Pharyngula

Reality hurts farmers’ feelings

A few weeks ago, you may have heard about that interesting study that showed that using cropland to produce biofuels was actually more damaging to the atmosphere than using fossil fuels — among the reasons was that tying up productive cropland to produce alcohol meant other land had to be deforested/plowed/burned to produce food. It turns out that a couple of University of Minnesota faculty were involved in that study. Their reward? Agriculture groups that had funded them to the tune of about $1.5 million suspended their grants.

The Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council decided to stop paying additional research money until they meet with Allen Levine, dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, and other officials.

“The university hurt the farmers’ feelings, OK? That’s probably the best way to say it,” said Jim Palmer, executive director of the two groups.

Some people, even prominent, wealthy people, simply don’t understand the fundamental concept of basic research. The goal isn’t to get answers that make you feel good; it isn’t to find ways to rationalize continuing damaging practices; it isn’t even to pat you on the should and salve your delicate feelings. It is to find out the actual answer to a problem, no matter what it may be. Don’t fund research if you’re afraid of the truth.

Those two agriculture groups really ought to be ashamed of themselves. This is like getting together with your friends to play baseball, but threatening to take your ball home if they don’t let you win.

Comments

  1. #1 djmoore
    February 28, 2008

    I wonder if the two groups in question realize that any research they fund from here on out is now suspect? In fact, anything done by anybody they’ve funded is now suspect.

    They done pissed on the stove.

    On the other hand, I doubt anybody really keeps track.

    Don’t mind the smell, just eat your beans.

  2. #2 Armchair Dissident
    February 28, 2008

    Ethanol industry officials criticized the study as a simplistic analysis that doesn’t include the economic benefits for those who grow biofuel crops

    Huh? Am I missing something here? Whilst the economic benefits are important – especially in more deprived areas – what on Earth has that got to do with whether or not growing soybeans for biofuels ultimately damages the environment?

  3. #3 mjspear
    February 28, 2008

    Does anyone have a link to the original study?

  4. #4 afterthought
    February 28, 2008

    Some people, even prominent, wealthy people, simply don’t understand the fundamental concept of basic research.

    I think this was part of the plan, i.e., create a system where there is no truth, just ideology. The answer is what you want it to be, truth be damned. It is fundamentally anti-science and is destroying our ability to solve problems.
    I think BushCo has accelerated this process, but it has been going on for a long time and it is usually about somebody making money. Maybe Cyndi was right and money does change everything. Not that we don’t need money, but the greed seems pretty uncontrolled these days. Much less than 45 degrees of phase margin in the control loop.

  5. #5 Glen Davidson
    February 28, 2008

    At least the scientists did well, despite the source of their funds.

    OTOH, why are they even bothered so much? I suppose it’s their short-sightedness, they wanted to support current and perhaps greater subsidies for what they’re doing.

    But the study apparently isn’t against biofuels in general, they just want more environmentally-friendly biofuels, which likely will do farmers more good in the end. After all, they can’t expect to be subsidized for harming the environment forever, so need to get on board with better ways of making biofuels.

    Learn from the study, morons, don’t just shoot the messenger because you expected him to approve of what you’re doing.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  6. #6 LisaJ
    February 28, 2008

    This is just ridiculous. Damn right they should be ashamed of themselves. What an opportunity they’ve missed too to be a part of the leading edge in determining what their field can truly do to better our environment. People are crazy. I really like your playing baseball anology too. Perfect.

  7. #7 Cat of many faces
    February 28, 2008

    Wow, what assholes. Seriously, how whiny is that.

  8. #8 H. Humbert
    February 28, 2008

    “The university hurt the farmers’ feelings, OK? That’s probably the best way to say it,” said Jim Palmer, executive director of the two groups.

    Is it me, or are PR statements getting dumber and dumber. “The university hurt the farmers’ feelings…” wtf? Who is he explaining the situation to, a group of adults or a kindergarten class?

    Reminds me of the way Bush has a knack for reducing complex situations into layman’s terms. “Terrorists are bad, mm-kay?”

  9. #9 To Sir V. Mann
    February 28, 2008

    The study has another flaw. It fails to point out another vitally important benefit of growing biofuel crops: This type of farming does not automatically summon brain-eating aliens from planet Zorg.

    You foolish worshippers of Scientism! Are you people willing to risk summoning these aliens by not producing ethanol?

  10. #10 BTC
    February 28, 2008

    “It is to find out the actual answer to a problem, no matter what it may be. Don’t fund research if you’re afraid of the truth.”

    Watch out PZ. Considering they always say “follow the evidence where it leads,” that quote is perfect for IDers to mine.

  11. #11 raven
    February 28, 2008

    I used to be a fan of biofuels. Mostly that it seemed more benign than trading our kid’s blood and bodies for oil.

    Wheat is now over 20 USD/bushel. Up for $3+ just a few years ago. Food prices will take a jump as wheat is used not just in bread and spaghetti but also animal feeds.

    We will just pay it and complain in the USA. Food prices in the rest of the world are going up too. Everything is a world market these days. The poor of the world will be squeezed pretty seriously. Already hearing reports of food stress in some areas i.e. Mexico and Northern Africa.

    Burning food in our gas tanks is starting to look a little shaky. OTOH, if we can’t grow our liquid fuel and fighting for it didn’t work either, what is the solution?

    Could the deep ecologists finally be right?

  12. #12 Steve_C
    February 28, 2008

    Biofuels are a boondoggle. The output isn’t high enough and they don’t burn as well as petroleum based fuels.

