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Is that my stomach growling, or is it just the impending collapse of civilization?
December 12, 2007 5:50 PM   Subscribe

The End of Cheap Food: Ethanol subsidies, carnivores, and price controls caused the Mexican tortilla riots.
posted by anotherpanacea (30 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
How many petroleum calories does it take to make an ethanol calorie? If it's greater than or equal to 1, ethanol is just another farm subsidy, which means that ethanol is just another form of agricultural protectionism.
posted by mullingitover at 6:10 PM on December 12, 2007


mulling, it's not 1, but it's a pretty respectable fraction of 1. In addition to the petroleum used in farming and harvesting, it takes quite a bit of energy to do the distillation.
posted by localroger at 6:26 PM on December 12, 2007


Man, if you think expensive gasoline raises prices...
posted by Citizen Premier at 6:33 PM on December 12, 2007


This is all fascinating. Thank you for the collection of links.
posted by schroedinger at 6:37 PM on December 12, 2007


it takes quite a bit of energy to do the distillation.

And vastly more to get the fertilizer.
posted by eriko at 6:54 PM on December 12, 2007


With centralization, you can use nuclear or even wind power to do the distillation. You don't need to use hydrocarbons to run an ethanol plant, but (so far) you do need to use them to run a car.
posted by delmoi at 7:09 PM on December 12, 2007


According to this:

the delivery of 1 million British thermal units (BTUs) of ethanol uses 0.74 million BTUs of fossil fuels. (That does not include the solar energy -- the sun shining -- used in growing corn.) By contrast, he finds that the delivery of 1 million BTUs of gasoline requires 1.23 million BTU of fossil fuels.

But now we compete with our cars for food.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:15 PM on December 12, 2007


This problem makes me think shit, if only we were just sitting on a gigantic, virtually inexhaustible heat source.
posted by mullingitover at 7:16 PM on December 12, 2007 [2 favorites]


anotherpanacea writes "According to this:"

This would be great if equal volumes of ethanol and gasoline stored equal amounts of energy...
posted by mullingitover at 7:20 PM on December 12, 2007


mullingitover writes "This would be great if equal volumes of ethanol and gasoline stored equal amounts of energy..."

Please ignore this, as it makes no sense. Assuming the metrics for production of ethanol and gasoline BTUs are accurate, you're right: this would make ethanol a more efficient choice.

We've always been competing with our transportation for food. Before cars it was horses and oxen.
posted by mullingitover at 7:24 PM on December 12, 2007


I think we'll hop off ethanol after the infrastructure gets into place, while we figure out a cheaper way to get it from stuff we're not eating, ideally the sort of stuff that would be eating it anyway. and by think, I mean vote accordingly and pray.
posted by paul_smatatoes at 7:35 PM on December 12, 2007


global GDP is now in its fifth successive year of expansion at a rate of 4%-plus

Four-percent is a double in 17 years. Do we have double of everything we need? Cuz, most of us will still be alive when the worlds GNP has doubled - or, when the worlds GNDP crashes for lack of resources to keep up a blistering 4% growth rate.
posted by stbalbach at 7:49 PM on December 12, 2007


In regards to energy input and output, localroger is spot on. There is a Ethanol fuel energy balance article on wikipedia. There is also quite a bit of controversy on the subject. There is stuff around that says that the energy balance is negative (0.7) to 1.6 or so for corn ethanol. The wikipedia article says 1.24 for corn with an energy balance of 8 for sugar cane derived ethanol.
posted by sien at 7:56 PM on December 12, 2007


I mean vote accordingly and pray.

At least at the presidential level, due to the "first in the nation" Iowa caucuses, no candidate with a sane approach to corn subsidies will ever survive to round 2.
posted by swell at 8:04 PM on December 12, 2007


This could be my paranoia at work, but my first question from reading The Economist was: is America doing it on purpose? The US seems to be having the greatest effect on the price increases. America has the least to lose, since the cost of food makes up such a small portion of the consumer price index. Also, America has the most to gain since "[f]inancial confidence in the West has been shaken by the subprime-mortgage crisis...."
posted by systematic at 8:31 PM on December 12, 2007


then i'll vote for people who'll replace the caucus system with a fair setup. probably have to go door to door for 'em, too.
posted by paul_smatatoes at 8:35 PM on December 12, 2007


Systematic: that's an interesting idea, especially since the only reason that corn is able to be used for ethanol production is government subsidies.
posted by mazatec at 8:43 PM on December 12, 2007


A bit over a year ago there was an official debate on ethanol's EROEI (energy out / energy in) using numerical claims based on studies for the various steps of the process over at theoildrum.com. The most optimistic value was 2.5, the most pessimistic was well under 1. Considering that this corn would otherwise be going towards food, I don't have the words to convey what an abject failure ethanol is at 2.5, and at less than 1, we're simply digging civilization's grave that much faster.
posted by MillMan at 8:50 PM on December 12, 2007


is America doing it on purpose?

