Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Europe Turns Back to Coal

Raising Climate Fears

by Elisabeth Rosenthal

The New York Times (April 23 2008)

At a time when the world's top climate experts agree that carbon emissions must be rapidly reduced to hold down global warming, Italy's major electricity producer, Enel, is converting its massive power plant here from oil to coal, generally the dirtiest fuel on earth.

Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from fourteen percent. Power generated by Enel from coal will rise to fifty percent.

And Italy is not alone in its return to coal. Driven by rising demand, record high oil and natural gas prices, concerns over energy security and an aversion to nuclear energy, European countries are expected to put into operation about fifty coal-fired plants over the next five years, plants that will be in use for the next five decades.

In the United States, fewer new coal plants are likely to begin operations, in part because it is becoming harder to get regulatory permits and in part because nuclear power remains an alternative. Of 151 proposals in early 2007, more than sixty had been dropped by the year's end, many blocked by state governments. Dozens of other are stuck in court challenges.

The fast-expanding developing economies of India and China, where coal remains a major fuel source for more than two billion people, have long been regarded as among the biggest challenges to reducing carbon emissions. But the return now to coal even in eco-conscious Europe is sowing real alarm among environmentalists who warn that it is setting the world on a disastrous trajectory that will make controlling global warming impossible.

They are aghast at the renaissance of coal, a fuel more commonly associated with the sooty factories of Dickens novels, and one that was on its way out just a decade ago.

There have been protests here in Civitavecchia, at a new coal plant in Germany, and at one in the Czech Republic, as well as at the Kingsnorth power station in Kent, which is slated to become Britain's first new coal-fired plant in more than a decade.

Europe's power station owners emphasize that they are making the new coal plants as clean as possible. But critics say that "clean coal" is a pipe dream, an oxymoron in terms of the carbon emissions that count most toward climate change. They call the building spurt shortsighted.

"Building new coal-fired power plants is ill conceived", said James E Hansen, a leading climatologist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "Given our knowledge about what needs to be done to stabilize climate, this plan is like barging into a war without having a plan for how it should be conducted, even though information is available.

"We need a moratorium on coal now", he added, "with phase-out of existing plants over the next two decades".

Coal's Advantages

Enel and many other electricity companies say they have little choice but to build coal plants to replace aging infrastructure, particularly in countries like Italy and Germany that have banned the building of nuclear power plants. Fuel costs have risen 151 percent since 1996, and Italians pay the highest electricity costs in Europe.

In terms of cost and energy security, coal has all the advantages, its proponents argue. Coal reserves will last for 200 years, rather than fifty years for gas and oil. Coal is relatively cheap compared with oil and natural gas, although coal prices have tripled in the past few years. More important, hundreds of countries export coal - there is not a coal cartel - so there is more room to negotiate prices.

"In order to get over oil, which is getting more and more expensive, our plan is to convert all oil plants to coal using clean-coal technologies", said Gianfilippo Mancini, Enel's chief of generation and energy management. "This will be the cleanest coal plant in Europe. We are hoping to prove that it will be possible to make sustainable and environmentally friendly use of coal."

"Clean coal" is a term coined by the industry decades ago, referring to its efforts to reduce local pollution. Using new technology, clean coal plants sharply reduced the number of sooty particles spewed into the air, as well as gases like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide. The technology has minimal effect on carbon emissions.

In fact, the technology that the industry is counting on to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that add to global warning - carbon capture and storage - is not now commercially available. No one knows if it is feasible on a large, cost-effective scale.

The Struggle to Be Green

The task - in which carbon emissions are pumped into underground reservoirs rather than released - is challenging for any fuel source, but particularly so for coal, which produces more carbon dioxide than oil or natural gas.

Under optimal current conditions, coal produces more than twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity as natural gas, the second most common fuel used for electricity generation, according to the Electric Power Research Institute. In the developing world, where even new coal plants use lower grade coal and less efficient machinery, the equation is even worse.

Without carbon capture and storage, coal cannot be green. But solving that problem will take global coordination and billions of dollars in investment, which no one country or company seems inclined to spend, said Jeffrey D Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

"Figuring out carbon capture is really critical - it may not work in the end - and if it is not viable, the situation, with respect to climate change, is far more dire", Mr Sachs said.

There are a few dozen small demonstration projects in Europe and in the United States, most in the early stages. But progress has not been promising.

At the end of January, the Bush administration canceled what was previously by far the United States' biggest carbon-capture demonstration project, at a coal-fired plant in Illinois, because of huge cost overruns. The costs of the project, undertaken in 2003 with a budget of $950 million, had spiraled to $1.5 billion this year, and it was far from complete.

The European Union had pledged to develop twelve pilot carbon-capture projects for Europe, but says that is not enough.

Many have likened carbon capture's road from the demonstration lab to a safe, cheap, available reality as a challenge equivalent to putting a man on the moon. Norway, which is investing heavily to test the technology, calls carbon capture its "moon landing".

It may be even harder than that. It is a moon landing that must be replicated daily at thousands of coal plants in hundreds of countries - many of them poor. There is a new coal-fired plant going up in India or China almost every week, and most of those are not constructed in a way that is amenable to carbon capture, even if it were developed.

Plants that could someday be adapted to carbon capture cost ten to twenty percent more to build, and only a handful exist today. For most coal power plants the costs of converting would be "phenomenal", concluded a report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Then there is the problem of storing the carbon dioxide, which is at some level an inherently local issue. Geologists have to determine if there is a suitable underground site, calculate how much carbon dioxide it can hold and then equip it in a way that prevents leaks and ensures safety. A large leak of underground carbon dioxide could be as dangerous as a leak of nuclear fuel, critics say.

As for its plant here, Enel says it will start experimenting with carbon-capture technology in 2015, in the hopes of "a solution" by 2020.

"That's too late", Mr Sachs said.

In the meantime, it and other new coal plants will be spewing more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere than ever before, meaning that current climate predictions - dire as they are - may still be "too optimistic", Mr Sachs said. "They assume the old energy mix, even though coal will be a larger and larger part".

An Efficient Plant

On many other fronts, the new Enel plant is a model of efficiency and recycling. The nitrous oxide is chemically altered to generate ammonia, which is then sold. The resulting coal ash and gypsum are sold to the cement industry.

An on-site desalination plant means that the operation generates its own water for cooling. Even the heated water that comes out of the plant is not wasted: it heats a fish farm, one of Italy's largest.

But Enel's plan to deal with the new plant's carbon emissions consists mostly of a map of Italy with several huge white ovals superimposed - subterranean cavities where carbon dioxide potentially could be stored.

The sites have not been fully studied by geologists as yet to make sure they are safe storage sites and well sealed. There is no infrastructure or equipment that could move carbon into them.

The new Enel plant here opens its first boiler in two months. It will immediately produce fewer carbon emissions than the ancient oil boiler it replaces, but only because it will produce less electricity, officials here admit.

Unhappy Neighbors

In the towns surrounding Civitavecchia, the impending arrival of a huge coal plant, with its three silvery domes, is being greeted with a hefty dose of dread.

"They call it clean coal because they use some filters, but it is really nonsense", said Marza Marzioli of the No Coal citizens group in the nearby ancient Etruscan town of Tarquinia. "If you compare it to old plants, yes it's better, but it's not 'clean' in any way".

The group says that Enel has won approval for a dangerous new coal plant by buying machines for a local hospital and by carrying out a public relations campaign. Enel advertisements for the project show a young girl erasing a plant's smokestack.

Most people who took part in a 2007 local referendum voted no, but the plant went ahead anyway, the group said.

The European Union, through its emissions trading scheme, has tried to make power plants consider the costs of carbon, forcing them to buy "permits" for emissions. But with the price of oil so high, coal is far cheaper, even with the cost of permits to pollute factored in, Enel has calculated.

Stephan Singer, who runs the European energy and climate office of WWF, formerly the World Wildlife Fund, in Brussels, said that math was shortsighted: the cost of coal and permits will almost certainly rise over the next decade.

"If they want coal to be part of the energy solution, they have to show us that carbon capture can be done now, that they can really reduce emissions" to an acceptable level, Mr Singer said.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Bill Totten

Belief System

Clusterfuck Nation

by Jim Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) (April 28 2008)

My new novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available at all booksellers.

A friend asked me how come the public apparently grasps the reality of climate change but can't seem to wrap its collective brain around the unfolding oil crisis.

I'm not convinced that the public does grasp climate change. It's perceived, perhaps, as a background story to daily life, which goes on regardless. Are you even sure Hollywood didn't invent it - and maybe some boob at Time Magazine is selling it as though it were really happening?

Few have anything to gain by espousing denial of climate change. It's hard for most people to tell if they have been affected by it. It doesn't quite seem real. Those who actually make gestures in the face of it - screwing in compact fluorescent lightbulbs, buying Prius cars - end up appearing ridiculous, like an old granny telling you to fetch your raincoat and rubbers because a force five hurricane is organizing itself offshore, beyond the horizon.

