29 May 2007

The Price of Bread - Part 2

"One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise."
- Aldo Leopold, Round River

I’ve had 2 comments in the past couple of days over my bread blog. Both my friends brought up ethanol and biofuels. Originally, I had another paragraph in my blog about the affects of bread increases on local biofuel use, but I confess I had not thought the commodity chain through to the other end.

Here is the original article that appeared in AIM online:

Bakers Put Up Price Of Bread

Damien, an Australian living in rural Indonesia, commented on how people are expressing similar fears where he is living. Food prices will rise as farmers switch from food crops to crops that can be used for food, animal feed, and most importantly, biofuels like ethanol. My friend James, back home in Athens, wrote me a couple of long, darkly humorous emails on ethanol and the price of bread. He never posts this stuff as a comment (hint hint) so I cut and paste his emails here.
“Sadly, the price of bread and most other foods made from grain is going to increase sharply over the next few years now that cars are competing with people for food. Stupid ethanol. Unfortunately, the whole corn ethanol situation isn't very funny.... it just seems like a big scam to me. The positive energy balance for corn ethanol isn't very high, and some scientists say that under certain conditions it's actually negative. Ethanol from sugarcane is a lot more efficient but it's hardly problem free and it still removes valuable agricultural lands from production. As governments increase ethanol subsidies and as the demand for ethanol grows we are going to see major changes in the global food economy..... farmers are going to switch from wheat to corn when possible..... animal feed is going to become more expensive so milk and meat prices will also rise... the US might even get to the point where we stops exporting corn because we can sell it internally at higher profits for use as ethanol. Of course, once the oceans start dying we can turn them into giant algae farms and get our ethanol that way. :)”

One of the points I left out of my bread blog concerns local effects on the environment from bread price increases. Bakeries make bread at a central location for a lot of people (economy of scale). When people start cooking more at home because they can't afford bread, they need energy to do so. Here in Mozambique, that means firewood and charcoal. More people will need to harvest wood, more trees will be cut, and more biodiversity (species, habitat, ecosystem services, etc.) will be damaged. Additionally, since most of the people that will switch to wood/charcoal live in the city, they don’t see the daily affects of their actions which makes it all the easier to live with.

To me, this argues for an increased focus on agroforestry (sustainable biofuel and food production), local production of foods and services (cut down on fuel use, provide work, and ensure some sort of stable food supply adapted to local conditions), and vegetarianism (eliminate animal consumption of crops, this isn’t going to happen but I can dream). Food security, in Mozambique and elsewhere, is not going to get easier under our current and predicted environmental problems. We know the many problems associated with oil consumption, and it seems that ethanol has its own set of accompanying issues. Electricity, while cleaner, also creates problems as the electricity has to come from somewhere. Lots of electricity in the US comes from coal-fired power plants, diesel, hydroelectric dams, and nuclear. Solar, wind, and tidal may be good alternatives - but the scale of their use needs to be increased. Biofuels from crop waste (stalks) or poop could be useful. So where do we go from here? How soon do we get it? And how do we transfer these new technologies quicker to places like Mozambique?

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