This begs the question that America is run by executive branch that knows what the hell its doing.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:49 PM on December 12, 2007


Seriously. Our currency should be converted to a calorie-based standard.

Stop asking "How much does this cost?" Instead ask "how much energy is tied up in this?"
posted by sourwookie at 12:17 AM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


A previous discussion.
posted by adamvasco at 1:45 AM on December 13, 2007


The Economist: Because this change in diet has been slow and incremental, it cannot explain the dramatic price movements of the past year.

Right answer, wrong logic. A gradual change can certainly lead to big sudden price movements, as we have seen in the oil markets. Cereal grain stockpiles being gradually reduced over the years until they fall below some critical level would do it. The continuing grain supply deficit started in the year 2000, long before ethanol was such a big deal. The change in diet, and this business of making ethanol from corn just made the dramatic price movements arrive a bit earlier than they otherwise would have.

It has been flat for decades, reflecting the slowing of population growth.

The slowing of population growth to about 1.5%, average closer to 2% over the past couple of decades. That may be "flat" by the standards of some economists, but 1% annual growth over 20 years would be an increase of 22%.

Sort of curious that they can write "prices will stay high for as much as a decade" and "global warming could cut world farm output by as much as one-sixth by 2020", just a few lines apart, without remark on the relationship between those two statements.
posted by sfenders at 5:38 AM on December 13, 2007


"how much energy is tied up in this?"

mc2.
posted by ersatz at 6:27 AM on December 13, 2007


Sort of curious that they can write "prices will stay high for as much as a decade" and "global warming could cut world farm output by as much as one-sixth by 2020", just a few lines apart, without remark on the relationship between those two statements.

I think most economists are cautious about building global warming projections into their calculations. It's one thing to say it's happening at all (the Economist admits this), but it's another thing to time its consequences. These are people who won't even time the downturn in a bubble economy. It could be that we won't see serious economic effects for decades, and it could be that we'll all be living in Costner's Waterworld tomorrow and using dirt as currency. How's an economist to calculate that?
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:40 AM on December 13, 2007


Considering that this corn would otherwise be going towards food

s/going towards food/fed to animals/
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:53 AM on December 13, 2007


“This problem makes me think shit, if only we were just sitting on a gigantic, virtually inexhaustible heat source.”

Look you dizzy bast...oh, I see what you did there.
The Icelanders are doing all sorts of nifty things with geothermal. Illinois is currently competing with Texas on something called “green” coal. *coughBLOWJOBcough* But hell, even we’ve got hot springs (in Okawville).
posted by Smedleyman at 1:30 PM on December 13, 2007


s/going towards food/fed to animals/

Moving toward vegetarian diets would increase the efficiency of our food chain, yes, absolutely. It doesn't solve the problem that is occurring here, though: a need for limitless growth on a finite planet.
posted by MillMan at 2:19 PM on December 13, 2007


On a related note, who here remembers Earl Butz, the guy who gave us cheap food in the first place?

Well, cheap corn, at any event. Which when processed makes up a whole lot of other stuff I personally don't care to eat.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:04 PM on December 13, 2007


Considering that this corn would otherwise be going towards food, I don't have the words to convey what an abject failure ethanol is at 2.5, and at less than 1, we're simply digging civilization's grave that much faster.

You're forgetting that nearly any type of vegetable material can be turned into ethanol, i.e. grass clippings, if we do it right.

There should be an ethanol donation center in every neighborhood where people bring mulching material (food compost, lawn) to turn in to ethanol.

There are a couple of guys who turn bulk wine (more like bad wine) from California wineries into ethanol. Before, it was thrown away. I think the flexibility of source material makes it a serious choice for energy.

Also, I thought ethanol could be extracted from animal feed, *while still getting the necessary nutrition for animals*. Am I wrong on that?
posted by mrgrimm at 5:02 PM on December 14, 2007


Our Decrepit Food Factories
posted by homunculus at 12:23 PM on December 18, 2007


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