The public appears aggressively clueless about the peak oil story. They do not accept any threats to the motoring regime. The news media is surely not helping sort things out. I saw a remarkable display of ignorance on CNN last week when the new resident idiot-maniac Glenn Beck hosted Teamster Union boss James Hoffa and they agreed that the oil companies were to blame for high fuel prices. To put it as plainly as possible, Beck doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about, and it's disgraceful that CNN gives free reign to this moron to misinform the public. It's perhaps equally amazing that Hoffa doesn't know we have entered a permanent global oil crisis based on demand having outrun supply. These two idiots think that if Exxon-Mobil built a new refinery down in Louisiana, everything would be fine, diesel fuel would go back down to 99 cents a gallon, and it would be Christmas every morning.

This has been a pretty remarkable month, actually, with all the problems of "The Long Emergency" accelerating impressively. Oil is now testing the $120 mark, the airline industry is imploding (largely over fuel costs), the housing scene has reached a degree of collapse unseen since the 1930s, food shortages have strayed out of the Third World and begun to affect Japan and the USA, bats are dying of a mysterious disease in the Northeast, and the Arctic sea ice is shrinking away to nothing.

We're in a strange collective psychic bubble. We'd like to forget about all these troubling rumors of hardship and bad weather and just get on with the daily task of making a living and paying for stuff and enjoying our customary entertainments. The comforting ceremonies of everyday life seem to continue. The freeways are still full of cars. Nancy Grace comes on TV dependably at 8 pm and is there deploring the latest pervert arrest. The baseball season has ramped up and the teams are criss-crossing the nation in their chartered airplanes. The stock market is actually going up - what's wrong with that?

But there's an equally eerie vibe out there that things are seriously out-of-whack. We're on the edge of something. We're at the entrance of a dark passage where some of the ceremonies of daily life meet resistance. You go to the WalMart and five of your six credit cards are refused. Uh oh. It begins to dawn on you that you're spending a quarter of your take-home pay filling up the gas-tank every week. There's no dial tone when you pick up the telephone. How could all the supermarkets in town be out of rice? The local hospital just declared bankruptcy. The neighbors down the street auctioned off all their furniture in the driveway last week. Why does the cat pick up so many ticks these days?

Events are not through with us this year. They'll keep moving where they will whether we believe in them or not. I'm hardly even convinced that it matters who wins the presidential race this year. It could end up being the world's biggest booby prize.

Bill Totten

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Monsanto Whistleblower

Says Genetically Engineered Crops May Cause Disease

by Jeffrey M Smith

Global Research (November 19 2006)

The Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT)

Monsanto was quite happy to recruit young Kirk Azevedo to sell their genetically engineered cotton. Kirk had grown up on a California farm and had worked in several jobs monitoring and testing pesticides and herbicides. Kirk was bright, ambitious, handsome and idealistic - the perfect candidate to project the company's "Save the world through genetic engineering" image.

It was that image, in fact, that convinced Kirk to take the job in 1996. "When I was contacted by the headhunter from Monsanto, I began to study the company, namely the work of their CEO, Robert Shapiro". Kirk was thoroughly impressed with Shapiro's promise of a golden future through genetically modified (GM) crops. "He described how we would reduce the in-process waste from manufacturing, turn our fields into factories and produce anything from lifesaving drugs to insect-resistant plants. It was fascinating to me." Kirk thought, "Here we go. I can do something to help the world and make it a better place."

He left his job and accepted a position at Monsanto, rising quickly to become the facilitator for GM cotton sales in California and Arizona. He would often repeat Shapiro's vision to customers, researchers, even fellow employees. After about three months, he visited Monsanto's St Louis headquarters for the first time for new employee training. There too, he took the opportunity to let his colleagues know how enthusiastic he was about Monsanto's technology that was going to reduce waste, decrease poverty and help the world. Soon after the meeting, however, his world was shaken.

"A vice president pulled me aside", recalled Kirk. "He told me something like, 'Wait a second. What Robert Shapiro says is one thing. But what we do is something else. We are here to make money. He is the front man who tells a story. We don't even understand what he is saying.'"

Kirk felt let down. "I went in there with the idea of helping and healing and came out with 'Oh, I guess it is just another profit-oriented company'". He returned to California, still holding out hopes that the new technology could make a difference.

Possible Toxins in GM Plants

Kirk was developing the market in the West for two types of GM cotton. Bt cotton was engineered with a gene from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. Organic farmers use the natural form of the bacterium as an insecticide, spraying it occasionally during times of high pest infestation. Monsanto engineers, however, isolated and then altered the gene that produces the Bt-toxin, and inserted it into the DNA of the cotton plant. Now every cell of their Bt cotton produces a toxic protein. The other variety was Roundup ReadyR cotton. It contains another bacterial gene that enables the plant to survive an otherwise toxic dose of Monsanto's RoundupR herbicide. Since the patent on Roundup's main active ingredient, glyphosate, was due to expire in 2000, the company was planning to sell Roundup Ready seeds that were bundled with their Roundup herbicide, effectively extending their brand's dominance in the herbicide market.

In the summer of 1997, Kirk spoke with a Monsanto scientist who was doing some tests on Roundup Ready cotton. Using a "Western blot" analysis, the scientist was able to identify different proteins by their molecular weight. He told Kirk that the GM cotton not only contained the intended protein produced by the Roundup Ready gene, but also extra proteins that were not normally produced in the plant. These unknown proteins had been created during the gene insertion process.

Gene insertion was done using a gene gun (particle bombardment). Kirk, who has an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, understood this to be "a kind of barbaric and messy method of genetic engineering, where you use a gun-like apparatus to bombard the plant tissue with genes that are wrapped around tiny gold particles". He knew that particle bombardment can cause unpredictable changes and mutations in the DNA, which might result in new types of proteins.

The scientist dismissed these newly created proteins in the cotton plant as unimportant background noise, but Kirk wasn't convinced. Proteins can have allergenic or toxic properties, but no one at Monsanto had done a safety assessment on them. "I was afraid at that time that some of these proteins may be toxic". He was particularly concerned that the rogue proteins "might possibly lead to mad cow or some other prion-type diseases".

Kirk had just been studying mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and its human counterpart, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). These fatal diseases had been tracked to a class of proteins called prions. Short for "proteinaceous infectious particles", prions are improperly folded proteins, which cause other healthy proteins to also become misfolded. Over time, they cause holes in the brain, severe dysfunction and death. Prions survive cooking and are believed to be transmittable to humans who eat meat from infected "mad" cows. The disease may incubate undetected for about two to eight years in cows and up to thirty years in humans.

When Kirk tried to share his concerns with the scientist, he realized, "He had no idea what I was talking about; he had not even heard of prions. And this was at a time when Europe had a great concern about mad cow disease and it was just before the Nobel prize was won by Stanley Prusiner for his discovery of prion proteins". Kirk said "These Monsanto scientists are very knowledge about traditional products, like chemicals, herbicides and pesticides, but they don't understand the possible harmful outcomes of genetic engineering, such as pathophysiology or prion proteins. So I am explaining to him about the potential untoward effects of these foreign proteins, but he just did not understand."

Endangering the Food Supply

At this time, Roundup Ready cotton varieties were just being introduced into other regions but were still being field-tested in California. California varieties had not yet been commercialized. But Kirk came to find out that Monsanto was feeding the cotton plants used in its test plots to cattle.

"I had great issue with this", he said. "I had worked for Abbot Laboratories doing research, doing test plots using Bt sprays from bacteria. We would never take a test plot and put into the food supply, even with somewhat benign chemistries. We would always destroy the test plot material and not let anything into the food supply. Now we entered into a new era of genetic engineering. The standard was not the same as with pesticides. It was much lower, even though it probably should have been much higher."

Kirk complained to the PhD in charge of the test plot about feeding the experimental plants to cows. He explained that unknown proteins, including prions, might even effect humans who consume the cow's milk and meat. The scientist replied, "Well that's what we're doing everywhere else and that's what we're doing here". He refused to destroy the plants.

Kirk got a bit frantic. He started talking to others in the company. "I approached pretty much everyone on my team in Monsanto". He was unable to get anyone interested. In fact, he said, "Once they understood my perspective, I was somewhat ostracized. It seemed as if once I started questioning things, people wanted to keep their distance from me. I lost the cooperation with other team members. Anything that interfered with advancing the commercialization of this technology was going to be pushed aside."

He then approached California Agriculture Commissioners. "These local Agriculture commissioners are traditionally responsible for test plots and to make sure test plot designs protect people and the environment". But Kirk got nowhere. "Once again, even at the Agriculture commissioner level, they were dealing with a new technology that was beyond their comprehension. They did not really grasp what untoward effects might be created by the genetic engineering process itself."

Kirk continued to try to blow the whistle on what he thought could be devastating to the health of consumers. "I spoke to many Agriculture commissioners. I spoke to people at the University of California. I found no one who would even get it, or even get the connection that proteins might be pathogenic, or that there might be untoward effects associated with these foreign proteins that we knew we were producing. They didn't even want to talk about it really. You'd kind of see a blank stare when speaking to them on this level. That led me to say I am not going to be part of this company anymore. I'm not going to be part of this disaster, from a moral perspective."

