Hemp vs. Linen

31 08 2016

We are often asked for 100% hemp fabric in lieu of linen fabrics. We offer hemp and adore it, but it may not be the best eco choice.

Make no mistake – we love hemp, we sell hemp fabrics and we think the re-introduction of hemp as a crop would be a boon for American farmers and consumers.

But hemp that is used to produce hemp fabric via conventional methods – as opposed to GOTS methods – is a far inferior choice to any Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Oeko-Tex certified fabric. So the overriding difference is not between hemp and any other fiber, but between a certified fabric versus one that is not certified, because certification assures us that the fabric is free of any chemicals that can change your DNA, give you cancer or other dred diseases which can affect you in ways ranging from subtle to profound. The choice of GOTS also assures us that the mill which produced the fabric has water treatment in place, so these chemicals don’t pollute our groundwater – and that the mill pays fair wages to their workers who toil in safe conditions!

Now let’s look at some of the differences between hemp and linen:

First, do not be confused by the difference between the fiber and the cloth woven from that fiber – because the spinning of the yarn and the weaving of the cloth introduces many variables that have nothing to do with the fibers. Both hemp and flax (from which linen is derived) are made from fibers found in the stems of plants, and both are very laborious to produce. The strength and quality of both fibers are highly dependent on seed variety, the conditions during growth, time of harvest and manner of retting and other post-harvest handling.

Retting (or, really, rotting) is the microbial decomposition of the pectins which bind the fibers to the woody inner core of the plant stem. The old system of water or snow retting has given way to chemical retting, which in turn often shortens – which means weakens – the fibers. These short fibers are said to have been “cottonized” since cotton fibers are only about 1.5 inches long.

It’s important to note that there is very little to distinguish flax fibers from hemp fibers – they both have similar properties. Hemp’s fibers so closely resemble flax that a high-power microscope is needed to tell the difference. Without microscopic or chemical examination, the fibers can only be distinguished by the direction in which they twist upon wetting: hemp will rotate counterclockwise; flax, clockwise.

In general, hemp fiber bundles are longer than those of flax.   So the first point of differentiation is this: the length of the fibers. Long fibers translate into inherently more resilient and therefore durable yarns. Hemp fibers vary from 4 to about 7 feet in length, while linen is generally 1.5 to 3 feet in length. Other differences:

  • The color of flax fibers is described as yellowish-buff to gray, and hemp as yellowish-gray to dark brown.
  • Hemp is highly resistant to rotting, mildew, mold and salt water. Linen on the other hand is non-allergenic and insect-repellent.
  • Hemp is the most highly resistant natural fiber to ultraviolet light, so it won’t fade or disintegrate in sunlight. Linen too has excellent resistance to UV rays.
  • Hemp’s elastic recovery is very poor and less than linen; it stretches less than any other natural fiber.

The biggest difference between hemp and linen might be in the agricultural arena.

Hemp grows well without the use of chemicals because it has few serious pest problems, although the degree of immunity to attacking organisms has been greatly exaggerated.  Several insects and fungi specialize exclusively in hemp!  But despite this, the use of pesticides and fungicides are usually unnecessary to get a good yield. Hemp has a fiber yield that averages between 485 – 809 lbs., compared to flax, which averages just 323 – 465 lbs. on the same amount of land.   This yield translates into a high biomass, which can be converted into fuel in the form of clean-burning alcohol.

Farmers claim that hemp is a great rotation crop – it was sometimes grown the year prior to a flax crop because it left the land free of weeds and in good condition.   Hemp, it was said, is good for the soil, aerating and building topsoil. Hemp’s long taproot descends for three feet or more, and these roots anchor and protect the soil from runoff. Moreover, hemp does not exhaust the soil. Additionally, hemp can be grown for many seasons successively without impacting the soil negatively. In fact, this is done sometimes to improve soil tilth and clean the land of weeds.

The price of hemp in the market is far higher than for linen, despite hemp’s yields.   We have no idea why this is so. And finding organic hemp is becoming almost impossible, because hemp is usually grown by subsistence farmers who are loath to pay certification fees.

Yarns, made from the fibers, are graded from ‘A’, the best quality, to below ‘D’.   The number of twists per unit length is often (but not always) an indication of a stronger yarn.   In addition, the yarns can be single or plied – a plied yarn is combined with more than one strand of yarn. Next, the cloth can be woven from grade ‘A’ yarns with a double twist per unit length and double ply into a fabric where the yarns are tightly woven together into cloth. Or not.

