By Jerry J. Toman, ScM

This the third article in the series The Two-Headed Dragon ~ Energy/Water/Food Scarcity and Climate Change. Top Ten Policies that Feed it, and Two New Technologies that Could Enable us to Slay It and Save the Planet focuses on the issue of big agribusiness; how it is is dominated by a very few very large corporations; the big problems this dominance is creating for farmers and the environment and some things we can do to restore our agricultural system to one more in tune with nature and that serves the interests of most citizens.

Issues With Agribusiness

A-BAU (Agri-Biz As Usual) is dominated by large corporations (Cargill, Monsanto, ADM, among others) whose goal to appropriate ever larger tracts of land as well as “water rights” or “power rights” for their own (for profit) purposes, creating hardship for their small-farm competitors. To meet their short-term goals, they don’t seem hesitant to create plants with a grotesque genealogy that may be transferred by cross-pollination to traditional or native species. To compound the problem of A-BAU, these corporations have also become experts at acquiring payouts from governments to subsidize their insidious designs, and, in addition, have learned to manipulate the legal system to preserve “intellectual rights” accrued as a result of their malfeasance.

Typically, A-BAU uses an inordinate amount of water, fertilizer and pesticides in their operations. Doing this not only creates a drain or resources, but also causes toxic run-off, destroying ecosystems downstream, sometimes on a truly massive scale (e.g. Gulf of Mexico “dead zones”).

Permaculture and Other Ways To Improve our Agricultural Systems and Make then More Adaptive to an Energy Scarce World

A more restorative alternative pathway than continuing to practicing A-BAU, would be to practice permaculture and its variations, as well as to re-localize (Postcarbon.org) farming to areas in or near existing cities. Blighted urban areas could be bulldozed to create new farmland, where high-value horticulture, sensitive to the rigors of transportation, could play an increased role in the nations food supply. In this case, treated waste water from cities could be exploited to minimize overall water consumption, as well as to recover fertilizer value.

It is also possible to develop the means to provide the land with water (or its near equivalent– water vapor) from sources that would become essentially inexhaustible, if losses of same to evaporation were more rigorously controlled (Part III).

A major step forward would be to discourage expansion of the use of land to produce bio-fuels (ethanol) –allowing only the existing production volume to continue, while phasing out ethanol subsidies. Barring additional breakthroughs, possibly involving symbiotic combinations with renewable energy technologies under development, current production levels of should not be tripled, as the US Congress has recently mandated, which may include the continued (or increased) payment of subsidies, mostly to A-BAU practitioners.

With respect to continuing research into the science and economics of emerging bio-fuel technologies such as those that produce biodiesel via algae, or ethanol via the cellulosic process, research should continue. However, even more promising in terms of reducing our overall carbon footprint, would be investment in fuel conservation programs. In many cases, such investments could potentially provide an even greater return to the taxpayer, when considering payments lost to subsidies as well as food-price inflation. One conservation program not as fully exploited in the US as it has been in Europe is the “Combined Heat and Power (CHP) concept (also see Part III).

Beef is Bad for Global Warming

Finally, while still controversial, studies seem to clearly indicate that meat production, especially beef, a staple of A-BAU, is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, especially in the US. By necessity, this is practiced in locations remote from major cities, incurring built-in transportation costs. Not only do the cattle themselves emit greenhouse gases, the land on which it is practiced degrades over time, losing carbon content to the atmosphere.

Since there are well-documented health hazards associated with excessive meat consumption, it seems that it would be advantageous, all things considered, to reassign some of the land now dedicated to this practice to other uses, among which might be to simply return it to Nature, its original owner. On balance, humanity should be ceding land back to Nature, allowing it to be the ultimate decider when it comes to what should grow, based on available water, as well as other relevant local climactic variables.

© 2009, Jerry_Toman. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Jerry_Toman (6 Articles)

Jerry Toman is a chemical process engineer with Oil and Gas experience interested in developing advanced technologies for the extraction, conversion, recycling and storage of energy (and water) resources to achieve maximum benefit consistent with minimal environmental degradation. He also has experience providing a techno-economic analysis for comparing various heavy oil upgrading technologies, including end refining and transportation. He now applies these techniques to evaluate renewable energy options, such as wind and solar, as well as often overlooked resources such as Ocean (or large lake) Thermal, geothermal and atmospheric thermal (CAPE) potential. Jerry's specialties include Specialties system energy and material balances, thermodynamics, heat and mass transfer, carbon capture, cascaded energy use (waste heat recovery), heavy oil processes, PSV (relief valve) evaluations, hazop & safety, water treating and renewal processes, desalination, environment & energy conservation, optimal energy use for transportation.