  13. #13 Jolly Bloger
    February 28, 2008

    To be fair, I don’t think the farmers’ intention was to uncover some ultimate truth through basic research. They were investing in their businesses. It is a good investment if the study says what you want it to, but its a bad investment to fund it further once it finds the opposite. This isn’t equivalent to the Templeton foundation getting upset when results don’t turn out the way they want. This is business.

    You wouldn’t expect Donald Trump to invest in a failing business just for the sociological data it might produce.

  14. #14 Lorax
    February 28, 2008

    I don’t have any answers, but I think the basic science has already determined that corn for biofuel is not a reasonable long-term approach. So I am always happy to hear our governor spout off about money to increase the corn-based biofuel infrastructure. What ever happened to using that big shiny ball of fire in the sky? Water flow? Wind, oh wait we now know that to be potentially deadly. Well there is always nuclear power or are we still not allowed to talk about that?

  15. #15 joeschmo
    February 28, 2008

    Anyone have any good tragic stories about research hurting your feelings?

  16. #16 Chris
    February 28, 2008

    mjspear:

    I believe this is the original article.

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/1152747

  17. #17 MikeM
    February 28, 2008

    When I hear energy matters being discussed, well, I think the answer these guys gave was completely consistent. You tell people there’s only so much oil, and they try to invent theories of abiotic oil. You try to tell them perpetual motion machines don’t work, and they show you a website with a “functioning” perpetual motion machine. You tell people there aren’t enough acres in America to grow all the corn we’d need to make ethanol, they tell you you’re wrong.

    This answer, that farmers had their feelings hurt, is 100% consistent with any answer I’ve ever had when I talk to people about energy.

    My feeling is that we had a good run with relatively cheap energy, and the party will end in the near future. That hurts the feelings of many. Oh, poor baby; I guess I’ll just lie to you about this.

    We’re doing this on a tragic national level. We know we’ll need increasing amounts of energy, and it won’t be cheap. Ask people to invest now, they say you’re crazy (or that we hurt their feelings).

    It’s so… Faith-based.

  18. #18 RamblinDude
    February 28, 2008

    Burning food in our gas tanks is starting to look a little shaky. OTOH, if we can’t grow our liquid fuel and fighting for it didn’t work either, what is the solution?

    The answer is the air powered car…?

  19. #19 bacopa
    February 28, 2008

    Corn ethanol and soybean oil diesel are net energy loss operations. Sugar cane to ethanol is a small net energy gain. But we have tarrifs against cane [roducts from other countries. That’s why so many of our candy companies have moved to Canada.

    But whatever happened to thermal depolymerization? Last I heard it would become viable once diesel topped three bucks a gallon.

  20. #20 Pat
    February 28, 2008

    They should follow the sugar industry’s example and have a few folks on retainer to crank out refuting meta-analysis studies every time bad news comes down. Meta-analysis doesn’t entail original research, and fields of other data can be easily cherry-picked, plus the pure cash bonus makes swallowing that hard pill easier for your researchers.

  21. #21 Casey S
    February 28, 2008

    Hooray for Science! Idealism at its finest.

  22. #22 Crudely Wrott
    February 28, 2008

    My feelings got hurt several times. In each case I got over it. Am I unique?

    Furthermore, there is trouble enough finding land on which to grow food.

    Again, magical thinking (aka “we can grow our own gas”) supplants a better idea, to wit: “We could do more with less. Hey, lemme look at that bearing. I think it could use a little oil.”

    Like Brylcreme, a little dab will do ya.

  23. #23 rob
    February 28, 2008

    #13: You wouldn’t expect Donald Trump to invest in a failing business just for the sociological data it might produce.

    No, but if he funded a sociological study I wouldn’t expect him to refuse to pay because it failed to make him money.

    And if the study showed his buildings to be squalid dumps that violated safety codes, I wouldn’t expect him to criticize it because it didn’t report the huge profits he was making.

  24. #24 ndt
    February 28, 2008

    Your outrage is understandable, but from what I hear this is business as usual for agricultural research grants. At many universities the agriculture curriculum is essentially written by agribusiness lobbyists.

  25. #25 jfatz
    February 28, 2008

    …which is why I always keep my ball at home to begin with. Saves me the trouble.

  26. #26 Robert Thille
    February 28, 2008

    What’s the solution? Nukes, in addition to other “alternative” energy harvesting systems, to generate power, hydrogen to store it, fuel cells to make it useful. Also, raising efficiency, cutting back on use/waste, thermal depolymerization?

  27. #27 Dan
    February 28, 2008

    Don’t know about the rest of you, but soybeans give me gas!

    baaa-zing!

  28. #28 Whodunnit
    February 28, 2008

    This is seriously Out There but the only truly unlimited and sustainable energy sources are solar or geothermal power. Of these the easiest one to tap is geothermal. The problem is that if you want any serious output you have to be in geologically active areas (think Iceland). Besides the risks (actully not very large) you would have to transport that power to all the non-active areas.

    When it comes to solar power, anything below the atmosphere is going to need really huge fascilities. Covering the Sahara with solar cells would be incredibly expensive, not to mention the maintenance costs.

    No, until humanity leaves this cloudy piece of rock and colonises the sun-drenched voids we’re going to have to work hard for our energy.

    Eh, just a thought…

  29. #29 mjspear
    February 28, 2008

    Chris:

    Thanks for the original link.