But in general, there are many similarities between cloth made from hemp and cloth made from linen:

  • Both linen and hemp become soft and supple through handling, gaining elegance and creating a fluid drape.
  • Both hemp and linen are strong fibers – though most sources say hemp is stronger (by up to 8 times stronger) than linen (even though the real winner is spider silk!), but this point becomes moot due to the variables involved in spinning the fiber into yarn and then weaving into fabric.   The lifespan of hemp is the longest of all the natural fibers.
  • Both hemp and linen wrinkle easily.
  • Both hemp and linen absorb moisture. Hemp’s moisture retention is a bit more (12%) than linen’s (10 – 12%)
  • Both hemp and linen breathe – they release moisture back into the atmosphere and do not retain water.
  • Both hemp and linen are natural insulators: both have hollow fibers which means they’re cool in summer and warm in winter.
  • Both hemp and linen have anti-bacterial properties.
  • Both hemp and linen benefit from washing, becoming softer and more lustrous with each wash.
  • Both hemp and linen are resistant to moths and other insects.
  • Both hemp and linen absorb dyestuffs readily.
  • Both hemp and linen biodegrade.

The overriding difference is not between hemp and linen, but between a hemp OR linen fabric that has GOTS or Oeko-Tex certification and one that does not. That means that a conventional hemp fabric, which enjoys all the benefits of hemp’s attributes, also introduces unwanted chemicals into your life: such as formaldehyde, phthalates, heavy metals, endocrine disruptors and perhaps soil or fire retardants. The certified fabric is the better choice. If the choice is between a conventional hemp fabric and a certified linen fabric, we wouldn’t hesitate a second to choose the linen over the hemp, especially because hemp and linen are such close cousins.








The new bioeconomy

15 05 2012

Last week we explored using biomass as fuel, and some of the implications in doing that.  Previously we looked at using biomass in the world of fabrics and furnishings,  which include the new biotech products polylactic acid (PLA) (DuPont’s Ingeo and Sorona fibers) and soy-based foam for upholstery  (click  here and here to see our posts).  The ideas being presented by new bio technologies are not new – in the 19th century Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold – and the idea has always held a fascination for humans.

There is a new report called “The New Biomassters – Synthetic Biology and The Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods” (click here to download the report) published by The ETC Group, which focuses on the social and economic impacts of new bio technologies.  This report paints an even more troubling picture than what I’ve been able to uncover to date, and the information contained in this post comes from that report:

“Under the pretext of addressing environmental degredation, climate change and the energy and food crisis, and using the rhetoric of the “new” bioeconomy  (“sustainability”, “green economy”, “clean tech”, “clean development”) industry is talking about  solving these problems by substituting fossil carbon for that of living matter.    The term “bioeconomy” is based on the notion that biological systems and resources can be harnessed to maintain current industrial systems of production, consumption and capital accumulation.” 

Sold as an ecological switch from a ‘black carbon’ (i.e. fossil) economy to a ‘green carbon’ (plant-based) – and therefore a “clean” form of development –  this emerging bioeconomy is in fact, according to ETC,  “a red-hot resource grab of the lands, livelihoods, knowledge and resources of peoples in the global South” (because 86% of that biomass is located in the tropics and subtropics).

What does a new bioeconomy look like?  According to the ETC:   “as the DNA found in living cells is decoded into genetic information for use in biotechnology applications, genetic sequences  acquire a new value as the building blocks of designed biological production systems. By hijacking the ‘genetic instructions’ of cells … to force them to produce industrial products, industry transforms synthetic organisms into bio-factories that can be deployed elsewhere on the globe – either in private vats or plantations.  Nature is altered to meet business interests.”

They go on to say that as ecosystems collapse and biodiversity declines, new markets in ecosystem “services” will enable the trading of ecological ‘credits.’   The declared aim is to “incentivize conservation” by creating a profit motive in order to justify interventions in large-scale natural systems such as hydrological cycles, the carbon cycle or the nitrogen cycle.[1] Like the ‘services’ of an industrial production system, these ‘ecosystem services,’ created to privatize natural processes, will become progressively more effective at serving the interests of business.

It seems to be all about profit.