Kirk gave his two-week notice. In early January 1998, he finished his last day of work in the morning and in the afternoon started his first day at chiropractic college. He was still determined to make a positive difference for the world, but with a radically changed approach.

While in school, he continued to research prion disease and its possible connection with GM crops. What he read then and what is known now about prions has not alleviated his concerns. He says, "The protein that manifests as mad cow disease takes about five years. With humans, however, that time line is anywhere from ten to thirty years. We were talking about 1997 and today is 2006. We still don't know if there is anything going to happen to us from our being used as test subjects."


It turns out that the damage done to DNA due to the process of creating a genetically modified organism is far more extensive than previously thought {1}. GM crops routinely create unintended proteins, alter existing protein levels or even change the components and shape of the protein that is created by the inserted gene. Kirk's concerns about a GM crop producing a harmful misfolded protein remain well-founded, and have been echoed by scientists as one of the many possible dangers that are not being evaluated by the biotech industry's superficial safety assessments.

GM cotton has provided ample reports of unpredicted side-effects. In April 2006, more than seventy Indian shepherds reported that 25% of their herds died within five to seven days of continuous grazing on Bt cotton plants {2}. Hundreds of Indian agricultural laborers reported allergic reactions from Bt cotton. Some cotton harvesters have been hospitalized and many laborers in cotton gin factories take antihistamines each day before work {3}.

The cotton's agronomic performance is also erratic. When Monsanto's GM cotton varieties were first introduced in the US, tens of thousands of acres suffered deformed roots and other unexpected problems. Monsanto paid out millions in settlements {4}. When Bt cotton was tested in Indonesia, widespread pest infestation and drought damage forced withdrawal of the crop, despite the fact that Monsanto had been bribing at least 140 individuals for years, trying to gain approval {5}. In India, inconsistent performance has resulted in more than $80 million dollars in losses in each of two states {6}. Thousands of indebted Bt cotton farmers have committed suicide. In Vidarbha, in north east Maharashtra, from June through August 2006, farmers committed suicide at a rate of about one every eight hours {7}. (The list of adverse reactions reported from other GM crops, in lab animals, livestock and humans, is considerably longer.)

Kirk's concern about GM crop test plots also continues to remain valid. The industry has been consistently inept at controlling the spread of unapproved varieties. On August 18 2006, for example, the USDA announced that unapproved GM long grain rice, which was last field tested by Bayer CropScience in 2001, had contaminated the US rice crop {8} (probably for the past five years). Japan responded by suspending long grain rice imports and the EU will now only accept shipments that are tested and certified GM-free. Similarly, in March 2005, the US government admitted that an unapproved corn variety had escaped from Syngenta's field trials four years earlier and had contaminated US corn {9}. By year's end, Japan had rejected at least fourteen shipments containing the illegal corn. Other field trialed crops have been mixed with commercial varieties, consumed by farmers, stolen, even given away by government agencies and universities who had accidentally mixed seed varieties.

Some contamination from field trials may last for centuries. That may be the fate of a variety of unapproved Roundup Ready grass which, according to reports made public in August 2006, had escaped into the wild from an Oregon test plot years earlier. Pollen had crossed with other varieties and wind had dispersed seeds. Scientists believe that the variety will cross pollinate with other grass varieties and may contaminate the commercial grass seed supply - seventy percent of which is grown in Oregon.

Even GM crops with known poisons are being grown outdoors without adequate safeguards for health and the environment. A corn engineered to produce pharmaceutical medicines, for example, contaminated corn and soybean fields in Iowa and Nebraska in 2002 {10}. On August 10 2006, a federal judge ruled that the drug-producing GM crops grown in Hawaii violated both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act {11}.

A December 29 2005 report by the USDA office of Inspector General, blasted the agriculture department for its abysmal oversight of GM field trials, particularly for the high risk drug producing crops {12}. And a January 2004 report by the National Research Council also called upon the government to strengthen its oversight, but acknowledged that there is no way to guarantee that field trialed crops will not pollute the environment {13}.

With the US government failing to prevent GM contamination, and with state governments and agriculture commissioners unwilling to challenge the dictates of the biotech industry, some California counties decided to enact regulations of their own. California's diverse agriculture is particularly vulnerable and thousands of field trials on not-yet-approved GM crops have already taken place there. If contamination were discovered, it could easily devastate an industry. Four counties have enacted moratoria or bans on the planting of GM crops, including both approved and unapproved varieties. This follows the actions of more than 4500 jurisdictions in Europe and dozens of nations, states and regions on all continents, which have sought to restrict planting of GM crops to protect their health, environment and agriculture.

Ironically, California's assembly, which has done nothing to protect the state from possible losses due to GM crop contamination, passed a bill on August 24 2006 that prohibits other counties and cities from creating GM free zones. The senate is expected to vote on the issue by the end of their session on August 31st (see It is yet another example of how the biotech industry has been able to push their agenda onto US consumers, without regard to health and environmental safeguards. No doubt that their lobbyists, anxious to have this bill pass, told legislators that GM crops are needed to stop poverty and feed a hungry world.

Update (September 01 2006)

The California Senate session ended without senators voting on the bill to prevent local jurisdictions from creating GM-Free zones. For the time being at least, California counties and cities may still enact GM-Free zones. Click here to read the full press release:

Jeffrey Smith's forthcoming book, Genetic Roulette (2007), documents more than sixty health risks of GM foods in easy-to-read two-page spreads, and demonstrates how current safety assessments are not competent to protect consumers from the dangers. His previous book, Seeds of Deception (, is the world's best-selling book on the subject. He is available for media at Dr Kirk Azevedo has a chiropractic office in Cambria, California. Press may reach him at (805) 927-1055 or at


{1} JR Latham et al, "The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation", The Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, Vol 2006 Article ID 25376 Pages 1-7, DOI 10.1155/JBB/2006/25376; for a more in-depth discussion, see also Allison Wilson et al, "Genome Scrambling - Myth or Reality? Transformation-Induced Mutations in Transgenic Crop Plants, Technical Report - October 2004,

{2} Mortality in Sheep Flocks after Grazing on Bt Cotton Fields - Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh. Report of the Preliminary Assessment April 2006,

{3 }Ashish Gupta, et al, Impact of Bt Cotton on Farmers' Health (in Barwani and Dhar District of Madhya Pradesh), Investigation Report, Oct - Dec 2005

{4} See for example, Monsanto Cited In Crop Losses, New York Times (June 16 1998); and Greenpeace

{5} Antje Lorch, Monsanto Bribes in Indonesia, Monsanto Fined For Bribing Indonesian Officials to Avoid Environmental Studies for Bt Cotton, ifrik 1sep2005,

{6} Bt Cotton - No Respite for Andhra Pradesh Farmers More than 400 crores' worth losses for Bt Cotton farmers in Kharif 2005 Centre for Sustainable Agriculture: Press Release, March 29 2006; see also November 14, 2005 article in regarding Madhya Pradesh.

{7} Jaideep Hardikar, One suicide every eight hours, Daily News & Analysis (India), August 26 2006

{8} Rick Weiss, US Rice Supply Contaminated, Genetically Altered Variety Is Found in Long-Grain Rice, Washington Post, August 19 2006

{9} Jeffrey Smith, US Government and Biotech Firm Deceive Public on GM Corn Mix-up, Spilling the Beans, April 2005

{10} See for example, Christopher Doering, ProdiGene to spend millions on bio-corn tainting, Reuters News Service, USA: December 09 2002

{11} See

{12} Office of Inspector General, USDA, Audit Report Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Controls Over Issuance of Genetically Engineered Organism Release Permits, December 2005

{13} Justin Gillis, Genetically Modified Organisms Not Easily Contained; National Research Council Panel Urges More Work to Protect Against Contamination of Food Supply, Washington Post, January 21 2004

Bill Totten

Why More Food Is Not the Answer

by Kelpie Wilson, Environment Editor (April 22 2008)

With food riots across the globe in the news, the immediate cause of food shortages is simply this: grain prices have doubled over the last year and poor people can no longer afford to buy enough food. There is no one single cause for the price rise; it is a combination of supply and demand.

Steady population growth means there are about seventy million new mouths to feed every year, and increasing affluence is also spurring more people to buy more meat. Meat is grain-intensive - it takes about seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. Biofuels are another new demand on grain stocks, and a potentially insatiable one. The grain used to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed one person for a year.

There is more than enough grain to feed every hungry human on the planet, but the poor cannot compete with wealthier buyers of meat and biofuels. Markets are not interested in feeding hungry people - they want to make money, so from a capitalist point of view, the only solution is to increase supply in the hope that it will drive prices down.

However, on the supply side, serious limiting factors are coming into play: dwindling water supplies and increased drought exacerbated by climate change; increasingly degraded land and soils; the rising cost of energy used for everything from water pumping to transport, and the growing cost of fertilizer and other inputs.

