Grocery manufacturers to launch smear campaign against biofuels

There continues to be much debate around the role that biofuels — specifically, corn-based ethanol — is playing in the global food crisis. Corn, but one of several grains that have seen x-fold increases in price, is too often equated with “grains” generally when talking about the biofuel effect. That said, there’s no doubting that some food crops that aren’t used to produce ethanol are being abandoned and replaced with corn, which would impact the supply and thus price of these other crops. But if that’s the case, one would think this would create more supply for corn and thus buffer price increases. Still, others say it’s not about food shortages as much as an oversupply of money in the market looking for a safe home, which would including a range of commodities including grains. This, they argue, has led to inflated grain prices despite generally stable global supply. And then there’s oil prices. We often seem to forget that agriculture relies heavily on oil for transportation, running farm equipment, fertilizers, etc… perhaps we’re not appreciating enough what $125 a barrel oil is doing to the price of grains.

Who knows — there are global complexities here that can’t be summarized in sound bites or pithy quotes. What most generally agree is that, despite this current crisis that appeared somewhat suddenly, using food crops for fuel production is not sustainable in the long term.

Still, there are groups that are using this current food crisis as an opportunity to put the kibosh on U.S. biofuel subsidies, incentives and — one would presume — production. Biofuels Digest reports today that the U.S. Grocery Manufacturers Association has launched a global PR campaign and recently put out a request for proposals to PR firms that can exploit the current window of opportunity to “change perceptions about the benefits of biofuels and the mandate.” (Hat tip to Rob Day for flagging this). In other words, they want to exploit the sound bites and pithy quotes that make it into mainstream newspapers and TV news reports. Tactics will include a viral marketing campaign calling for urgent action. The goal, according to the RFP, is to “build a groundswell in support of freezing or reversing some provisions of the 2007 Energy Bill and for the elimination/reform of ethanol subsidies and import restrictions.” Biofuels Digest calls the campaign an “anti-biofuels jihad” that is linked financially to John McCain and Republic senators who are against the U.S. ethanol mandate.

The same revolt is taking place in politicial circles in Canada, though there also appears to be a recognition that cellulosic ethanol is a solution that needs to be accelerated. Again, are we against ethanol or are we against a certain way of producing ethanol? The difference has to be emphasized in this debate before we make ethanol a scapegoat for a global food crisis it likely hasn’t caused, but certainly isn’t helping.

10 thoughts on “Grocery manufacturers to launch smear campaign against biofuels”

  1. I attended a presentation by Gwynne Dyer a few months back. He presented some startling numbers that caused me to think. He claimed that 20 years ago, there was sufficient food in storage to feed every person on the planet for about 110 days. Two or three years ago, he claimed that the time had dropped to 50 days. (I have no idea where he came up with these numbers). He suggested that at 40 days of supply, there could be regional food riots. He also talked about water shortages and wondered if Canada would share with the US? Since that presentation, we have seen local food shortages, albeit largely shortages of rice – and the head of the UN spoke of wars over water supply. We recently heard that beef farmers in the western Canada have reduced their production becasue of high feed costs.

    Canada and the US are two of the largest food exporters in the world. In Canada we have large plants now making Canola oil that is a major component of biodiesel and the US is doing their bit with corn.. Surely taking any capacity out of a system that is strained at the moment in producing food is going to have an impact somewhere in the system. We may not see it – but it will be felt somewhere at the other end of the chain…

    We seem to have an oil shortage, limits on food production and potential local water shortages caused by high demand and global warming. Is this the “perfect storm?”

  2. We are putting hundreds of million into biofuels to put in our cars and trucks. The efficiencies of the internal combustion engine is 20 to 30% at best. Am i missing something here?

    Should we really be putting hundreds of million dollars into electrifying our auto and trucks at a 90% efficiency. First plugin hybrids, city electric vehicle, then full time electric.

    By the time these biofuels get into the mainstream we could have a real long term solution in motion.

  3. Bio fuels are ways of harvesting and harnassing energy from the sun. This is an inefficient route, but good enough for niches, like aviation.

    But the bulk of our energy can be harvested much more efficiently. With PV and CSP.

    The latter has as extra advantage that it generates abundant drinking water. In efforts to address tensions and conflicts related to droughts, this is an important factor.

    When looking at the logical connection between high efficiency propulsion (electric @ 90%) and high efficiency harvesting of electrons, how good does it have to get before we see the light? (exact number escapes me, but is something like a factor 10 better as through plants).

