the soil. Livestock manure goes back into the anaerobic digester, thus closing
the grand cycle. The result is a highly productive farm that’s more than self-sufficient
in food and energy, and saves
substantially on carbon emissions.
George’s farms make
happy animals. They are organically fed and toilet-trained to deposit their
manure into a sump that goes to the digester, so the animals and their housing
are spotlessly clean.
Another aspect worth
stressing, especially in times of water shortage and floods is that the fishponds in Dream Farm I are great for water management,
it provides water conservation, purification and flood control. As the dykes are raised
above the surrounding levels from the mud dug up, they can accommodate much
more water without overflowing in times of heavy rain, and provide an effective
reservoir in times of scarcity. Aquaculture on the surface of the pond also
helps reduce evaporation losses.
Based on Dream Farm I, we have proposed to set up a Dream Farm II  for
education/demonstration and research purposes (“Dream
Farm II, how to beat climate change and post-fossil fuel economy”, SiS29),
to act as incubator for new technologies, new designs and ideas, and as information
exchange to support real farms like this springing up all over our countryside
and all over the world. Such farms can supply nearby schools, old peoples’ homes,
towns and cities with fresh healthy foods all year round, reducing their enormous
ecological footprints immeasurably, and also contribute to revitalising the
The additional elements are all forms of renewable energies
suitable for local energy generation at the medium, small to micro-scale.
Solar panels, wind turbines, suitably scaled down and improved for aesthetic
design. The farmed livestock, fish and crops
will be based on indigenous species and local varieties as much as possible,
providing an opportunity for Britain to recover its rich heritage of natural
and agricultural biodiversity that has been decimated by decades of industrial
agriculture. It would enhance the local cuisine and restore healthy
diets to the nation. Jimmie Oliver would be ecstatic about this farm, which
could support an on-site gourmet restaurant as well as an analytical laboratory.
Our approach is to
get the farm up and running on core technologies while newer technologies
are integrated or substituted at the periphery as time goes on, including
hydrogen technologies, and carbon capture using algae by passing the exhaust
from the combined heat and power generator through the algae culture, and
turning the algae into biodiesel.
The possibilities are endless. Giving up fossil fuel not only
gives us a greener and healthier planet, it will unleash all the bottled up
creativity and energies that work for people and planet.
Dream Farm and the new paradigm
Dream Farm is
also a concrete demonstration of a new paradigm at work.
The important features of zero-emission, zero-waste
systems are the same as the ‘zero-entropy’ model of organisms and sustainable
systems I first proposed in 1998 in my book, The
Rainbow and the Worm, the Physics of Organisms.
The zero-entropy model predicts balanced
development and growth as opposed to the dominant economic model of infinite,
unsustainable growth. The alternative to the dominant model is definitely
not an end to growth, as too many critics
Instead, the key to how organisms survive and thrive is the same
as what makes a system sustainable. It involves maximising reciprocal, cooperative
and synergetic relationships rather than the competitive; it is to use the
output of each cycle to feed another, and closing the big cycle in a balanced
way. In the context of the farm, it is to turn ‘wastes’ into resources.
In the dominant model,
the system grows relentlessly, swallowing up the earth’s resources without
end, laying waste to everything in its path, like a hurricane. There is no
closed cycle to hold resources within, to build up stable organised social
or ecological structures.
By contrast, the
archetype of a sustainable system is a closed lifecycle, it is ready to grow
and develop, to build up structures and perpetuate them, and that’s what sustainability
is all about. Closing the cycle creates
a stable, autonomous structure that maintains itself and renews itself. In other words,
it is self-sufficient.
The cycle contains more cycles within that help one another
thrive and flourish, as in the minimum integrated farm, with farmer, livestock
and crops. It can perpetuate itself as such, or it can grow by incorporating
more life-cycles, more crops, more productivity, more farm workers, more jobs.
The carrying capacity of a piece of land is by no means a constant. It can
be ten times more productive, depending on how it is organised.
That is why productivity and biodiversity always go together. Industrial monoculture,
by contrast, is the least energy efficient in terms of output per unit of
input, and less productive in absolute terms despite high external inputs,
as documented in recent academic research. Biodiversity is nature’s way of
maximising the reciprocal, symbiotic relationship that sustain all and make
the whole ecosystem thrive. That is the lesson we need to embrace for a paradigm
shift to the wonderful life without fossil fuels.
is based on her presentation in the Which Energy? Launch Conference, House of Commons, 25 May 2006, London,