  30. #30 Brownian, OM
    February 28, 2008

    Say what you will about the religious, but they keep funding their useless institutions no matter how often their gods fail to deliver.

  31. #31 Ichthyic
    February 28, 2008

    they keep funding their useless institutions no matter how often their gods fail to deliver.

    …or how often their chosen “leaders” go to jail for fraud, tax evasion, sex and drug crimes.

  32. #32 raven
    February 28, 2008

    Here is an article on food prices worldwide. Going to hear a lot more about this in the next year. For many poor in the third world, it will be a time of hunger.

    Global demand lifts grain prices, gobbles supplies
    Updated 16d ago By Sue Kirchhoff and John Waggoner, USA TODAY

    WASHINGTON — Soaring energy costs may be roiling the financial markets, but world governments are also being rattled by a more basic form of inflation: sky-high food prices.
    Pakistan is stockpiling wheat and using its military to guard flour mills. Indonesian consumers have taken to the streets to protest rising soy prices. Malaysia no longer lets people take sugar, flour or cooking oil out of the country. North Dakota, the top U.S. wheat-producing state, may import from Canada due to tight supplies.

    The world is facing the most destabilizing bout of food inflation since the “Great Grain Robbery” of the early 1970s when the former Soviet Union bought massive quantities of U.S. grain, sending prices soaring. That episode helped fuel a Farm Belt boom — and later bust — as soaring exports soured and record agricultural land prices fell.

    Soaring demand, rising oil prices and government-mandated biofuel use have sent many commodity prices to their highest levels in history. The impact is hardest in the developing world: The United Nations says increasing prices will make it tougher to meet international goals of reduced hunger. Rising prices are squeezing food aid budgets that were already falling far behind growing need caused by war and increasing weather disasters. Worse, soaring costs are adding to political instability in countries such as Afghanistan, where flour prices are up more than 60% in the past year, and as much as 80% in some areas.

    The bulls may not be running on Wall Street, but they’re charging in the commodities pits. Prices for some varieties of wheat are at an all-time high of more than $16 a bushel on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange. Soybean futures prices have jumped to $13.26 a bushel in Chicago trading, from less than $7.50 a bushel in 2007. Corn, which has averaged about $2.50 per bushel in recent years, is above $5 today. Rice prices have hit records. Palm oil prices, in demand for biofuels production, have risen. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization food price index jumped nearly 40% in 2007, following a 9% increase the previous year.continues

  33. #33 Ichthyic
    February 28, 2008

    food price index jumped nearly 40% in 2007,

    holy crap!

    I knew base food prices had gone up considerably (It’s not hard to notice, even locally), but 40%??

    yow.

  34. #34 AgAgent
    February 28, 2008

    Most agricultural research is funded by grants from industry and in most cases we know pretty well what the results will be. (Federal gravy train dried up in the 80s.) A lot of these involve money from either commodity groups like the soybean promotion board or from chemical companies. In the case of money from promotion boards, that money comes from farmers through a check-off. The promotion boards are thus highly responsive to complaints.

    Having worked in ag. my whole life I can tell you that in spite of receiving more government money than any other industry (except maybe defense), farmers/ranchers are fiercely afraid of the government and believe in their hearts that there is some grand conspiracy to drive them out of business. Most are highly conservative and do not believe in global warming, so to them any research that suggests that something that makes them money may contribute to global warming is suspect. Farmers also earnestly believe they are good land stewards and protect the environment, although there’s nothing natural about monoculture. (Of course these characterizations don’t cover every farmer, but I’ve not met many who wouldn’t fit the bill.)

    Also, the curriculum of ag. schools is not driven by industry. I remember as an undergrad in the early 90s learning all about the potential problems that have now come to pass with Roundup Ready technology. This from a weed scientist who got money from herbicide companies. Instead the curriculum is driven by administration trying to get students to enroll in its programs rather than the other colleges like arts and sciences in a university.

  35. #35 Carlie
    February 28, 2008

    #28 – Geothermal? Are you insane? Didn’t you watch The Core? Bad things happen when you try to tap into energy deep within the earth! Really bad things, like the existence of nonmelting room-sized geodes in the inner mantle, and extra tectonic plates near Hawaii, and birds ceasing to be able to fly at all once the magnetic field breaks down so they fall like stones to the ground!

  36. #36 Mechalith
    February 28, 2008

    Does anyone know what the potential energy return/environmental impact for using hemp-derived diesel fuels would be? I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, but they were regrettably from some of my woo-infected hippy friends and gods only know how reliable their data was.

  37. #37 Fernando Magyar
    February 28, 2008

    Re#12 Steve_C

    Biofuels are a boondoggle. The output isn’t high enough and they don’t burn as well as petroleum based fuels.

    Really? Let me start by saying that there are a lot of reasons not think of biofuels as a panacea for our energy woes, and we do have some pretty serious woes to worry about.
    However I can tell you from first hand experience the at least ethanol distilled from sugarcane is quite viable. Yes you need more of it to get the same amount of energy as would you get from an equal volume of gasoline for example but that isn’t quite the same as saying it is a boondoggle. I used to drive a 100% ethanol powered Volkswagon Fox sedan between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro back in the 80’s at some pretty decent highway speeds easily cruising along at 120 to 140 kph. Given that I was driving a small car with 1.8 liter engine and a manual transmission, my mileage per gallon still put the average current American gas guzzler to shame by a very large margin. While getting ethanol distilled from corn here in the US is in my opinion a very bad idea. EROEI for sugarcane grown in Brazil is not that shabby. As far as the environmental and social impact, well that’s another story.

    http://www.biofuelsnow.com/

    ?EROEI -Energy Returned On Energy Invested
    ?Ethanol from conventional chemical sugar cane:
    ?Minimum = 8.3 : 1 Average: 9.2 : 1 Best: 11 : 1
    ?Ethanol from organic sugar cane:
    ?Minimum = 11 : 1 Average: 12.2 : 1 Best: 13.1 : 1

  38. #38 Ktesibios
    February 28, 2008

    Much less than 45 degrees of phase margin in the control loop.