The world wants more food - a lot more food - but the planet will not be able to provide it. For this reason alone, more food is not the answer - it cannot be the answer.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the book Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (third edition, 2008), says that while there have been food price spikes in the past, "This troubling situation is unlike any the world has faced before".

Brown doesn't use the term, but it is likely that we have reached "peak food", the moment when world grain output has achieved its maximum and we will have to work very hard to keep it from declining.

One of the top reasons to believe we have reached peak food is that we have apparently reached peak oil. In his book, Eating Fossil Fuels (2006), Dale Allen Pfeiffer shows how utterly dependent modern agriculture is on fossil fuels, not just for the machinery that plants and harvests, but for the energy to irrigate fields, and for fertilizers. About thirty percent of farm energy goes to fertilizer, much of which is made from natural gas. Like oil, natural gas is becoming increasingly expensive as production nears peak. Without oil, we might not drive cars, but without fertilizer, we might not eat.

Food and fuel are intimately connected. Not only is fuel essential to produce food, but because food can substitute for fuel, the price of food is now locked into the price of oil - a price that is going nowhere but up.

A Timely Report Shows the Way Forward

Globalization has promised to lift every person out of poverty by growing the economy so large that wealth will eventually trickle down to all. But this is a false promise that ignores physical limits to planetary resources.

A groundbreaking United Nations report that presents a serious challenge to the promises of globalization and biotech was released last week at a very timely moment. The IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development) is directed by Robert Watson, a former director of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and it shares some similar features to the UN Climate assessment reports.

Most importantly, the IAASTD report says that agricultural systems cannot go on as they have. They are failing to feed the poor, wrecking ecosystems, exacerbating global warming and are far too dependent on fossil fuels. Just as everything about the way we produce and use energy must change in order to avoid climate catastrophe, so everything about the way we produce and use food must change in order to avoid a humanitarian and ecological disaster.

Watson said, "If we do persist with business as usual, the world's people cannot be fed over the next half-century. It will mean more environmental degradation, and the gap between the haves and have-nots will further widen. We have an opportunity now to marshal our intellectual resources to avoid that sort of future. Otherwise, we face a world no one would want to inhabit."

As with climate change, the solution to the food crisis will not be found in some miracle new technology. On the contrary, the report identifies a need to reconsider many traditional crops and methods for maintaining soil fertility and coping with drought. These traditional technologies need to be integrated with modern ones to achieve the best of both worlds. Currently there is little support for this approach to crop science.

British economist Nicholas Stern called climate change the biggest market failure in history. The IAASTD report also indicts markets with failing to eradicate hunger and poverty. Watson said, "The incentives for science to address the issues that matter to the poor are weak ... the poorest developing countries are net losers under most trade liberalization scenarios".

Agribusiness Reacts

The IAASTD study involved more than 400 authors and took four years to produce. However, not everyone stuck with the process till the end. Representatives from the biotechnology industry walked out in protest, complaining that GM (genetically modified) crops were being unfairly overlooked in favor of organic agriculture. The New Scientist (5 April 2008) presented a point counterpoint between participants Deborah Keith, a manager for Syngenta, one of the world's largest biotech companies, and Janice Jiggins, a social scientist. Keith complained that the draft document was unscientific and that "too often it treated fears and prejudices against technology and business as fact ..." Organic agriculture was not subjected to the same scrutiny, she said.

Jiggins' account of the process noted that traditional farmers at the table "took deep offense at hearing technologies ... building on centuries-old traditions dismissed as 'anecdotal' and of no value".

At heart, the debate is over what is considered "scientific" agriculture. The discussion of biotechnology in the final report summary peels the "anecdotal" label off traditional agriculture and slaps it back on genetic engineering, saying that "assessment of modern biotechnology is lagging behind development; information can be anecdotal and contradictory ..."

Jiggens notes that, among other problems, "the capacity to monitor and regulate GM has failed to keep up".

In reaction to the IAASTD report, some commentators have leaped on the idea that people who are "afraid of science" are irrationally keeping biotech and companies like Monsanto from saving the world.

Oxford professor Paul Collier, writing in The London Times, said that Europe and Japan are "befuddled by romanticism" for subsidizing inefficient small farms. "The remedy to high food prices is to increase supply", he said, and the only solution to the food crisis is more food produced by "unromantic industrialized agriculture".

He also said, "The most realistic way is to replicate the Brazilian model of large, technologically sophisticated agro-companies that supply the world market. There are still many areas of the world - including large swaths of Africa - that have good land that could be used far more productively if it were properly managed by large companies. To contain the rise in food prices, we need more globalization, not less."

Brazil - Big Ag Set Up to Fail?

Taking a closer look at the Brazilian model shows why the IAASTD authors overwhelmingly rejected the big business model as a way to sustainably feed the world.

Brazil's Mato Grosso region is the world's most active agricultural frontier. Satellite photos show the relentless push of soybean monocultures and cattle grazing into the Amazon rainforest. Forest ecologist Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center, says that soy agriculture in the Mato Grosso has "greased the skids" for deforestation of the Amazon.

The success of soy farming in Mato Grosso is based on two advantages: the region's abundant rainfall and the discovery that heavy applications of fertilizer, especially lime and phosphorus, could impart impressive fertility to the tropical soils. Both of these assets are likely to be short-lived.

First and foremost is the rain. Nepstad's research focus is drought in the Amazon. He has found that after only two years of drought, trees begin to die and the forest fires start. Once a regular fire regime takes hold, a tipping point is reached that rapidly converts rainforest to dry scrub. The consequence is not just losing the rainforest, but losing the rain. Through a process called transpiration, trees in the Amazon seed the clouds that water the fields and pastures of South America and the Caribbean. Researchers are finding that clouds and air currents that originate in the Amazon can drive weather patterns as far away as the North Atlantic. As the forest evaporates, so does the rainfall.

The second factor, a reliance on heavy applications of fertilizer, is also bound to be a temporary phenomenon. Little noted in the popular press, fertilizer prices have skyrocketed in recent months. Reuters reported on April 16 that Chinese fertilizer importers have "agreed to pay more than triple what they did a year ago to reserve tight supplies of potash, sending the shares of global fertilizer makers to record levels".

Phosphorus, like potash, is mostly produced by mining mineral deposits and there is a limit to global reserves - a limit that we are rapidly approaching. Patrick Dery and Bart Anderson looked at phosphorus production data in a report for Energy Bulletin titled "Peak Phosphorus". They concluded that the world has passed the peak of phosphorus production and is already in decline.

"In some ways", say Dery and Anderson, "the problem of peak phosphorus is more difficult than peak oil. Energy sources other than oil are available ..." But, they point out, "Unlike fossil fuels, phosphorus can be recycled. However if we waste phosphorus, we cannot replace it [with] any other source."

The main way to recycle phosphorus is to reclaim it from sewage and animal waste. The need to do this will bring us full circle from modern high-tech agriculture back to traditional practices that used animal manure and human "night soil". Researchers in Sweden and Australia are already working on a new toilet design that would siphon off human urine to use as a source of phosphate. It would be stored in tanks for supply to farmers.

What will happen to the farms of Mato Grosso when the price of phosphorus doubles, quadruples, and then doubles again? For that matter, what will happen to the fields of Iowa?

Brazil and the New Agriculture

It is the specter of resource limits that has led the authors of the IAASTD study to recommend that traditional practices be studied and adopted where they make sense. One of the most promising traditional practices that is now being studied at Cornell and other major agricultural research institutions has its origins in Brazil.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been on the defensive for his government's role in deforesting the Amazon. Most recently, critics have attacked Brazilian agriculture for diverting capacity from food to biofuels. Lula has countered the criticism by insisting that Brazil will expand its agriculture without further encroachments on the Amazon. One of the best ways to do that, and conserve scarce fertilizers like phosphorus at the same time, might be to adopt a practice used by an ancient civilization that occupied the Amazon before Columbus.

The practice is called terra preta, Portuguese for "dark earth". These dark earths are highly fertile soils that were created by burying charcoal along with manure and other organic wastes. Charcoal is a porous material that is very good at holding nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus and making them available to plant roots. It also aerates soil and helps it to retain water.

Some terra preta fields are thousands of years old, and yet they are still so fertile that they are dug up and sold as potting soil in Brazilian markets.

Because making charcoal from biomass releases energy, researchers today are looking at integrated biomass energy and food production systems using "biochar" - the modern term for terra preta. For more details on these efforts, see my report for Truthout on the first biochar conference in 2007. There is also a good account of the terra preta in Charles C Mann's book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Knopf, 2005).

Biochar may be the answer that Lula is looking for. Biochar could be a great gift from Brazil to the rest of the world. Charles C Mann notes that "it might improve the expanses of bad soil that cripple agriculture in Africa - a final gift from the peoples who brought us tomatoes, maize, manioc, and a thousand different ways of being human".

Biochar is just one of the traditional agricultural practices that a world running out of fossil fuels and cheap fertilizer may be very grateful to rediscover in the coming years. The IAASTD report, if acted upon quickly, could jumpstart this research.