    Think about all the people on our planet who want and get a better life, which implies a significantly larger energy footprint.

    If this comes through inefficient routes like hydrogen, bio fuels or coal this is an invitation for disaster.

    Why on earth would we want this? Instead of this?

    Ehh, I know some reasons. But that is a long story.

    I also think we the people can speak out. With sufficient numbers, the leaders of the consumers / voters / people will listen.

    Good night and good luck.

    Emil M

  4. Some observations re Electric propulsion for vehicles

    Background

    As a PhD researcher I have focused on ‘Decision making processes in a transition towards a sustainable energy regime’.

    My promoters, Prof Ganzevoort (U of Amsterdam) and dr Kemp (UNU-Merit), as well as Prof Martens (U of Maastricht), Prof Rotmans (U of Rotterdam) and Prof Berkhout (TU Delft) have stimulated me to broaden my perspective. At the same time pointing out that making matters concrete is of the essence. Enabling society at large in general and entrepreneurs in particular to benefit and be a positive force for a more sustainable world. In my field research I have found strong concurrence in all gremia for the theoretical framework offered by these authors.

    The lines along which my research have developed can be summarized as follows:

    • more words, intentions, conferences, studies etcetera exacerbate the unsustainable course this world is steering

    • easy solutions, like soot filters, CO2 sequestration, lean driving are too easily promoted as being highest achievable measures

    • the case of sustainability is too often narrowed to the environment. Economical and social/cultural issues are other integral aspects of sustainability. Only in concert the case for sustainability can be served. This amounts to a system change, as put forward by Rotmans and Wijffels

    • the sense of urgency and recognition for drastic measures is acknowledged formally, but not followed up in concrete behavior. Self indulgence, with accompanying detrimental societal influences is rampant in all gremia, as Diamond and van Duijn argue

    • a formidable countervailing force is the current regime, who has vested interests in current arrangements. This applies to public office as well as the commercial domain (Chomsky’s point, as well as Friedman’s)

    • at the same time there is a generic, by and large pre conscious (and therefore trigger able) eagerness for a significant turn around in all gremia

    • all gremia seem to wait for another gremium to be a first mover. This hump is easily being erected, since it allows to talk green and continue with realizing quick returns with tweaking business, government and political operations

    Furthermore, my findings are that one of the most effective ways to uncork the bottle sketched before, can be found in the automobile sector.

    Reasons can be found in

    • the relatively high importance of psychological aspects of automobility for end users (Oel’s point)

    • vested industrial interests (wealth, jobs, power, etcetera)

    • high visibility of related phenomena (roads, recreation, accidents, deaths, noise, fumes, etcetera)

    • the European Commission’s choice for automobiles as the inroad towards a sustainable, secure energy supply

    • Google’s recent choice for plug in electric vehicles as spear head for their climate initiative and the resonance it finds among important actors in the US

    • reduction of the factual contribution of automobiles is a tempting perspective for policy makers and OEM’s alike. For alert OEM’s the non-bottom line threatening and even profit raising potential of Electric propulsion is a tremendous opportunity to increase revenues by leapfrogging the Prius icon. For less alert OEM’s and the ICE-related industry in general, Electric propulsion is a serious threat

    • utilities have shown interest in the plug in hybrid electric vehicle, since they can sell more of their product (especially at night, when there is a surplus) and facilitate the deployment of their Renewable Energy Sources. The latter due to the buffer-aspect of –fleets of- plug in (hybrid or not) electric vehicles

    This gives Electric (hybrid in many cases for now) propulsion a catalyst, a tipping point, an acupuncture potential.

    More specific, (hybrid) electric propulsion shows unequivocal advantages. This will be so to the extent it approaches 100% electric propulsion, as technology makes it possible to extend the range sufficiently and/or the market experiences that the bulk of vehicle trips can be done without recharging and/or fast charging stations become a viable option. These will attract attention from relevant gremia in the near future. Preparing for this market to take off seems to be the expedient thing to do now.

    The context where electric propulsion operates in being chaotic in nature, steering must be done in the most prudent, out of the box, learning while doing/doing while learning type of way (Rotmans’ and Kemp’s point).

    My thesis deals with how this unfolds; how humans, operating under conditions that can be characterized as chaotic and using their presumed freedom of choice, facilitate a significant and perhaps even a system change. This thesis then can be a guide for other domains, actors and times to facilitate system changes.