    And that does not Bode well…

    ;)

  39. #39 Bob Moffitt
    February 28, 2008

    Dear SquidBoy and Assorted Minions:

    It is not simply soybean farmers who are upset abot this study. Have you heard of the U.S. Department of Energy? Of Dr. Michael Wang, whose GREET model for lifecycle CO2 was missused by the U of M reserchers? Have you heard of the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest (whom I work for) who also raised issues with this study.

    Look at the Minnesota Daily story (which spawned the Associated Press artice). Look on the Internet. Read the rebutals and then come back here to comment.

  40. #40 bwv
    February 28, 2008

    You liberal big-government types ought to pause and look at the whole ethanol fiasco. This is what happens when government officials are entrusted to solve our energy problems – they line the pockets of key interest groups (farmers and agri-business). Absent government subsidies, none of this would ever have happened. We would be importing low cost, much more environmentally friendly Latin American sugar cane (but that is impossible again due to the government catering to special interests) and making fuel from it.

  41. #41 zayzayem
    February 28, 2008

    Seriously, thats just fucking pathetic.

    I hope those funding groups get their asses handed to them by whatever watchdog system you guys have there.

  42. #42 Nomad
    February 28, 2008

    I still don’t buy that using grain for ethanol is such a totally bad thing. Before we were paying farmers not to work some of their land. How did we go straight from paying them not to work the land and subsidizing the HELL out of grain prices and creating a never ending spiral of despair where they have to grow more grain just to get by, but in so doing they further depress the value of that grain, to instantly losing food to fuel because they can’t grow enough grain at all?

    I’m willing to believe that it can only be pushed so far, perhaps at best an energy supplement rather than a total solution, but I question the view that it’s totally the wrong idea.

  43. #43 Ichthyic
    February 28, 2008

    Are you insane? Didn’t you watch The Core?

    I just have to jump on that, since I absolutely abhor that flick…

    From what I recall, watching that movie might actually INDUCE insanity, especially amongst real geologists.

    one of the worst sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen (for all the things you mentioned … x10!), and that’s saying a lot, trust me.

    It’s not bad in a 50’s B movie kinda way (camp), it’s bad in a “we haven’t the slightest clue what is real geology, so we’ll just make shit up as we go” kinda way.

    bad in a…

    *shudder*

    kinda way

  44. #44 Ichthyic
    February 28, 2008

    How did we go straight from paying them not to work the land and subsidizing the HELL out of grain prices and creating a never ending spiral of despair where they have to grow more grain just to get by, but in so doing they further depress the value of that grain, to instantly losing food to fuel because they can’t grow enough grain at all?

    commodities trading.

  45. #45 RamblinDude
    February 28, 2008

    Having worked in ag. my whole life I can tell you that in spite of receiving more government money than any other industry (except maybe defense), farmers/ranchers are fiercely afraid of the government and believe in their hearts that there is some grand conspiracy to drive them out of business.

    It’s no wonder the farmers are paranoid. Farming ain’t what it used to be.

    I’m reminded of the case of Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian canola oil farmer. When Monsanto’s seed contaminated his crop through cross-contamination, it destroyed fifty years of independent research that Percy had done, but Monsanto battled in court saying Percy’s crop was now their property–even though he had not purchased their seed! This case was, of course, by no means unique.

    Another case was Monsanto suing Oakhurst Dairy in Maine for label its milk: “Our farmer’s pledge: no artificial hormones.” Monsanto’s lawsuit said the label implies Oakhurst’s milk is somehow better than milk from cows treated with rBST, and that unfairly harms Monsanto’s business.

    I didn’t keep up with these cases, but they’re not that uncommon, and the government often sides with the mega corporations. Farmers can go bust fighting them in court.

    I grew up in Indiana, and a common complaint is that the business of farming is being forced out of the hands of actual farmers. If I had gone into farming, I’d probably be broke and paranoid, too.

  46. #46 gwangung
    February 28, 2008

    Dear SquidBoy and Assorted Minions:
    It is not simply soybean farmers who are upset abot this study. Have you heard of the U.S. Department of Energy? Of Dr. Michael Wang, whose GREET model for lifecycle CO2 was missused by the U of M reserchers? Have you heard of the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest (whom I work for) who also raised issues with this study.
    Look at the Minnesota Daily story (which spawned the Associated Press artice). Look on the Internet. Read the rebutals and then come back here to comment.

    So, basically, you’re saying you don’t understand the science well enough to say anything about it.

  47. #47 Carlie
    February 28, 2008

    commodities trading.

    I blame it on the popularity of the card game Pit.