Roadmap Needed

The IAASTD report does not go so far as to provide a road map or an action plan, but the various private-public partnerships that are working to implement its goals are already finding it useful.

Inter Press Service reports that a delegate from Costa Rica said "These documents are like a bible with which to negotiate with various institutions in my country and transform agriculture".

Benny Haerlin, the representative from Greenpeace, sees the document as a blazing signpost, lighting the way. He said: "This marks the beginning of a new, of a real Green Revolution. The modern way of farming is biodiverse and labor intensive and works with nature, not against it."

Bill Totten

Monday, April 28, 2008

Post Harvest Technology

Yet another reason there are so many people

by Alice Friedemann

Culture Change (April 23 2008)

Review of Peter Golob, et al, Crop Post-Harvest: Science and Technology. Volume 1: Principles and Practice. Volume 2: Durables. Volume 3: Perishables. (Blackwell Science, 2002).


It is amazing farmers can grow anything - crops can be destroyed by drought, wildfire, flood, insects, birds, snails, rodents, fungi, bacteria, viruses, hail, frost, lack of vital nutrients, too much pesticide, and so on.

But that's only half the story - once a crop has successfully been harvested, how do you keep it from being destroyed by all of the above plus spoilage and silo explosions? Civilization exists because our ancestors figured this out.

Before fossil fuels initiated the Industrial Revolution, ninety percent of the population was rural, unlike now, where over eighty percent of the population in the United States is urban. People preserved perishable food like meat, vegetables, and fruit by drying or with preservatives such as salt and alcohol.

Most people have gotten, and still get, the majority of their calories and nutrition from durables such as grains and beans.

Brian Fagan, in The Little Ice Age 1300-1850 (Basic Books, 2001), describes how hard it was to store a harvest to last beyond one bad harvest and for the next planting, even if barns were stuffed to the eaves and local lords and religious foundations also stored crops.

During this period of climate change, crops failed often from blazing hot summers, excessive cold, or torrential rain. Two or more bad years in a row happened every ten years.

In the 20th century, post harvest food technology was developed and enormous granaries were built that can store grain for many years. These modern granaries keep rodents and other pests out. Durables are fumigated or sprayed with pesticides to kill insects at all stages of their life cycle. Grain elevators keep durables cool and dry, vastly extending their storage life.

Post harvest technology preserves food after harvest and before delivery. Although transportation isn't part of the discussion, it's important to mention that the main reason famines stopped was the invention of the railroad. Areas with good crops could send their surplus to regions where crops had failed.

The length of time and amount of durables that can be stored with fossil-fuel built and controlled food storage technology is amazing. This technology has also made food safer to eat. Fossil fuels allow produce just harvested from the field to be cooled immediately, and kept cool throughout the supply chain, which makes it possible for us to enjoy fresh food year round - often produce that's come thousands of miles before reaching our plates.

Golob et al's Crop Post-Harvest volumes 1-3 are heavy textbooks that provide an in-depth look at the continuing war to get perishables to market and to preserve durables. Both the old methods, still used in developing countries, and the amazing energy-intensive modern technology we've developed, are explained in great detail.

Humans are now using nearly all of the arable, ranch, and forested land on the planet, so preserving as much harvested food for as long as possible is our main hope of increasing food supplies in the future.

Why does good food go bad? How are durables such as grains and beans destroyed?

The main factors that limit the storage life of food are high temperatures and moisture - in places that have both of these the length of time grain can be stored before it decays can be as short as a few months.

Temperature affects how quickly insects, mites, fungus, and mycotoxins develop and germination qualities are lost. The biological activity of insects, mites, fungi, and the grain itself doubles for every ten degrees centigrade rise in temperature. At low temperatures, insect breeding stops.

It's hard for insects and microorganisms to survive if there's no water, so low moisture is critical as well. This is why it's so hard to preserve fresh food for a long time - fresh food has a very high water content: on average, the percent of water in apples is 84%, turnips 92%, pork 56%, beef 58%, and fish 81% .

Damage and cleanliness

Produce that isn't stored sterilely is bound to be degraded by some biological agent. Damaged produce provides a point of entry for secondary pests and saprobic fungi. Attack usually begins with one or a few species followed by the invasion of a broad range of non-specific microorganisms and secondary insect pests. Primary pests can also lead to quality losses since some insects feed on the germ region of seed, leading to a loss of nutrition or viability if planted.

Infection after harvest often occurs at the site of wounds from insect feeding or mechanical injury during the harvest. The main insect pests in stored food are Coleoptera (beetles) and Lepidoptera (moths), as well as diptera, psocoptera, and dictyoptera. There are also some bacterial infections of stored foods that can be serious, poisonous even, especially to those who are old, young or sick.


There are over 200 species of rodents that damage crops while they're growing, but rodents haven't coevolved with grain storage long enough yet - only forty species of rodents prey on food stores. Rodents can eat ten percent of their body weight every day. They reproduce quickly, so if even two of the opposite sex get in, it won't be long before exponential growth begins. Rats live about a year, can get pregnant at three weeks with litters of four to eight, and reach adulthood in two to three months. You've got to go for 100% rat mortality or they'll quickly come back. Rodents do even more damage by contamination with urine and feces than the food they eat.

Rodents can cause extensive damage to storage structures. They are almost impossible to keep out - they can climb smooth surfaces, walk along wires, ropes, electric cables, et cetera. They're also good at digging and tunneling, can gnaw through anything less than 5.5 on the Mohr hardness scale, that is, lead, aluminum, tin, et cetera, so structures need to avoid edges rodents can get purchase on to gnaw. Some species of rats can jump five feet high, squeeze through 1/5th of an inch cracks, and swim long distances.

Birds and Insects

Birds not only eat grain directly from bins, but they'll peck bags open. Twenty pigeons eat as much as a human does. Birds contaminate food and spread pathogens like salmonella and zoonoses.

Insects not only eat grain, but can affect the quality and taste of grain, affect the ability to make dough, and ruin the flavor. In the USA, some areas are more likely to succumb to insects than others. The highest risk area are the southernmost states, the lowest risk area are the states of South & North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

In developing countries, termites devour wood storage structures.

Fungi, mold, and microorganisms

Fungi flourish when moisture is over 22%. They can cause blemishes, blights, discoloration, and even wreak revenge in the next generation, when the fungi-damaged seed produces a diseased plant or reduced germination rates.

Molds can produce toxic myco and aflatoxins making them unsafe to eat and of poor quality.

If rodents, birds, insects, mites, fungi, and mold don't harm the stored grain, then bacteria, viruses, yeasts, nematodes, anthracnose, blight, blotch, brown rot, canker, scab, dry rot, hyperplasia, hypertrophy, leaf spot, mildew, mold, mosaic virus, rust, smut, vascular disease, wet rot, soft rot, and toxins are potential destroyers.

And more ...

In addition to all the pests and diseases, grain can suffer from mechanical damage at harvest, threshing, or any point thereafter - while being hauled to market, and careless handling at the market.

Grain can be damaged if drying is done incorrectly, or through temperature extremes at any point. Moisture over ten to fourteen percent will lead to deterioration from fungi and biological degradation.

If grain is harvested too early, it will be green and therefore have high moisture content, causing it to rapidly deteriorate in storage. If harvesting is too late, the mature grain may be attacked by insects and microorganisms, or cracked from repeated rain and dry weather, making it easier for microorganisms to attack in storage.

Fresh produce

However hard it is to store durables like grain and beans, it's much easier than fruits or vegetables, which must be delivered to the consumer quickly, often within days. The new, high-yield varieties of produce have higher nutrition, but they also have greater likelihood of spoilage in storage. Lack of plant nutrients in the soil affects the quality at harvest and the ability of the produce to store. Nitrogen may be good for growth, but it can lead to problems in some produce in storage.

For example, ideally lettuce is picked when the temperature is less than sixty degrees Fahrenheit and cooled within two hours. If kept cool, it won't spoil for nine and a half days. But if it's picked when it's over 75 degrees Fahrenheit and isn't cooled down until ten hours later, spoilage will begin in two and a half days.

Produce is pre-cooled by evaporative cooling, positive ventilation with ice banks, ice cooling, forced air cooling, hydro-cooling, and vacuum cooling.

Both durables (grains, legumes) and perishables are sprayed with chemicals to keep biota from attacking.

Fumigants can be essential to killing insects as well. Since Methyl Bromide causes ozone depletion, there's a race on to invent a new fumigant, but this isn't easy because there are so many essential properties. Fumigants must be a gas at room temperature, good at diffusing, kill all stages of pests, not be greatly heavier than air, and not leave harmful chemical residues. So other, costlier, methods of controlling insects are being tried, such as airtight storage, vacuums, and carbon dioxide atmospheres.

This is a very small subset of what's covered in these textbooks, which go in depth into the details of plant physiology, how to measure important storage parameters, detect pests, a long list of specific pests and the damage they do, how to build storage structures, manage pests, preserve food, the chemical structure of plants and oils, milling grains, trade and international agreements, applied research and dissemination, food systems, and much, much more.

