BioWillie, Foreign Policy, and the Evidence of Organics

Good news from the singer/songwriter about his support of the domestic production of fuel. Regulation has helped spur his efforts in the northwestern state:

Earlier this year Oregon lawmakers passed a series of bills aimed at kick-starting the state’s biofuels industry, including a requirement that all gasoline sold in Oregon be mixed with 10 percent ethanol after in-state production of ethanol reaches 40 million gallons per year.

A similar production target for biodiesel crops used for biofuel production will trigger a mandatory 2 percent blend in all diesel fuels sold in Oregon.

Naturally, the article includes the usual criticism about converting cropland into fuel and the risk of impacting the food markets. Unfortunately it does not provide any counter-points from folks who know this line of reasoning is poorly founded. Here are a few pointers:

  1. Oil for biodiesel is everywhere, not just crops, and so the plant can operate as a recycling plant to reduce landfill and waste
  2. Crops generally run in surplus with vast amounts of over-production leading to government subsidies to support produce that will never reach the market. This allows a shift of subsidies into innovation and research for fuel alternatives, without impacting availability of food.
  3. America has a long-standing claim that its giant surplus of food should be used for “humanitarian” missions overseas. The reality is that this aid was often leveraged for economic and military interests rather than pure humanitarian US foreign policy aims and can be traced to more global instability, not less.

And so forth…

On the last point, here is an example of the type of propaganda still available from the US Government:

To help consume surplus crops, which were depressing prices and costing taxpayers money, Congress in 1954 created a Food for Peace program that exported U.S. farm goods to needy countries. Policy-makers reasoned that food shipments could promote the economic growth of developing countries. Humanitarians saw the program as a way for America to share its abundance.

In the 1960s, the government decided to use surplus food to feed America’s own poor as well. During President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the government launched the federal Food Stamp program, giving low-income persons coupons that could be accepted as payment for food by grocery stores. Other programs using surplus goods, such as for school meals for needy children, followed. These food programs helped sustain urban support for farm subsidies for many years, and the programs remain an important form of public welfare — for the poor and, in a sense, for farmers as well.

But as farm production climbed higher and higher through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the cost of the government price support system rose dramatically. Politicians from non-farm states questioned the wisdom of encouraging farmers to produce more when there was already enough — especially when surpluses were depressing prices and thereby requiring greater government assistance.

Apparently US farmers reached such levels of efficiency that the US government has been trying different methods of holding back production for over thirty years. Fast forward through the export-crises of the 1980s, when foreign buyers caused farmers in the US to cringe over a lack of demand, and you see even more reason why a jump in domestic demand for crop production makes economic sense.

This is further supported by the issue of farming for food-grade versus fuel-grade crops. Consumers love their perfect looking fruit and vegetables, don’t they. I’ll never forget when I heard Sir John Krebs, the head of the UK Food Standards Agency, suggest that this is why organics are popular:

The organic industry relies on image. […] Sir John said the only people who got value for money from organic food were those who wanted producers to adopt more holistic farming methods. He told the BBC: “They’re not getting value for money, in my opinion and in the opinion of the Food Standards Agency, if they think they’re buying food with extra nutritional quality or extra safety.

“We don’t have the evidence to support those claims.”

Duh. How sad is that?

First of all, people generally allow pesticides and non-holistic farming methods for the same reason that Sir John notes — consumers seek a particular image. Who wants a worm in their apple? Ick. That was the old image. The difference now is that a “holistic” image includes a measure of broad health risks that were previously ignored or understated. Who would rather have a brain tumor or kids with cancer than find a silly worm and cut it out of an apple? Yeah, that’s the new “image” consciousness about health and security that is far more realistic, in my experience.

Second, I really do not understand how the “don’t have evidence” argument creeps into the public representations of so many of these upper management types. If there is insufficient proof of harm or benefit, should a leader state that there is no risk or reward ahead? On the contrary, more intelligence is needed, not less. They should be calling for research, open dialog and a proper determination.

Here is one example of research results from 2007:

A ten-year study comparing organic tomatoes with standard produce found almost double the level of flavonoids – a type of antioxidant.

Flavonoids have been shown to reduce high blood pressure, lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Here is another from 2005:

Drinking organic milk has more health benefits than drinking non-organic, a study has suggested.


It showed organic milk has higher levels of vitamin E, omega 3 essential fatty acids and antioxidants, which help beat infections.

The latter example is really good because it has this little nugget from the British Nutrition Foundation:

Even if regular milk is slightly lower in some nutrients than organic milk, chances are you will be already be meeting your dietary needs for these nutrients by consuming other foods.

Or maybe they’ll be sending out pills and injections to help compensate for the lack of nutrition? I’m sure the pharmaceutical companies love that line of reasoning. Why have family farms with useful produce when you can generate tons of tasteless, nutrition-less objects and create a whole industry for supplements? Wonder if they say the same thing about taste: don’t worry about the bland cardboard-like tomatoes, each one will be shipped with a lozenge to compensate by releasing simulated tomato flavor. And a smell market too…the possibilities are endless, in a non-holistic way if you see what I mean.

Rather than feed these substandard food-stuffs to people and try to supplement them with useful additives, perhaps it should be sent to the fuel supply and replaced with more substantive organics? One might argue the price of food could increase, but we should be realistic about actual consumer price index rates, and the greater cost-benefit of food in terms of health risk and nutrition. We should also remember cheap does not always mean the least expensive.

Let the facts roll in, and it should become clear that a domestic source of fuel made from recycled waste as well as holistically grown crops makes a lot of security sense.

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