  48. #48 Kcanadensis
    February 28, 2008

    I felt that the whole idea was stupid and backward to begin with. Takes up land, could still use pesticides (not sure on this personally), has to be refined and transported… USING FUEL. I’m really not sad to learn that there’s a fundamental flaw other than the other glaring problems…

  49. #49 eewolf
    February 28, 2008

    re #18 RamblinDude

    If that car comes in at 18K or less I’ll buy one. Not just for the mileage and green. I already have a Honda Civic Hybrid(50mpg) and I have solar cells on my roof.
    The neighbors, most with SUVs and large trucks, are already freaked out by me (north Florida). An air powered car would put it over the top. I don’t think I could pass that up.

  50. #50 Ichthyic
    February 28, 2008

    The neighbors, most with SUVs and large trucks, are already freaked out by me (north Florida). An air powered car would put it over the top. I don’t think I could pass that up.

    environmentalism born of spite?

    I like it.

  51. #51 eewolf
    February 28, 2008

    Ichthyic: “environmentalism born of spite?”

    The waves are on and off here so I have to fill in time when I can’t surf.

  52. #52 Fernando Magyar
    February 28, 2008

    environmentalism born of spite?

    How about a couple hundred spiteful cyclists on bamboo bikes
    riding through town. They could be wearing tee shirts emblazoned with scarlet A’s on the front and the slogan “Ride a Bike or Take a Hike” on their backs. Now that would be spiteful. http://www.boingboing.net/2008/02/08/africa-building-bike.html

  53. #53 Ichthyic
    February 28, 2008

    man, I knew a Jazz sax player named “Woody” in Santa Cruz that would have LOVED the idea of bamboo bikes.

    He used to make solar powered bikes… that also had vegie grinders on them, so you made your own veggie juice while you pedaled.

    I kid you not.

    even had built in covers to maximize the solar input area, and keep out the rain.

    He was a fantastic sax player, too.

  54. #54 eewolf
    February 28, 2008

    Fuck, now I have to get a bamboo bike to haul my kayak/surfboard trailer.
    I’m going to sleep now before I have to buy anything else.

  55. #55 Cwazy Cat Lady
    February 28, 2008

    PZ, my feeling is that the most revolutionary reform we could have in this country is agricultural. Biodiesel is sadly being wielded as a political tool by those who are the very enemies of environmental conservation and restoration. It is not to say that there are not other sound methods and materials of generating biofuels to date or of possible development in the future, but I fear that the wrong people and the wrong groups will set us once again on the wrong path.

  56. #56 CalGeorge
    February 28, 2008

    You liberal big-government types ought to pause and look at the whole ethanol fiasco. This is what happens when government officials are entrusted to solve our energy problems – they line the pockets of key interest groups (farmers and agri-business). Absent government subsidies, none of this would ever have happened. We would be importing low cost, much more environmentally friendly Latin American sugar cane (but that is impossible again due to the government catering to special interests) and making fuel from it.

    Posted by: bwv | February 28, 2008 9:07 PM

    Give me a fucking break. Who lobbied the government to line the pockets of agri-business? This is greed at work, nothing more.

  57. #57 Rick Schauer
    February 29, 2008

    I’m just going to ride my bike more…when it warms up a little.

  58. #58 CalGeorge
    February 29, 2008

    WAPO, 1998:
    Agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM), the single largest beneficiary of a controversial federal ethanol tax subsidy, contributed more than $3 million in unregulated “soft money” to Republican and Democratic national party committees during the past 10 years, according to a study by Common Cause.

    There’s your culprit.

  59. #59 yiela
    February 29, 2008

    #48
    It’s a good thing that petroleum based fuels don’t need to be refined or transported. Heck, if they did, they would bad for the environment and it would take FUEL to do it too!!
    It’s funny how people think that biofuels must be totally problem free in order to be acceptable. Nothing is totally problem free.

  60. #60 Chris
    February 29, 2008
    Much less than 45 degrees of phase margin in the control loop.

    And that does not Bode well…

    ;)

    HAHAHA! *wipes tears from eyes*

    Thank you Ktesibios, thank you. I’ve been doing Control homework all today, and this was the best way to end it. Thanks. :)

  61. #61 hinschelwood
    February 29, 2008

    eewolf #51:
    “The waves are on and off here”

    Blimey, are we running out of waves as well? Things are worse than I thought.

  62. #62 bernarda
    February 29, 2008

    The Soybean Growers were really spending their own money, but taxpayer money. Here is a summary of U.S. soybean subsidies over the last ten years. Minnesota is third on the list.

    http://farm.ewg.org/farm/progdetail.php?fips=00000&progcode=soybean&page=states

    You will also see that most of the money goes to the top 10%, what a Republican surprise.

  63. #63 Fernando Magyar
    February 29, 2008

    Re 54 eewolf, what are you doing April 19th?
    My girl friend and I are signed up to be kayak escorts for this event they still need volunteers:

    http://www.distancematters.com/

    24 Mile Tampa Bay Marathon Swim

    The Eleventh Annual 24 Mile Tampa Bay Marathon Swim will be held on Saturday, April 19, 2008 to celebrate Earth Day and the revitalization of Florida’s largest estuary. Entry deadline is March 1, 2008. Entry details >>

    BTW you think you got issues with your bike trailer and kayak, I have to add my scuba gear to the kayak behind my bike. http://www.kayuba.org

  64. #64 moi
    February 29, 2008

    i deal with this shit all the time. could be why we are out ‘o money…

  65. #65 charley
    February 29, 2008

    At least this study was honest science. I did grunt field work many years ago for an Ag professor at Michigan State who clearly fudged his plant sampling methods to make his funding company’s product look effective. I should add that this professor was a bad apple in an excellent department.