    Overview

    In the following overview therefore some perspectives will be offered for the contextualization of the electric propulsion technology and the introduction of it in society. This will be projected against other developments in vehicle propulsion and the consequences of that for a society based on Renewable (Energy) Sources. The reader is assumed to have sufficient knowledge on vehicle propulsion and electric propulsion and is referred to internet resources and specialist sources on this subject for more technical information.

    Schumpeter noted that capitalism has inherent destructive tendencies in its trajectory of development. He saw this as necessary for creativity and progress to unfold.

    Drucker on the other hand saw that this process should be planned, since people and organizations tend to cling to yesterday’s success.

    Both authors show some important aspects of electric propulsion : given its superior performance, it will destroy ICE-related phenomena. Important question is, who will benefit and who will pay?

    Rotmans points to current resistance to system change, the need for transition experiments and arena’s and the expediency to start acting now.

    Drucker pleas for a ‘planned abandonment’, which concurs with the main conclusions from Stern’s report: if we don’t act now, we will face a multiplication of cost as time progresses. And: there’s good economic sense in investing seriously in green tech, as is visible mainly in the US now.

    Gladwell points out that there’s only a cascade style / system change, after a tipping point has been reached. Reaching this point is both delicate and doable. Electric propulsion can be such a tipping point.

    Mirvis et al describe an inspiring instance of such a phenomenon, which can illumine the playing field where electric propulsion is in. Taking away obstacles, which now look like major problems.

    The relevant article is not available online and will be sent upon request.

    The importance of clustering (Porter’s point), is directly applicable to electric propulsion . When a electric propulsion cluster is forged in the EU, a world class center on drive train- and supporting technologies will be established. Enabling the Lisbon agenda after all. Realizing this, takes concerted action from actors in public office, commercial and financial parties and academia (Himanen’s point).

    Such a cluster in Porter’s vision represents the highest class innovation in Berkhout’s model: all nodes are involved and mutually reinforce one another, being driven by entrepreneurship. This is where the real opportunities lie. This concurs with Rotmans’ and Wijffels’ plea for a system change (rather than incremental changes).

    Although not strictly required, for maximum effectiveness regarding overcoming countervailing regime forces, electric propulsion should develop into a market in itself, not dependent on present OEM’s

    Selected regime players, newcomers and retrofit can stimulate the market strongly above the level of following the niche route. Being alive in itself, a niche can then proceed connecting with other niches and transform the regime from within. This requires a clear strategic plan. How quickly, in what style, with what actions remains unclear, given the aforementioned chaotic nature of the context it exists in

    At every moment and step, transition leaders must be alert to the context as it unfolds. It should be the right combination of strategy and opportunism: ‘no result with only strategy neither with opportunism; the right combination provides the best results’

    Mentioning Hugo’s quote on an idea whose time has come seems appropriate here: all nodes are pregnant with potential for a system change. Regarding the break down aspects of the context, Chomsky and Friedman were early warning agents

    In order to probe an expedient course for the up scaling of electric propulsion several roads should be walked simultaneously. The scientific domain can, among others, assist business development by providing the tools to develop and pave the right roads

    I would be happy through my thesis to be a linking pin between science and business development of electric propulsion, being the most promising vehicle propulsion system

    I intent in that linking pin position to limit myself to the subject of my thesis and leave the technological portion of the linking pin function to other applicable specialists. I am in relation with that pleased to be linked to the group of scientists from INCERT, developing plans to establish a technical ‘Center of Excellence’ around the subject of electric propulsion as well as other prominent players in this field

    Conclusion

    Electric propulsion has the potential to unleash the innovative and entrepreneurial forces needed to realize a break through. Making this happen in Europe serves our Planet best. Europe has the most social and culturally advanced position now. If Europe wants to maintain its standard of living and thereby its possibilities to make other regions more sustainable, it must use what it can do best: apply its cultural and intellectual resources for a leading edge on the world stage (Rifkin’s point).