The ETC report states that concerted attempts are already underway by many industrial players to shift industrial production feedstocks from fossil fuels to the 230 billion tons of ‘biomass’ (living stuff) that the Earth produces every year -not just for liquid fuels but also for production of power, chemicals, plastics and more.

The visible players involved in commodifying the 76% of terrestrial living material that is not yet incorporated in the global economy include BP, Shell, Total, Exxon, Cargill, DuPont, BASF, Syngenta and Weyerhaeuser.   Enabling this attempt is the adoption of synthetic biology techniques (extreme genetic engineering) by these well-funded companies.

“We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy.”

– J. Craig Venter, founder Synthetic Genomics, Inc.[2]

There is lots more in the ETC report, here’s just a summary of some other issues:

  • The report examines the next generation biofuels, including algal biofuels and synthetic hydrocarbons, and establishes the case for why this generation may be as ecologically and socially dangerous as the first.  Even leading companies and scientists involved in synthetic biology agree that some oversight is necessary – currently it’s being mostly ignored and is not on the agenda for the Rio+20 summit to be held in Brazil in June.
  • Today’s synthetic biology is unpredictable, untested and poorly understood.  Could open a Pandora’s box of consequences.  See:  http://www.cbd.int/doc/emerging-issues/foe-synthetic-biology-for-biofuels-2011-013-en.pdf
  • The “green” credentials of current bio-based plastics and chemicals are called into question.  (See our posts on biopolymers – click here and here).
  • How much biomass is enough?  “Attempting to set an ‘acceptable level’ of biomass extraction is as inappropriate as forcing a blood donation from a hemorrhaging patient. Already struggling to maintain life support, the planet simply does not have any biomass to spare. Human beings already capture on-fourth of land based biomass for food, heat and shelter; attempts to define a limit beyond which ecosystems lose resilience and begin to break down reveal that we consumed past such limits 20 years ago.”
  • Biomass is considered a “renewable resource” – and it is true that while plants may be renewable in a short period of time, the soils and ecosystem that they depend on may not be.  Industrial agriculture and forest biomass extraction rob soils of nutrients, organic matter, water and structure, decreasing fertility and leaving ecosystems more vulnerable or even prone to collapse. Associated use of industrial chemicals and poor land management can make things worse. In practice, therefore, biomass is often only truly renewable when extracted in such small amounts that they are not of interest to industry.
  • The claim that biomass technology will be a stepping stone to a new mix of energy sources misses the whole point – that we are facing a crisis of overproduction and consumption.  Reducing our overall energy demands is critical, as it boosting support for decentralized peasant agriculture.

[1] See for example, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity:

Ecological and Economic Foundations. Edited By Pushpam Kumar. An

output of TEEB: The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity,

Earthscan Oct. 2010

[2] Michael Graham Richard, “Geneticist Craig Venter Wants to Create Fuel from CO2,” Treehugger, 29 February 2008. Available online at: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/02/craig-venter-fuel-co2-tedconference.php

Is biomass carbon neutral?

8 05 2012

Global climate change is the major environmental issue of current times. Evidence for global climate change is accumulating and there is a growing consensus that the most important cause is humankind’s interference in the natural cycle of greenhouse gases. (Greenhouse gases get their name from their ability to trap the sun’s heat in the earth’s atmosphere – the so-called greenhouse effect.)

CO2 emissions are recognized as the most important contributor to this problem. Since the turn of the 20th century the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases has been increasing rapidly, and the two main causes have been identified as:

  1. burning of fossil fuels and
  2. land-use change, particularly deforestation.

And now the world has discovered plants.  People seem to think there is some magic in nature – that they can keep taking and things will grow back.  We can buy “carbon offsets” to mitigate our guilt – trees planted to “offset” our energy consumption for, maybe, a plane ride to Hawaii.

Because the carbon emitted when plants are burned is equal to that absorbed during growing, it seems self-evident that biomass is a zero carbon (or carbon neutral) fuel.[1]  The thinking goes like this:  Plants are busy converting CO2 to stored (“sequestered”) carbon in their branches, roots, stems and leaves – so when that plant is burned, the carbon which is released (as CO2) is replaced by another plant which is busy sequestering that carbon.