  66. #66 DCW
    February 29, 2008

    I am a VERY conservative farmer in the Morris area and obviously I usually disagree fundamentally with the political outlook of PZ-However, I heartily endorse his thoughts on this news story and I had many of the same thoughts this morning when I heard part of it on a local farm radio show.

    I am not a fan of ethanol and the push to bio-fuels for many reasons.

  67. #67 Luna_the_cat
    February 29, 2008

    Biofuels aren’t just a problem in the US, or because they use land for what would otherwise would be food. Tropical rainforests, especially in places like Malaysia, are actively being logged for palm oil plantations, and this is accelerating with the ability to sell palm oil for biofuel — and for each ton of CO2 saved on biofuel from such a source, not only do you have the loss of jungle and diversity, it also releases up to 100 tons of CO2 from the drying out and burning off of the underlying peat in the former rainforests. Talk about an economically profitable, but deeply, deeply, stupidly counterproductive strategy.

  68. #68 bwv
    February 29, 2008

    As a lifelong Republican I labor under the vain hope that the party will one day practice what it preaches in regards to limited government. Instead we get a bonanza of corporate handouts, most notably to ADM. This is not a partisan issue but an institutional one. If the government attempts to dictate energy policy rest assured the winners will be those with the best lobbyists, not the best ideas.

  69. #69 gerald spezio
    February 29, 2008

    “The goal isn’t to get answers that make you feel good; it isn’t to find ways to rationalize continuing damaging practices; it isn’t even to pat you on the should and salve your delicate feelings. It is to find out the actual answer to a problem, no matter what it may be.”

    So you say, Mr. Science.

    There you go again – trying to transform incommensurables into commensurables like some kind of a dirty rotten science autocrat, who claims to “know” how some parts of the world work.

    I hate you!

    Whad aboud ME and my orientation – my
    co-ordinates in time and space – I need to be counted.

    You are obliged to acknowledge my essence, too.

  70. #70 gerald spezio
    February 29, 2008

    “An enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen was written in 1882.
    It’s a story about the “perception of reality” and the consequences of adopting one version of reality rather than another version.
    How struggling humans, whose sexual orientations are not stipulated or even mentioned, cope with the agonies of their perceptions – the fuzzy sense data.
    Perception is THE mandatory buzzword in very modern & very flabby relativism – the incommensurablity of it all.
    Deciding what to do about what.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Enemy_of_the_People

  71. #71 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 29, 2008

    Well there is always nuclear power or are we still not allowed to talk about that?

    Sure you are. The problem is just that “at the current level of consumption the world’s uranium will only last for the next 60 years”.

    Given the fact that I read this, like, 10 years ago, it’s probably the next 50 years at a level of consumption noticeably below today’s.

  72. #72 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 29, 2008

    Well there is always nuclear power or are we still not allowed to talk about that?

    Sure you are. The problem is just that “at the current level of consumption the world’s uranium will only last for the next 60 years”.

    Given the fact that I read this, like, 10 years ago, it’s probably the next 50 years at a level of consumption noticeably below today’s.

  73. #73 tyaddow
    February 29, 2008

    Firstly, I am obliged to acknowledge gerald’s essence.

    Secondly, I have read too much Paul Shepard to not feel like agriculture spells impending doom. No matter the benefits of grain-based fuels, can we really afford to increase our reliance on land use for yet another energy source? Any Paul Shepard critics care to guide my impressionable and delicate mind in the direction of reason?

  74. #74 MAJeff, OM
    February 29, 2008

    And the crazy keeps on coming. Do tell us more, please, gerry.

  75. #75 Inoculated Mind
    February 29, 2008

    The study in question was over-hyped. They studied the current incarnation of unimproved corn-based ethanol. So you have a crop that provides a small benefit, and then you cleverly word your conclusion to make it sound like one year of corn for biofuel just caused 93 years of havoc.

    The research on switchgrass tells us the opposite story, see here for example:
    http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/jan2008/2008-01-08-091.asp

    Researchers here at UW-Madison and elsewhere are also working on adapting corn to be a more efficient biofuel producer, so as soon as the efficiency of the system goes up, the environmental benefits will be much better.

    The study is very useful, however, in helping us figure out what happens when the emphasis on certain crops is altered – if you replace soybeans with corn, what happens around the world with land use?

    There is also a clear benefit that is being overlooked by the current biofuel pessimism, is that when we have better biofuels, we’d better have the infrastructure to distribute them, and the vehicles to use them. The sooner we make more ethanol, the sooner we will be capable of taking advantage of more efficient forms in the future. It’s not like everyone’s going to sell their gasoline cars overnight once ethanol production is perfected.

  76. #76 Rebecca Haden
    February 29, 2008

    Actually, I’d say that they were being very honest. They could have said that the researcher’s work was inadequate or failed to square with their own results or all kinds of things that other businesspeople in similar positions have done.
    Instead, they fessed up: their feelings are hurt, and they want to talk with the folks who hurt them before handing over any more money. Perhaps a meeting will allow the farmers to learn how they might need to change their approach in order to make biofuels a better prospect, and they’ll hand over some more.

  77. #77 John Hunter
    February 29, 2008

    What if 95% of the people you play with let you win. Would you take your ball and go play with someone that didn’t let you win if you actually ran into someone that didn’t. Maybe? Right? Ok, maybe not you but people you know? And if the only way somone would let you play with their baseball was if you let them win, what then?

