Food vs. Fiber

2 03 2011

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, 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.

Thanksgiving blessings

25 11 2009

I have been trying to think of a good subject for this week – one that isn’t too dire and downbeat – while we in the United States are in the midst of our national feast called Thanksgiving.   We’re living in a country where I can get a free range turkey with all the bells and whistles – or soybeans from Texas, the best orange marmelade from Scotland or fresh raspberries from Chile.  This abundance comes at a cost –  it is estimated that if United States’ consumption rates were mimicked by the entire human population,  it would take the resources of 5.3 Earths.(1)  It is this abundance that allows us to ignore what is happening in the rest of the world.  Doesn’t have a direct bearing on textiles, but the long term implications are there.

An inescapable fact in most of the developing world – and largely unnoticed in the United States except in slightly higher food prices –  is that in the past couple of years, food prices have soared.  Between the mid-1970’s and 2005,  grain supplies rose and prices fell by about a half, leading “many experts to believe that there was no limit to humanity’s capacity to feed itself.” (2)  But then in 2006, the situation reversed:  food prices rose slightly that year, then increased by about a quarter in 2007, and finally skyrocketed in 2008.  Between 2006 and 2008, average world prices for rice rose by 217%, wheat by 136% and corn by 125% (3)  These rising prices meant that many people could not afford food – and  this led to riots  in 15 countries around the world in 2008.  Countries that could produce enough food for export worried about feeding their own populations, and placed restrictions on exports.  This became a serious problem for countries which were not fully self sufficient in food production.

Susan Payne, chief executive of Emergent Asset Management, said that by 2020 they think there could be genuine food shortages in the world.   During a talk on Africa’s agricultural potential, she showed a series of slides citing chilling statistics:

  • grain stocks worldwide are at their lowest levels in 60 years
  • global warming is turning arable land into desert
  • freshwater is dwindling and China is draining its reserves
  • and the really big problem:  the world’s population is growing by 80,000,000 hungry people each year.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that in order to feed the world’s projected population in 2050, we need to increase the amount of cereals in the world’s food supply to an amount equal to the total production of Australia in 2008.

Indeed, the food crisis of 2008 has put the spotlight on a new area of business potential, where the payoff could be immense: the area of agricultural investment and the newly lucrative world of food trade.  Financial firms like Goldman Sachs and BlackRock have already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in overseas agricultural projects.   Africa is the focus of their interest because in Africa land and labor come so cheaply that the risks are assumed to be worthwhile.  As a example, an Ethiopian farmer’s  yields for their wheat crops  are only about a third as much per acre as their counterparts in other parts of the world.  But with the addition of advanced implements, and improved seeds and fertilizer, these yields can be doubled.  Ethiopia, like all of Africa, is full of such opportunities.

Andrew Rice wrote an article in the November 22 New York Times Magazine in which he describes what some of the wealthy nations are doing to ensure a food supply for their people.

The nations of the Persian Gulf already import 60% of their food, and Saudi Arabia plans to phase out wheat production by 2016 in order to maintain its supply of underground freshwater.  Instead of relying on technology to increase their capacity for growing food  (along the lines of the Green Revolution of the 1960s),  these countries feel that they must control the means of production.  They want land.

The Saudi Arabian government and individual Saudi bankers and executives have said they intend to spend billions of dollars to establish plantations to produce rice and other staple crops in Africa, in nations like Mali, Senegal,  Sudan and Ethopia.  A newly formed company, Saudi Star Agricultural Development, announced it’s plans to “obtain the rights” to more than a million acres – that’s about the size of Delaware – in Ethiopia.  And in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia, farms are already growing fruits and vegetables for export to the Persian Gulf.(4)

This raises the question:  what about the people who live in Mali, Senegal, Sudan and Ethopia?  Do they benefit from these investments?  Am I the only one who thinks this spells trouble?

(1) New Economics Foundation,

(2) Rice, Andrew, “Agro-Imperialism”, New York Times Magazine, November 22, 2009

(3)  “Cyclone fuels rice price increase”, BBC News, May 7, 2008

(4) Rice, op.cit.