Conclusion - Energy descent implications

If you've ever driven through the Midwest, you've seen enormous grain elevators from miles away.

These are built to protect against theft, rodents, birds, and insects. They're designed to keep the durables stored within dry and as cool as possible, by preventing cold humid air from getting into the grain at night and keeping the roof from getting so hot that condensation forms.

Climate change will make harvests far less assured in the future, with more years between successful harvests, as Brian Fagan describes in The Little Ice Age. Research into how to store food after harvesting for long periods is essential to prepare for the double whammy of extreme weather and declining energy [peak oil effects].

Long distance fresh produce will be the first to vanish from grocery store shelves as energy declines, but as Marion Nestle points out in What to Eat (2006), the longer it takes food to reach market, the more nutrition is lost, so locally produced produce will be far more healthful.

So research into durable post-harvest storage is the most important to be funded. Currently, modern storage technology is very energy intensive, and favors large farms over small farms because:

Small farms are expensive to include in horizontal and vertical supply chains. Small farms can't meet as stringent quantity and quality demands as large firms supplying food to markets. Fruits and vegetables are hard for smaller or medium farms to deal with - they need special packing and refrigeration equipment to cool down the produce, transport it. It's the large growers that can afford the computer-controlled deep irrigation systems, intense fertilizers and pesticides, and sophisticated packing plants to keep produce cool throughout the entire supply chain. Small and medium farms don't have the money to keep up with the latest research on hygiene, health, aesthetics, development, labor costs, and marketing. The cost to build and operate high-tech storage structures is huge.

Because agriculture, infrastructure, and western civilization are so dependent on fossil fuels, many writers have concluded the best way to lower suffering as energy declines, and to make as orderly and peaceful a transition as possible, is for millions of families to go back to the land. Clearly most families would prefer to be independent small farmers on their own land than poorly paid seasonal workers (see my "Peak Soil" and Richard Heinberg's "Fifty Million Farmers" for details).

I hope, but doubt, there is funding for engineers and scientists to figure out the best ways to adapt existing infrastructure each step downward on the energy curve. In the case of post-harvest technology, one puzzle that needs to be solved is how to continue using the enormous durable storage facilities we've built. If long-term it's impossible to load half-mile-long 120-foot high grain elevators without fossil-fuel driven energy, then let's start building smaller grain elevators and other post-harvest storage technology while the energy to do so still exists.

Alice Friedemann's previous articles on Culture Change include: "How shipping containers shortened the life span of petro-civilization"

"Collapse: Walmart and Waiting for the Shoe to Drop":

"Financial Monsters":

"Peak Soil: Why cellulosic ethanol, biofuels are unsustainable and a threat to America":

"The Hydrogen Economy - Energy and Economic Black Hole":

Alice is part of Culture Change Consulting. Read her bio and see her picture on the consulting team's page:

See also "Why More Food Is Not the Answer" by Kelpie Wilson, a lucid, galvanizing report on agricultural capacity and the conflicting forces determining our future, at .

Bill Totten

The Hydrogen Economy

Savior of Humanity or an Economic Black Hole?

by Alice Friedemann

In this week's eSkeptic, the email newsletter of the Skeptics Society, Alice Friedemann examines the science and pseudoscience behind a hydrogen economy. Is it worth the energy?

eSkeptic (March 12 2008)

Skeptics scoff at perpetual motion, free energy, and cold fusion, but what about energy from hydrogen? Before we invest trillions of dollars in a hydrogen economy, we should examine the science and pseudoscience behind the hydrogen hype. Let's begin by taking a hydrogen car out for a spin.

Although the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) in your car can burn hydrogen, the hope is that someday fuel cells, which are based on electrochemical processes rather than combustion (which converts heat to mechanical work), will become more efficient and less polluting than ICEs {1}. Fuel cells were invented before combustion engines in 1839 by William Grove. But the ICE won the race by using abundant and inexpensive gasoline, which is easy to transport and pour, and very high in energy content {2}.


Unlike gasoline, hydrogen isn't an energy source - it's an energy carrier, like a battery. You have to make hydrogen and put energy into it, both of which take energy. Hydrogen has been used commercially for decades, so we already know how to do this. There are two main ways to make hydrogen: using natural gas as both the source and the energy to split hydrogen from the carbon in natural gas (CH4), or using water as the source and renewable energy to split the hydrogen from the oxygen in water (H2O).

1) Making Hydrogen from Fossil Fuels. Currently, 96 percent of hydrogen is made from fossil fuels, mainly for oil refining and partially hydrogenated oil {3}. In the United States, ninety percent is made from natural gas, with an efficiency of 72 percent {4} which means you lose 28 percent of the energy contained in the natural gas to make it (and that doesn't count the energy it took to extract and deliver the natural gas to the hydrogen plant).

One of the main arguments made for switching to a "hydrogen economy" is to prevent global warming that has been attributed to the burning of fossil fuels. When hydrogen is made from natural gas, however, nitrogen oxides are released, which are 58 times more effective in trapping heat than carbon dioxide {5}. Coal releases large amounts of carbon dioxide and mercury. Oil is too powerful and useful to waste on hydrogen - it is concentrated sunshine brewed over hundreds of millions of years. A gallon of gas represents about 196,000 pounds of fossil plants, the amount in forty acres of wheat {6}.

Natural gas as a source for hydrogen is too valuable. It is used to create fertilizer (as both feedstock and energy source). This has led to a many-fold increase in crop production, allowing billions more people to be fed who otherwise wouldn't be {7, 8} We also don't have enough natural gas left to make a hydrogen economy happen from this source. Extraction of natural gas is declining in North America {9}. It will take at least a decade to even begin replacing natural gas with imported liquid natural gas (LNG). Making LNG is so energy intensive that it would be economically and environmentally insane to use it as a source of hydrogen {10}.

2) Making Hydrogen from Water. Only four percent of hydrogen is made from water via electrolysis. It is done when the hydrogen must be extremely pure. Since most electricity comes from fossil fuels in plants that are thirty percent efficient, and electrolysis is seventy percent efficient, you end up using four units of energy to create one unit of hydrogen energy: 70% * 30% = 21% efficiency {11}.

Producing hydrogen by using fossil fuels as a feedstock or an energy source defeats the purpose, since the whole point is to get away from fossil fuels. The goal is to use renewable energy to make hydrogen from water via electrolysis. When the wind is blowing, current wind turbines can perform at thirty to forty percent efficiency, producing hydrogen at an overall rate of 25 percent efficiency - three units of wind energy to get one unit of hydrogen energy. The best solar cells available on a large scale have an efficiency of ten percent, or nine units of energy to get one hydrogen unit of energy. If you use algae making hydrogen as a byproduct, the efficiency is about .1 percent. {12} No matter how you look at it, producing hydrogen from water is an energy sink. If you want a more dramatic demonstration, please mail me ten dollars and I'll send you back a dollar.

Hydrogen can be made from biomass, but there are numerous problems:

1. it's very seasonal;

2. it contains a lot of moisture, requiring energy to store and dry it before gasification;

3. there are limited supplies;

4. the quantities are not large or consistent enough for large-scale hydrogen production;

5. a huge amount of land is required because even cultivated biomass in good soil has a low yield - ten tons per 2.4 acres;

6. the soil will be degraded from erosion and loss of fertility if stripped of biomass;

7. any energy put into the land to grow the biomass, such as fertilizer and planting and harvesting, will add to the energy costs;

8. the delivery costs to the central power plant must be added; and

9. it is not suitable for pure hydrogen production. {13}

Putting Energy into Hydrogen

No matter how it's been made, hydrogen has no energy in it. It is the lowest energy dense fuel on earth {14}. At room temperature and pressure, hydrogen takes up three thousand times more space than gasoline containing an equivalent amount of energy {15}. To put energy into hydrogen, it must be compressed or liquefied. To compress hydrogen to the necessary 10,000 psi is a multi-stage process that costs an additional fifteen percent of the energy contained in the hydrogen.

If you liquefy it, you will be able to get more hydrogen energy into a smaller container, but you will lose thirty to forty percent of the energy in the process. Handling it requires extreme precautions because it is so cold - minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit. Fueling is typically done mechanically with a robot arm {16}.


For the storage and transportation of liquid hydrogen, you need a heavy cryogenic support system. The tank is cold enough to cause plugged valves and other problems. If you add insulation to prevent this, you will increase the weight of an already very heavy storage tank, adding additional costs to the system. {17}

Let's assume that a hydrogen car can go 55 miles per kilogram {18} A tank that can hold three kilograms of compressed gas will go 165 miles and weigh 400 kilograms {19}. Compare that with a Honda Accord fuel tank that weighs eleven kilograms, costs $100, and holds seventeen gallons of gas. The overall weight is 73 kilograms. The driving range is 493 miles at 29 miles per gallon. Here is how a hydrogen tank stacks up against a gas tank in a Honda Accord:

Amount of Fuel
* Hydrogen - 55 kg @3000 psi
* Gasoline - 17 gallons

Tank Weight with Fuel
* Hydrogen - 400 kg
* Gasoline - 73 kg

Driving Range
* Hydrogen - 165 miles {13}
* Gasoline - 493 miles

Tank Cost
* Hydrogen - $2000 {21}
* Gasoline - $100

According to the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA), "Vehicle weight reduction is probably the most powerful technique for improving fuel economy. Each ten percent reduction in weight improves the fuel economy of a new vehicle design by approximately eight percent."