  78. #78 Stephen Wells
    February 29, 2008

    It’s odd, Gerry used to just post cut-and-pastes about how any statement which fails to condemn Israel occupying Palestine- even if was a statement about cake recipes- is obviously Israeli propaganda. Then a couple of days ago he just flipped, and now we apparently have to acknowledge his essence.

    I said LESS crack, gerry, not MORE crack.

  79. #79 bernarda
    February 29, 2008

    I wonder how many American farmers were so happy to hear Reagan and other Rethuglican politicians since criticizing the “welfare Cadillac mother” myth.

    The real ripoff welfare mothers are the Rethuglican farmers who now get $28 billion a year in subsidies.

    Conservative Xian farmers are the most hypocritical clowns around.

  80. #80 Dave
    February 29, 2008

    David Marjanovic @ #71:

    Sure you are. The problem is just that “at the current level of consumption the world’s uranium will only last for the next 60 years”.

    Do you have a reference for this? My understanding is it was basically true in the 80’s, (if we substitute “economically exploitable uranium reserves” for “the world’s uranium”) but there have been substantial uranium reserves discovered since then. Currently, I believe that there are reserves that are extractable at current prices that would last a few hundred years. Further, that is based on the light-water reactor technology generally in use. Breeder reactors are significantly more efficient and would extend the lifetime of current reserves. They would also allow the use of reserves that are significantly more expensive to extract. Given how little the cost of uranium contributes to the cost of electricity (approx 2-5%), we could even afford substantial increases in uranium costs with the reactors currently in use.

  81. #81 Ichthyic
    February 29, 2008

    I hate you!

    Whad aboud ME and my orientation – my
    co-ordinates in time and space – I need to be counted.

    stamp your feet harder, boy!

    LOL

    have you ever even started to consider the idea that an internet forum is not the place to look for validation of yourself?

  82. #82 gerald spezio
    February 29, 2008

    Ichthyic, you are so perceptive.

    You just destroy the all the opposition because you are so perceptive, but you are a meanie.

    I don’t hate you though.

    I hate PZ Myers, and I told him so.

    W. C. Fields taught me to hate.

  83. #83 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 29, 2008

    Currently, I believe that there are reserves that are extractable at current prices that would last a few hundred years.

    I see…

    (No, I don’t have a reference.)

    Further, that is based on the light-water reactor technology generally in use. Breeder reactors are significantly more efficient and would extend the lifetime of current reserves.

    Certainly — but none has ever worked, has one?

    Given how little the cost of uranium contributes to the cost of electricity (approx 2-5%), we could even afford substantial increases in uranium costs with the reactors currently in use.

    Nuclear power is already heavily subsidized…

  84. #84 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 29, 2008

    Currently, I believe that there are reserves that are extractable at current prices that would last a few hundred years.

    I see…

    (No, I don’t have a reference.)

    Further, that is based on the light-water reactor technology generally in use. Breeder reactors are significantly more efficient and would extend the lifetime of current reserves.

    Certainly — but none has ever worked, has one?

    Given how little the cost of uranium contributes to the cost of electricity (approx 2-5%), we could even afford substantial increases in uranium costs with the reactors currently in use.

    Nuclear power is already heavily subsidized…

  85. #85 travc
    February 29, 2008

    Despicable and short-sighted action by these two industry groups.

    They should have taken the opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade… using the findings to advocate alternatives/combinations to just producing ethanol (which isn’t so great for soybean farmers in the first place).

    Multiple output streams for each crop and increasing the revenue/utility of existing streams is even better than ‘fuel crops’. Advocate and fund cellulostic and other ‘waste biomass’ research and demonstration projects. There are also interesting new biodiesel production methods in the works that need support. Instead of just trying to increase the demand for the ‘crop’, they have the opportunity to help make more of the crop (including stuff nominally considered waste) into profitable products in their own right.

    ‘White biotech’, of which biofuels is just the vanguard, is something all ag interests should be promoting in public and in the lab.

    I once saw a bumper-sticker in a small mining town in CA.
    “If it isn’t grown or drilled, it’s MINED”
    Pretty profoundly true… though the emphasis is wrong IMO. We should, as a society, be doing our best to move away from “drilled and mined” and towards “grown” where possible. Though this study (and many others like it) rightly point out that we need to do it carefully and cleverly. This should be a boon to the AG industry (and even real farmers)… doesn’t scarcity increase the value of goods after all.

  86. #86 John
    March 1, 2008

    Some people think of solar energy and biofuel as different energy sources. That’s just not correct. All energy we get from growing plants comes from the sun, through photosynthesis. Fuels that we burn today, that come from last year’s crop, came from the sun last year. This means that biofuel is just one technology for obtaining solar energy.

    Therefore, biofuel should be discussed in the context of how best to exploit solar energy. This means that biofuel has the same limit as any form of solar energy — sunlight intensity of 1400 Watts per square meter. I’m not sure of the relative efficiency of solar cells vs. photosynthesis (both in the energy process, and in their manufacture), but photosynthesis is surprisingly inefficient: why is green the color of life? Or more mundanely, why does chlorophyll reflect green light, where sunlight is most intense?

    One idea is to genetically engineer a more efficient photosynthesizing chemical and plant, if we choose the biofuel route. (Right now, this is science fiction.)

    I believe that a critical part of future energy will be electrical, and the best places for producing electricity from whatever means will not be near the major consuming centers. As a major investment in the future, I propose a governmental (or international) initiative, comparable to the Interstate Highway System from the 1950s, to build a large-scale, cheap, efficient, fault-tolerant continental (or world-wide) electrical grid that electrical producers and consumers can tap into. Superconducting would be ideal.

