Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Finally, A Use Found for Diversity

While trolling Classical Values (one of the services I provide to the web)(the trolling, not the site), I noted a piece from Simon, who said:

It looks like the biofuels guys have plans for our future. Biofuels are supposed to be he great panacea for the burning problem of the day - man made global warming. Hey not so fast. It turns out biofuels could cause food shortages.

Have you checked food prices lately? When the price of corn goes up, it affects not only the price of corn itself, but others, especially beef and pork. But it also creates a longer-term incentive for farmers to grow more corn, rather than soybeans, which creates a need for more chemical fertilizers and pesticides when farmers grow corn-over-corn, rather than using good crop rotation. And that puts demand on soybeans, wheat, and other crops, as fewer farmers crow those crops in favor of corn.

Higher corn prices will have an effect on illegal immigration, as well. Food prices in Mexico, where corn is a big part of the diet, have gone way up. That makes leaving Mexico to come to the US more attractive.

But it turns out that in producing biofuel (either alcohol or diesel), corn and other cultivated crops (except sugar cane) are not as good as untended prairie.

Cultivated crops require more fossil fuel to grow than they produce. But when you don't cultivate the crop, and just let it grow, weeds and all, two nice things happen.

First, you don't have to buy pesticide, fertilizer, or seeds, since the stuff just grows. Costs plummet.

Secondly, it turns out that the more types of plants you allow to grow, the more overall mass per acre that grows. It's this little thing called diversity, which is overrated in committees but works really, really well for growing biofuel, 3 times better than a monoculture.

I don't think biofuels are the answer to our energy needs. But they are a useful alternative to buying oil from people who want to kill us. Nuclear power and electric vehicles, or hybrid electric/diesel or electric/hydrogen vehicles would help a lot, as would using our own off-shore oil fields.

But an unhealthy (but highly diverse) coalition of farmers wanting grain subsidies, oil companies, ag companies, and environmentalists afraid of both nuclear power and oil spills has kept us from being weaned of foreign oil.

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