We’ve often been asked where we stand on the question of growing fiber crops on agricultural land when so many people go to bed hungry each night. In today’s world, you must add another “F” to the equation: fuel, because there is such a growing interest in biomass as energy. In fact, the picture is even more complicated than the phrase “food, fuel or fiber” suggests, because of the increasingly complex interactions between agriculture and industry.
One facet of the complexity of the situation is that most of these crops have multiple uses. Sixty-five percent of the cotton crop, the world’s most popular natural fiber, is used for products other than fiber. Or, put another way, we eat more of the cotton crop than we wear. Other natural fibers also have multiple uses:
- Cottonseed, flaxseed and hempseed are all used in food products
- Biomass from hemp is much greater than that of any other natural fiber crop, and made hemp a darling of the biofuel industry. All fiber crops can be used for biofuels
- Many crops are used in livestock feed, pet food, and animal bedding and litter
- They are all components of biobased polymers and other biocomposits
There was a wonderful explanation of the Food v. Fuel and Fiber argument made on Wordchanging.com, in December 2008, “Food, Fuel and Fiber? The Challenge of Using the Earth to Grow Energy” by Alan Atkisson. We have summarized the major points below:
The question is, do we have enough land to grow all the food, fuel and fiber that we’re likely to need? The answer to that question appears to be yes — but only in theory. The International Energy Agency notes that estimates on the potential for growth in biofuel production “vary considerably,” and that the most optimistic numbers “are based on the assumption of no water shortage and increased food agriculture yields in the coming decades, partly due to genetically modified crops.” This is a controversial assumption, to say the least.
Surveys from space show that there is still quite a lot of natural-plant-covered Earth remaining, which could be used for producing food, fuel, and fiber for human use. NASA recently studied how much of the Earth’s total land-based “Net Primary Productivity” — that is, the amount of solar energy captured by plants — is being used by humans, and it amounts to only 20% at the global scale. In other words, we could theoretically grow a lot more of everything on the productive land that remains. Theoretically.
But of course, “growing more of everything” means converting more natural ecosystems into human agricultural and industrial systems. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, humans have already used up about half of the earth’s ecosystems, by converting them not just into agricultural land, but into houses, roads, cities, industrial installations, and even (unfortunately) deserts. To make matters still more complicated, draw-downs in things like ecosystems and other forms of “natural capital” are not a predictable, linear processes. There are “tipping points” in those systems, points of no return beyond which gradual change switches to sudden, irreversible change. As an example, while the IUCN, the world’s largest conservation organization, was preparing its report that a quarter of the world’s mammals face extinction, a scientist for energy giant BP was being quoted as saying that his company was interested in “the green parts” of the entire globe for possible development into biofuel production.
In systems-thinking terms, this change in energy technology, policy, and markets has greatly expanded and complexified a system that was not exactly simple to start with. The growth of biofuel and fiber demand has created new couplings, new feedback loops, and new, unpredictable complexities in the global agro-economic system. The global energy/food/fiber market has become the very definition of a “wicked problem,” which is a term invented by design theorist Horst Rittel. Wicked problems are “messy, circular, and aggresive” — a very apt summary of how the food-fuel-fiber system is behaving.
Wicked problems, said Rittel and his co-theorist Webber, are a special breed of problem. There is no way to get complete information about them. There is no “best” solution to them. Trial-and-error is the only strategy; better or worse is the only way to characterize the results. In the coming years, the world economy will be involved in a vast trial-and-error effort to “balance the books” between fuel, food, and fiber, while also trying to solve the other wicked problem that triggered the increase in biofuel production in the first place: climate change.
So is it possible to find evidence of the possibility of success now? Fortunately, yes. Worldchanging pointed to a small farm in Italy which aims to be the world’s first carbon neutral farm – in just one year. This optimism makes it possible to imagine the entire global farming sector following a similar stragety, guided by sustainability principles. And new research is constantly being done which changes the expected parameters. For example, it’s possible, through biotechnology and other agricultural improvements, to increase yields of fiber and fuel crops using marginal lands. For example:
- We can grow fiber/fuel crops on barren land, brownfields, and salt marshes. A recent study has found that we can even grow fiber crops on radioactively contaminated arable land.
- We can irrigate and fertilize with wastewater
As a result, we can have schemes for biomass energy plants, sugar plantations growing both sugar and ethanol, and wastewater-treating algae harvested for fuel.
Flat statements about fuel and fiber competing with food are ultimately products of limited imaginations.