    Producers of all types would attach to the grid. The power would flow around the world to where it was needed. Power would automatically work around breakdowns and sabotage.

  87. #87 Luna_the_cat
    March 1, 2008

    More problems already noted with international plans for biofuels:

    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2008/02/kenyan_birds_and_sugar_cane.php

    But sure, sugarcane-derived fuels burn nicely. So that’s all right then.

  88. #88 Luna_the_cat
    March 1, 2008

    John, your argument about biofuel being the same essential source as solar makes no sense. Fossil fuels are the results of ancient biomass; most of it used to be plants. By your argument, burning fossil fuels should simply be regarded as another exploitation of solar (which it is, distantly) and thus equally benign (which it isn’t, because of those pesky little details which you ignore).

    The issue with biofuels is that it uses land which we can’t afford to turn over to that use, either because it is better used for food or because the ecosystem is better preserved untouched for long-term global benefit. Solar panels can be planted on every rooftop, pretty much. Ecosystems and croplands can’t.

    You also need to doublecheck your understanding of photosynthesis. I haven’t got time to check it for you right now, but it doesn’t smell accurate to me. Also, solar technologies are already more efficient at energy generation in some cases.

    Big grid that everyone can feed into as well as tap from: this at least is a good idea, but the resilience aspect needs some serious work; today’s grid is quite crap in that respect.

  89. #89 Casey
    March 1, 2008

    See, I actually read the study. And I don’t see what the big deal really is. Naturally, deforestation will lead to greater total carbon emissions, but that isn’t an arguement against using cellulosic crops as feedstocks for biofuels, it is an argument against deforestation. I think the criticisms of the study have been fairly good. They were trying to answer a question of economics without using any economics techniques. If the questions is, will cellulosic crops come primarily from new land or land already in use? If it is from new land, then deforestation occurs, if it is from already used land, then you still haven’t avoided the fuel vs food fight.

    Most cellulosic ethanol fans will argue that new land will be used, and this land will be marginal, and will not contain enough existing native carbon to affect the balance when fuel grasses are planted there. This is of course would never happen without serious government regulation as the crops will go where the money is, and that means farmers selling cellulosic feedstock crops will always go for the most productive land (ie: land that is either unused but already high in stored carbon, or land that is already currently used for food).

    From my perspective, the only real conclusion of this paper is that crops destined for use as fuel will have to be regulated, like just about any other crop out there.

    Of course the authors jazzed it up a little and their language sounded like they were trying to throw some bombs to get attention.

  90. #90 Casey
    March 1, 2008

    Apologies for how horribly worded that comment was, my wife is harping at me to fix something…

  91. #91 John
    March 1, 2008

    Luna:

    Fossil fuels are biofuels that were deposited over hundreds of millions of years (and we are using them up in hundreds of years). Biofuels as we are discussing them come from plants (and possibly animals, which get their food from plants ultimately) grown the past year or two. ALL energy stored in the plants comes from the sun. All, no exception. CO2 + H20 -> carbohydrates + O2 is an endothermic reaction, and is driven by sunlight. (This is grossly simplifed, leaving out the participation of nitrogen and other chemicals, but nothing else provides the needed energy.)

    I never said that all methods of exploiting solar energy were equally benign. I said they all have the same fundamental limit. It’s a serious question which method to exploit and how, but if we don’t recognize that biofuel energy comes from the sun, we could be making a serious error. For example, it would be stupid to grow biofuels in the desert; solar panels would be far more efficient and effective.

    If you can find some error in my understanding of photosynthesis that I used here, go ahead and tell me. But I don’t think that I used anything fundamentally wrong. I used little more than energy conservation — the physics law. I suspected, although I didn’t recall for sure, that solar panels were more efficient than photosynthesis, in using solar energy. On the other hand, manufacturing solar panels is still an expensive job. (With luck, new technology will lower the cost.)

    Today’s electrical grid, of course, is not close to what I envisioned, and lots of technical details would have to be worked out. Large connections across the oceans would be problematic, as would the interface between 120-Volt regions and 220-Volt regions. But I think that a good part of the future in energy is electrical, and in the US at least, will entail production in the vast low-population western regions and consumption at the coasts and other population centers. Efficient transport of electrical energy will be essential.

    Most future energy sources either can only be exploited on large scale through electricity (nuclear, wind power, geothermal, solar, dams) or are exploited most efficiently through electricity. One huge plant to burn fossil fuels is far more efficient than thousands of small internal combustion engines. With one huge coal-burning plant, there is also the possibility of CO2 sequestration. (I’m not as optimistic about sequestration as others are, but we should definitely try it.)

    And we would like to eliminate the risk of repeating California’s brownouts from 2000. (That was most likely due to profit-maximizing behavior from certain power companies.)

  92. #92 Azkyroth
    March 2, 2008

    Does anyone know what the potential energy return/environmental impact for using hemp-derived diesel fuels would be? I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, but they were regrettably from some of my woo-infected hippy friends and gods only know how reliable their data was.

    I can’t tell you about the energy return or the environmental impact of growing it, but I have been personally involved with research on the emission benefits of biodiesel, the results being a moderate increase in NOx emissions (which are easier to control for) and a major decrease in particulates. Comparing particulate filters from ULSD (#000000) and biodiesel (~#E0E0E0) is really quite dramatic; one of our clients compared it to the “smoker’s lungs vs. healthy lungs” photos in anti-smoking ads.

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