The more you compress hydrogen, the smaller the tank can be. But as you increase the pressure, you also have to increase the thickness of the steel wall, and hence the weight of the tank. Cost increases with pressure. At 2000 psi, it is $400 per kilogram. At 8000 psi, it is $2100 per kilogram {20}. And the tank will be huge - at 5000 psi, the tank could take up ten times the volume of a gasoline tank containing the same energy content.

Fuel cells are heavy. According to Rosa Young, a physicist and vice president of advanced materials development at Energy Conversion Devices in Troy, Michigan: "A metal hydride storage system that can hold five kilograms of hydrogen, including the alloy, container, and heat exchangers, would weigh approximately 300 kilograms, which would lower the fuel efficiency of the vehicle" {21}.

Fuel cells are also expensive. In 2003, they cost $1 million or more. At this stage, they have low reliability, need a much less expensive catalyst than platinum, can clog and lose power if there are impurities in the hydrogen, don't last more than 1000 hours, have yet to achieve a driving range of more than 100 miles, and can't compete with electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius, which is already more energy efficient and low in carbon dioxide generation than projected fuel cells {22}.

Hydrogen is the Houdini of elements. As soon as you've gotten it into a container, it wants to get out, and since it is the lightest of all gases, it takes a lot of effort to keep it from escaping. Storage devices need a complex set of seals, gaskets, and valves. Liquid hydrogen tanks for vehicles boil off at three to four percent per day. {23}

Hydrogen also tends to make metal brittle {24}. Embrittled metal can create leaks. In a pipeline, it can cause cracking or fissuring, which can result in potentially catastrophic failure {25}. Making metal strong enough to withstand hydrogen adds weight and cost. Leaks also become more likely as the pressure grows higher. It can leak from un-welded connections, fuel lines, and non-metal seals such as gaskets, O-rings, pipe thread compounds, and packings. A heavy-duty fuel cell engine may have thousands of seals {26}. Hydrogen has the lowest ignition point of any fuel, twenty times less than gasoline. So if there's a leak, it can be ignited by any number of sources. {27} Worse, leaks are invisible - sometimes the only way to know there's a leak is poor performance.


Canister trucks ($250,000 each) can carry enough fuel for sixty cars {28}. These trucks weigh 40,000 kilograms, but deliver only 400 kilograms of hydrogen. For a delivery distance of 150 miles, the delivery energy used is nearly twenty percent of the usable energy in the hydrogen delivered. At 300 miles, that is forty percent. The same size truck carrying gasoline delivers 10,000 gallons of fuel, enough to fill about 800 cars {29}.

Another alternative is pipelines. The average cost of a natural gas pipeline is one million dollars per mile, and we have 200,000 miles of natural gas pipeline, which we can't re-use because they are composed of metal that would become brittle and leak, as well as the incorrect diameter to maximize hydrogen throughput. If we were to build a similar infrastructure to deliver hydrogen it would cost $200 trillion. The major operating cost of hydrogen pipelines is compressor power and maintenance {30}. Compressors in the pipeline keep the gas moving, using hydrogen energy to push the gas forward. After 620 miles, eight percent of the hydrogen has been used to move it through the pipeline {31}.


At some point along the chain of making, putting energy in, storing, and delivering the hydrogen, we will have used more energy than we can get back, and this doesn't count the energy used to make fuel cells, storage tanks, delivery systems, and vehicles {32}. When fusion can make cheap hydrogen, when reliable long-lasting nanotube fuel cells exist, and when light-weight leak-proof carbon-fiber polymer-lined storage tanks and pipelines can be made inexpensively, then we can consider building the hydrogen economy infrastructure. Until then, it's vaporware. All of these technical obstacles must be overcome for any of this to happen {33}. Meanwhile, the United States government should stop funding the Freedom CAR program, which gives millions of tax dollars to the big three automakers to work on hydrogen fuel cells. Instead, automakers ought to be required to raise the average overall mileage their vehicles get - the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard {34}.

At some time in the future the price of oil and natural gas will increase significantly due to geological depletion and political crises in extracting countries. Since the hydrogen infrastructure will be built using the existing oil-based infrastructure (that is internal combustion engine vehicles, power plants and factories, plastics, et cetera), the price of hydrogen will go up as well - it will never be cheaper than fossil fuels. As depletion continues, factories will be driven out of business by high fuel costs {35, 36, 37} and the parts necessary to build the extremely complex storage tanks and fuel cells might become unavailable.

The laws of physics mean the hydrogen economy will always be an energy sink. Hydrogen's properties require you to spend more energy than you can earn, because in order to do so you must overcome waters' hydrogen-oxygen bond, move heavy cars, prevent leaks and brittle metals, and transport hydrogen to the destination. It doesn't matter if all of these problems are solved, or how much money is spent. You will use more energy to create, store, and transport hydrogen than you will ever get out of it.

Any diversion of declining fossil fuels to a hydrogen economy subtracts that energy from other possible uses, such as planting, harvesting, delivering, and cooking food, heating homes, and other essential activities. According to Joseph Romm, a Department of Energy official who oversaw research on hydrogen and transportation fuel cell research during the Clinton Administration: "The energy and environmental problems facing the nation and the world, especially global warming, are far too serious to risk making major policy mistakes that misallocate scarce resources" {38}.


1. Thomas, S. and Zalbowitz, M. 1999. Fuel cells - Green power. Department of Energy, Los Alamos National Laboratory, 5.

2. Pinkerton, F. E. and Wicke, B.G. 2004. "Bottling the Hydrogen Genie", The Industry Physicist, Feb/Mar: 20–23.

3. Jacobson, M. F. September 8, 2004. "Waiter, Please Hold the Hydrogen". San Francisco Chronicle, 9(B).

4. Hoffert, M. I., et al. November 1, 2002. "Advanced Technology Paths to Global Climate Stability: Energy for a Greenhouse Planet". Science, 298, 981–987.

5. Union of Concerned Scientists. How Natural Gas Works.

6. Kruglinski, S. 2004. "What's in a Gallon of Gas?" Discover, April, 11.

7. Fisher, D. E. and Fisher, M. J. 2001. "The Nitrogen Bomb". Discover, April, 52–57.

8. Smil, V. 1997. "Global Population and the Nitrogen Cycle". Scientific American, July, 76–81.

9. Darley, J. 2004. High Noon for Natural Gas: The New Energy Crisis. Chelsea Green Publishing.

10. Romm, J. J. 2004. The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate. Island Press, 154.

11. Ibid., 75.

12. Hayden, H. C. 2001. The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won't Run the World. Vales Lake Publishing.

13. Simbeck, D. R., and Chang, E. 2002. Hydrogen Supply: Cost Estimate for Hydrogen Pathways - Scoping Analysis. Golden, Colorado: NREL/SR-540-32525, Prepared by SFA Pacific, Inc. for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), DOE, and the International Hydrogen Infrastructure Group (IHIG), July, 13.

14. Ibid., 14.

15. Romm, 2004, 20.

16. Ibid., 94–95.

17. Phillips, T. and Price, S. 2003. "Rocks in your Gas Tank". April 17. Science at NASA.

18. Simbeck and Chang, 2002, 41.

19. Amos, W. A. 1998. Costs of Storing and Transporting Hydrogen. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, US Department of Energy, 20.

20. Simbeck and Chang, 2002, 14.

21. Valenti, M. 2002. "Fill'er up - With Hydrogen". Mechanical Engineering Magazine, Feb 2.

22. Romm, 2004, 7, 20, 122.

23. Ibid., 95, 122.

24. El kebir, O. A. and Szummer, A. 2002. "Comparison of Hydrogen Embrittlement of Stainless Steels and Nickel-base Alloys". International Journal of Hydrogen Energy #27, July/August 7–8, 793–800.

25. Romm, 2004, 107.

26. Fuel Cell Engine Safety. December 2001. College of the Desert

27. Romm, J. J. 2004. Testimony for the Hearing Reviewing the Hydrogen Fuel and FreedomCAR Initiatives Submitted to the House Science Committee. March 3.

28. Romm, 2004. The Hype About Hydrogen, 103.

29. Ibid., 104.

30. Ibid., 101–102.

31. Bossel, U. and Eliasson, B. 2003. "Energy and the Hydrogen Economy". Jan 8.

32. Ibid.

33. National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap Production, Delivery, Storage, Conversion, Applications, Public Education and Outreach. November 2002. US Department of Energy.