    References:

    • Berkhout et al (2006) ‘Innovating the innovation process’

    • Chomsky (1988) ‘Manufacturing consent’

    • Diamond (2006) ‘Collapse’

    • Drucker in Hesselbein (2002) ‘Hesselbein on leadership’

    • Duijn, van in NRC (20 juni 2007) ‘Managers zijn plaag voor de economie’

    • Friedman in Tegenlicht (30 okt 2006) ‘Energy war’

    • Gladwell (2000) ‘The tipping point’

    • Himanen in NRC (17 nov 2006) ‘Europa handelt als in een Griekse tragedie’

    • Hugo (unknown) Quote ‘There’s nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come’

    • Oel in NRC (10 okt 2005) ‘Liever de Hummer dan de trein_auto laat zien wie we zijn’

    • Porter (1998) ‘Clusters and the new economics of competition’

    • Porter (1998), ‘The competitive advantage of nations’

    • Mirvis et al (2001) ‘Learning in Performance; How a Dutch Company Transformed Itself’

    • Rifkin (2004) ‘The European dream_ How Europe’s Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream’

    • Rotmans (2003) ‘Transitiemanagement’

    • Rotmans (2007) ‘Duurzaamheid, van onderstroom naar draaggolf’

    • Schumpeter (1962) ‘Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy’

    • Stern (2006) ‘The economics of climate change’

    • Wijffels in NRC (10 sept 2005) ‘Veel in de samenleving moet op zijn kop worden gezet’

  5. Oops, you sent your email to the wrong address. We are not the academic committee reviewing your PhD thesis.

    Before falling asleep trying to read your note, I notice that one of your references is Noam Chomsky. While he is a brilliant linguist, he also a serious nut case and a political idiot. What expertise does he bring to this subject?

    One thing you did accomplish though. You scored major brownie points but listing some obscure professors, who apart from this 1.5 seconds of fame, will not be heard off again.

  6. Anti-Biofuel?

    Would anti-“corn ethanol” be more accurate?

    How about anti-subsidy?

    Ethanol from corn, as currently being practiced in the USA, is so crazy it hurts!

    The uneconomic mandates, subsidies and tariffs, clearly intended to be helpful startup boosters, now have an entrenched, uneconomic, unsustainable, corn to ethanol industry gorging itself at the public’s expense.

    Higher grain prices.

    Higher food prices.

    Higher gasoline prices.

    Higher taxes.

    Lower MPG.

    In the end, HIGHER global fossil fuel consumption!

    Corn to ethanol, thankfully, is finally being universally recognized as utterly crazy.

    I’m unclear what this “grocery manf.” campaign might be against. Primarily against higher corn prices?

    The sooner this existing corn to ethanol system ends, the better.

  7. What percentage of the increased cost of food can be attributed to the rise in price of corn at the farm gate? How does it affect the “shortages” of rice and the tremendous increase in price of rice?

    How about if instead, you look at the role of speculation in the rise in price of corn, rice and other many other commodities, especially oil.

    If you just double the margin requirements for oil contracts, you will see oil dropping to below $50/barrel.

    Stop the policy of attacking or threatening oil-producing nations, and you will see oil below $30/barrel. Bush was tasked with raising oil prices, and he delivered. Mission accomplished

  8. I agree with your comments on corn – but consider canola in Canada. The product makes a lot more sense in many ways – but regardless, it still results in the conversion of the crops from normal food production to fuel – and as a result we see a drop in food production at a time when supplies are tight. I think that the result is exactly the same.

    Foods are in short supply. Removing any production area for energy production will result in higher priced food.

  9. What’s going to happen when, finally, there is a working solar energy collection method that is successful on an industrial / global scale?

    Such success will set a *ceiling* on the value / price of oil BTUs.

    Oil producers whose *costs* are above that ceiling will not be earning *any* income.

    They’re out of the oil business.

    Lower cost producers – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait … – will have their income limited by the ceiling.

    So the question is, what’s Plan B?

    What are they going to sell on the world market to replace the lost income? What will be the impact on their economy and their population?

  10. What percentage of recent food price increases are attributable to corn to ethanol?

    I don’t know.

    But, corn going from 2+ USD to 5+ USD per bushel is not pocket change.

    Any percent is money that could be spent elsewhere.

    I’m not sure if doubling margin requirements is smart or not.

    Does seem very attractive.

    But who / how to decide on the “right” margin %?

    Why not triple, quadruple … no margin activity permitted?

    Also, enforcability needs to be effectively worldwide, doesn’t it?

    Otherwise, don’t the speculators / gamblers just set up shop in an new unregulated jurisdictions?

    Seems such leverage / margins were also the root issue in the recent USA (residential) real estate mortgage debacle?

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