Why is burning fossil fuel – which  also releases CO2 when burned  – not considered to be carbon neutral?  As far as I can tell, it’s a matter of definition.  Today, the definition of carbon neutral means that the greenhouse gases released  by burning fuel is the same or less than the carbon that was stored in recent history (translation = plants, which grow and mature within 100 years or so, i.e., “recent history”). Releasing carbon that was stored in ancient history, such as  burning fossil fuels (which comes from plant material millions of years old)  introduces extra carbon to the environment. Because fossil fuels contain carbon that was in the environment in ancient times, by burning fossil fuels we release greenhouse gasses that wouldn’t naturally be there!

That concept took off.  Beginning with the Koyoto Protocol, which overlooked reduction targets for biomass, others embraced the concept of using biomass as a carbon neutral fuel:  the EU Emissions Trading Scheme counts biomass as “carbon neutral” as do UK Building Regulations, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the World Resources Institute –  despite the recognition that this definition is problematic.[2]  Biomass burning is being ramped up all around the world in the name of green energy.

The concept of biomass as being carbon neutral is so popular that the European Union’s energy objectives for 2020 include the requirement that 20% of the total be from renewable sources, made up from biomass such as wood, waste and agricultural crops and residues.[3]  And the biomass industry in the US asked for an exemption from the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas regulations because, it claims, biomass is carbon neutral.  In January 2011, the EPA gave them a 3 year exemption.

This loophole gives oil companies, power plants and industries that face tighter pollution limits a cheap means to claim reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. According to a number of studies, applying this incentive globally could lead to the loss of most of the world’s natural forests as carbon caps tighten.  A very frightening scenario indeed, since deforestation is responsible for up to 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – more than all cars, trains, planes, boats and trains in the world combined. [4]

I found a great blog post on this subject by Jeff Gibbs on Huffington Post Green, and I’ve relied on it for much of this post.  Here are just two of the issues:

Issue 1:  “Trees not harvested will eventually die and be decomposed by insects, fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms which will release all the carbon dioxide that burning would. This cycling process has been going on for half a billion years, long before humans had a hand in it, and will continue with or without us.”

Here’s what Jeff Gibbs has to say:

  • “Actually nature has plans for that dead tree. For one it’s food for the next generation of forest life. And it turns out trees are pretty good at transferring their CO2 to the soil rather than the atmosphere when they fall over dead. Underground roots of mushrooms called mycorrhiza digest the wood and keeps the carbon the trees had sucked from the air in the forest soil.   The proof? It’s called coal.  Millions of generations of plants and trees have taken in carbon from the air and deposited it as mountains of coal. It’s what trees and plants do. Because trees and plants took the CO2 out of the atmosphere we have the nice comfortable climate we enjoy today. It’s not their fault we’re releasing everything they worked so hard to lock away, and if we cut then down they are going to have that much more difficult of a time soaking the carbon back up.”

Issue 2:  “Carbon dioxide –  released by burning biomass – is carbon dioxide that was taken from the air as the trees grew, and the trees that replace the harvested biomass will grow by taking in carbon dioxide again.”

This is so fraught with different issues that we have to break it down into manageable segments to understand why this is not as simple as it seems:

  1.   When you cut down a fully mature, multi-ton tree, how long do you think it will be before the one-ounce sapling that replaces it will be able to replicate the carbon uptake of the multi-ton tree?  Some trees take 100 years or more to mature.  When burned for energy, a mature tree (80-100 years old) takes minutes to release its full load of carbon into the atmosphere, but its replacement, if grown, takes a full century to re-sequester that carbon. For those 100 years, the CO2 is still aloft in the atmosphere helping push the climate toward the point of dangerous change, and yet carbon accounting rules treat it as non-existent.  After the initial release of carbon sequestered in a standing forest, a well-managed forest will start re-growing and at some point in time will achieve approximately the same concentration of carbon sequestration as the original forest.  But during that time, the atmospheric concentration of heat trapping gasses has been higher than it would otherwise have been, increasing associated environmental damages, and we have foregone the sequestration that would have happened in the original forest![5]
  2.  Chopping down forests to burn for ethanol production — even if replanted as tree plantations — is like biting the hand that feeds you. “Natural forests, with their complex ecosystems, cannot be regrown like a crop of beans or lettuce,” reports the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental group. “And tree plantations will never provide the clean water, storm buffers, wildlife habitat and other ecosystem services that natural forests do.”[6]
  3.  Recent studies show that there is more biomass contained IN the soil than in what grows ON the soil above ground.   This soil carbon can be disturbed and released by harvesting and reforestation activities.[7]
  4.  In a study published by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, it was found that burning  trees emits about 30% more carbon pollution than coal, which the report calls the “carbon debt” of biomass. [8]   According to the study,  under normal forest management   it takes over 21 years just to re-absorb the extra pollution that is released in the first year of burning the wood.    Also, the energy content of biomass is about 40% lower than that of regular fossil fuels, so you need to burn more of it to get the same power, which means more CO2. (to read more about this, click here.)
  5.  It is simply not possible to plant sufficient numbers of trees to deal with the increased carbon dioxide emissions that are expected over the next half century.  According to Harpers Index, the number of years the United States could meet its energy needs by burning all its trees is … 1.
  6.  Recent evidence suggests that global warming itself is stressing ecosystems and turning forests and forest soils into failing forests and, in the long run, into net sources of CO2. Thus, if we don’t curb our use of fossil fuels, it won’t matter how many trees we plant because these forests will be overcome and die as the climate continues to warm.[9]
  7.  Old-growth forests are often replaced by tree-farm plantations that are heavily managed (including with chemicals and fossil fuel-intensive machinery) and do not offer the same biodiversity benefits as natural forests.
  8.  Investment in forestry offsets does not contribute to reducing society’s dependence on fossil fuels, something that is ultimately needed to address climate change. Responding to climate change means fundamentally changing the way we produce and use energy.
  9.  All biomass is not created equal.  According to Jeff Gibbs, some biomass plants burn old tires; others shovel in old houses and creosote soaked railroad ties. I don’t know what’s “bio” about all this but the energy you get is considered carbon neutral and renewable.

Here are Jeff Gibb’s seven truths that the Lorax would have us remember:

  1. Saving our forests (and that doesn’t mean more tree plantations) is the best way to stop global warming and save humanity.
  2. Deforestation is just as likely to result in the end of humanity as climate change and it’s right on track to do so.
  3. Burning things is the most insane way to stop global warming since doctors drilled holes in skulls to let the demons out and gave you a bill for it.
  4. There is no extra in nature and there is not enough “bio” on the planet to be burned, turned to ethanol, biodiesel or jet fuel, or bio-charcoal.
  5. Woody biomass falsely deemed renewable energy increases the CO2 in the atmosphere, destroys forests, and prevents renewables from being fully explored.
  6. Geo-engineering the forests, atmosphere or oceans to stop global warming isn’t going to work. We can’t even figure out how to stop carp from taking over a river or bugs from eating a forest.
  7. There is a possibility that the only way to heal the planet is to get control of our own numbers and consumption while letting nature do the work she has done for three billion years: run the planet.

[2] Johnson, Eric, “Goodbye to carbon neutral:  Getting Biomass footprints right”, Atlantic Consulting, Gattikon, Switzerland, November 2008.

[3] Neslan, Arthur, Guardian Environment Network, April 2, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/apr/02/eu-renewable-energy-target-biomass

[4] Greenpeace, “Solutions to Deforestation”;  http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/campaigns/forests/solutions-to-deforestation/

[5] Natural Resrouces Defense Council comments with respect to draft Policy DAR-12, June 17, 2010.

[8] “Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study”, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, June 2010

[9] David Suzuki Foundation, Ibid.

The promise of biotechnology

4 05 2011

Plastics are a problem – and becoming more of a problem as time goes on because of our voracious appetite for the stuff: global plastic production grew by more than 500% over the past 30 years.  And we have limited fossil fuels available –  that fact alone dwarfs the plastics problem because we depend on fossil fuels for so much more than plastic.  So, many are looking to biotechnology as a solution.  Biotechnology can be defined as  a variety of techniques that involve the use and manipulation of living organisms to make commercial products.

According to David Garman, US Under Secretary for Energy, Science and Environment under George W. Bush,  “Many think of biomass mainly as a source for liquid fuel products such as ethanol and biodiesel. But biomass can also be converted to a multitude of products we use every day. In fact, there are very few products that are made today from a petroleum base, including paints, inks, adhesives, plastics and other value-added products, that cannot be produced from biomass.”  And J. Craig Venter, founder of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (which, according to their website, was founded to commercialize genomic-driven technologies), said “We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy.”