34. Neil, D. 2003. "Rumble Seat: Toyota's Spark of Genius". Los Angeles Times. October 15.,0,7911314.story

35. Associated Press, 2004. "Oil Prices Raising Costs of Offshoots". July 2.

36. Abbott, C. 2004. "Soaring Energy Prices Dog Rosy US Farm Economy". Forbes, Reuters News Service. May 24.

37. Schneider, G. 2004. "Chemical Industry in Crisis: Natural Gas Prices Are Up, Factories Are Closing, And Jobs Are Vanishing". Washington Post, 1(E). March 17.

38. Romm, 2004. The Hype About Hydrogen, 8.

Friedemann is a systems architect for a large international transportation company, has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology with a chemistry/physics minor from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, and is a free-lance science writer and member of the Northern California Science Writers Association.

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Bill Totten

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Let Them Eat Ethanol

Growing Hunger

by Sharon Smith

CounterPunch (Apri1 11 2008)

Wall Street millionaires have spent months mourning their losses from once ridiculously over-valued investments. Yet these same free market cheerleaders remain blissfully unaware of the magnitude of the crisis facing the real victims of the unfolding global meltdown they so enthusiastically enabled.

For the three billion people who survive on less than two dollars a day, the upward spiral in global food prices has meant a struggle for the most basic of human rights - the right to eat. Rice, bread and tortillas are the staple food for this half of the world's population. In 2007, the price of grain rose by 42 per cent, and dairy products by eighty per cent, according to UN figures, and food inflation has accelerated further in recent months.

As the Observer noted on April 6, "A global rice shortage that has seen prices of one of the world's most important staple foods increase by fifty per cent in the past two weeks alone is triggering an international crisis". In recent weeks, mass hunger has spawned violent rioting in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal and Haiti.

Six straight days of rioting rocked Haiti this past week. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, where eighty percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day and the typical adult diet consists of just 1,640 calories - 640 calories less than the average adult requirement - according to the World Food Program. Haitians have grown tired of subsisting on what has become the common diet: clay, salt and vegetable shortening. "Protesters compared the burning hunger in their stomachs to bleach or battery acid", noted the Guardian on April 9.

On April 4, thousands of angry Haitians protested in the southern city of Les Cayes, attempting to set the UN police base on fire while stealing rice from trucks. The rioting soon spread to Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, where thousands stormed the presidential palace demanding the resignation of the US' hand picked president, Rene Preval. Fortunately for Preval, UN "peacekeepers" eventually managed to disburse the starving masses with tear gas and rubber bullets. Their brutal suppression perhaps prevented Preval from meeting the same fate as Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the US-backed dictator overthrown by a popular rebellion in 1986.

Preval has done nothing to stabilize skyrocketing food prices or to assist those on the brink of starvation - and he made clear in a televised speech on April 9 that he has no intention of doing so now. In a Marie Antoinette moment, Preval scolded Haitian citizens, "The demonstrations and destruction won't make the prices go down or resolve the country's problems. On the contrary, this can make the misery grow and prevent investment in the country."

* * *

In Egypt, where protests and strikes are illegal, thousands of textile workers and supporters in Mahalla el-Kobra rioted against high food prices and low wages on April 6 and 7. Police occupied the state-owned Misr Spinning and Weaving plant overnight to prevent workers from going on strike as they had planned, but protesters responded by setting buildings on fire and throwing bricks at police tear-gassing them. Police repression did not succeed in frightening these protesters but rather only further fueled their anger.

Roughly forty percent of Egyptians survive on less than $2 per day, while the price of unsubsidized bread rose by ten times in recent months and the cost of rice doubled in a single week. The national minimum wage has remained unchanged since 1984, at 115 Egyptian pounds per month. The Mahallah workers have called for a national minimum wage of 1,200 pounds per month - which would still leave a family of four living under the poverty level of $2 per day.

This week's rioting in Mahalla is the latest episode in the rising class struggle now reaching deep inside Egypt's working class. Middle East Report editor Joel Beinin argued of the growing strike movement, "This is potentially the broadest-based gathering of dissent the Mubarak regime has ever faced. The combination of repression, apathy and political demobilization that has sustained autocracy in Egypt for over half a century is being forcefully challenged, making it increasingly difficult for the Mubarak regime, if not its capitalist cronies, to conduct business as usual." Indeed, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif rushed to Mahallah on April 8 to announce he is granting the workers a thirty-day salary bonus and will address their demands on healthcare and wages.

* * *

Hunger is also rising in the US. The unregulated greed unleashed over thirty years of neoliberalism that wreaked havoc on the world's poorest countries is now exposing the class divide in the world's richest. It can no longer be claimed that all of those residing in the global North gain prosperity at the expense of the global South.

To be sure, growing hunger in America has only earned passing reference from US media outlets, which still largely take their cue from Wall Street and the White House. On April 7, for example, Tribune Newspapers preposterously featured an article on the plight of that tiny slice of Americans now curbing their exorbitant spending habits. The article feature a down-on-her-luck mortgage broker forced to forego the Botox treatments for which she once regularly dropped $1,800. "I would rather have Botox than go out to dinner", the woman told reporters - who reported it without irony.

Food inflation in the US has reached a level not seen in decades, with food staples like milk rising seventeen percent over the last year, rice, pasta and bread rising over twelve percent and eggs increasing by 25 percent. As job losses mount in the current recession, an unprecedented 28 million Americans are expected to receive food stamps to survive this year. One in six people in West Virginia, and one in ten in Ohio and New York, are now relying on food stamps to survive. And one in three children in Oklahoma have been on food stamps at some time in the last year.

Food stamp "entitlements" are far from generous in the world's most affluent society, and it safe to say that most people suffering from rising food prices do not qualify for help. According to guidelines posted on the USDA's website, a family of four is eligible to receive food stamps only if their net monthly income is at or below $1,721. This same family of four is then entitled to a maximum monthly food stamp allotment of $542 - the same amount as in 1996. The average subsidy amounts to roughly $1 per meal per person. And 800,000 mostly elderly and disabled food stamp recipients currently receive the minimum benefit of a mere $10 per month, according to the New York Times.

* * *

Mainstream economists have usually described the global food crisis as a food "shortage", but the shortage has been greatly exacerbated by the merciless laws of the free market. In many cases, the problem is not an immediate shortage of food but merely a shortage of the money to pay for it. World Food Program Executive Director Josette Sheeran recently remarked about Sub-Saharan Africa, "We are seeing more urban hunger than ever before. Often we are seeing food on the shelves but people being unable to afford it."

The agricultural/food business is now the second most profitable industry in the world, lagging only behind pharmaceuticals. Indeed the automaker Mitsubishi, which also controls the second largest bank in the world [sic], has become one of the world's largest beef processors, demonstrating the degree to which capital has flocked to the agribusiness sector. The World Bank's World Development Report 2008 heaped approval on the role of agribusiness, commenting, "The private agri-business sector has become more vibrant. New, powerful actors have entered agricultural value chains and have an economic interest in a dynamic and prosperous agricultural sector and a voice in political affairs."

But just as agribusiness wiped out small US farmers in the 1980s, it has repeated this pattern around the world ever since. As global justice activist Vandana Shiva wrote in 2006, in India "without market regulation agribusiness corporations will make profits selling costly seeds, buying cheap farm produce, and locking farmers in debt. This has been the process by which the small family farmer has disappeared in USA, Argentina, Europe."

Now the law of supply and demand has dictated that the new market for biofuels should reduce the production of corn for food by 25 percent in the US - triggering a manmade shortage and a rise in corn prices. Speculators have been hoarding crops on the expectation that prices will rise further. Meanwhile, investors around the world have been fleeing the falling dollar to buy up commodities such as rice and wheat, adding to the speculative momentum and forcing staple prices higher for the world's poorest people.

The neoliberal agenda long ago lost its shine for the vast majority of the world's population, although its most earnest proponents have been the last to recognize this stubborn reality. The most recent World Economic Outlook, published by the IMF last fall, did note rising inequality in the richest countries: "Among the largest advanced countries, inequality appears to have declined only in France. The recent experience (of increasing inequality) seems to be clear change in the course from the general decline in inequality in the first half of the 20th century."

Yet the IMF remained optimistic about the future of neoliberalism: "from 2002 to the present, the world economy has enjoyed its strongest period of sustained growth since the late 1960s and early 1970s, while inflation has remained at low levels. Not only has recent global growth been high but expansion has also been broadly shared across countries. The volatility of growth has fallen."

In recent weeks, neoliberal policymakers appear to have finally realized that widespread hunger could ignite a level of protest that threatens the ruling order worldwide. World Bank president Robert Zoellick recently worried on the organization's website, "33 countries around the world face potential social unrest because of the acute hike in food and energy prices".

Perhaps these out-of-touch policy wonks should suggest that the world's poor start eating ethanol, in keeping with their long-standing bourgeois tradition. And US workers now teetering into the neoliberal abyss should consider following their brothers and sisters around the world in fighting back.

Sharon Smith is the author of Women and Socialism (2005) and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (2006). She can be reached at:

Bill Totten