The ETC Group, which focuses on the social and economic impacts of new bio technologies,  has just published a new report, “The New Biomassters – Synthetic Biology and The Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods” (click here to download the report) in which they critique what the OECD countries are calling the “new bioeconomy”:   From generating electricity to producing fuels, fertilizers and chemicals,  they say that shifts are already underway to claim biomass as a critical component in the global industrial economy. But contrary to what I expected, it’s not a pretty picture.

According to The New Biomassters report:

“What is being sold as a benign and beneficial switch from black carbon to green carbon is in fact a red hot resource grab (from South to North) to capture a new source of wealth. If the grab succeeds, then plundering the biomass of the South to cheaply run the industrial economies of the North will be an act of 21st century imperialism that deepens injustice and worsens poverty and hunger. Moreover, pillaging fragile ecosystems for their carbon and sugar stocks is a murderous move on an already overstressed planet. Instead of embracing the false promises of a new clean green bioeconomy, civil society should reject the new biomassters and their latest assault on land, livelihoods and our living world.”

In the world of fabrics and furnishings, the new biotech products which are being heavily promoted now are PLA (DuPont’s Ingeo and Sorona fibers) and soy-based foam for upholstery.

A summary of the report is given in the Sustainable Plastics web site  which I’ve reproduced here:

  • Provides an overview of the bio-based economy being envisioned by many OECD countries and Fortune 500 corporations and being sold to the global South as “clean development,” as well as a comprehensive consideration of its wider implications — a first from civil society.
  • Analyzes the impact of next-generation biofuels, the production of bio-based chemicals and plastics and the industrial burning of biomass for electricity, arguing that civil society needs to critique and confront the combined threats arising from these developments.
  • Unmasks the industrial players intent on commodifying the 76% of terrestrial living material that is not yet incorporated into the global economy. Sectors with an interest in the new bioeconomy (energy, chemical, plastics, food , textiles, pharmaceuticals, carbon trade and forestry industries) flex a combined economic muscle of over US$17 trillion a year. Visible players in the new bioeconomy include BP, Shell, Total, Exxon, Cargill, ADM, Du Pont, BASF, Weyerhaeuser and Syngenta.
  • Explores the safety concerns and threats to livelihoods inherent in the high-risk, game-changing field of synthetic biology. Relying on synthetic biology to provide higher yields and transform sugars could open a Pandora’s box of consequences. See pages 36-41.
  • Surveys the industrial landscape of next generation biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol, algal biofuels, sugar cane, jatropha and synthetic hydrocarbon, and sets out the case for why this next generation may be as ecologically and socially dangerous as the first. See pages 43- 50.
  • Poses challenging questions about the ‘green’ credentials of bio-based plastics and chemicals and their future impact on food supplies and world hunger. See pages 50-56.
  • Raises important political questions about land grabbing: 86% of global biomass is located in the tropics and subtropics, a simple fact driving an industrial grab that threatens to accelerate the pace of forest destruction and land acquisition in the South in order to feed the economies of the North. See pages 15-18.
  • Tallies the investments, subsidies and financial promises being made for the biomass economy. Predictions for the market value of biomass-based goods and services total over five hundred billion dollars by 2020, with the biggest turnover expected in biofuels and biomass electricity. See pages 13-14.
  • Challenges common myths of industrial biomass use, including the claims that switching to biomass is carbon-neutral, renewable and green. In fact, burning biomass can even produce more CO2 per energy unit than burning coal. See pages 19-20.
  • Details how a key error in the UN climate convention is driving destructive policies. By considering biomass energy as ‘carbon neutral,’ the UN has enabled destructive national renewables policies, carbon trading, and technology transfer activities. This report also examines the new REDD+ provisions in the context of the biomass economy. See pages 20- 24.
  • Sets out why we cannot afford any increase in the amount of biomass taken from already overstressed ecosystems. Indeed, industrial civilization may already be taking too much biomass from the systems we depend upon. See pages 24- 26.
  • Explores the new suite of technological strategies being proposed by biomass advocates to boost global stocks of biomass, including the genetic engineering of crops, trees and algae. Meanwhile, the geoengineering agenda is increasingly converging on biomass. See pages 27-30.
  • Exposes the switch to algae, purported to be the next ‘clean green’ feedstock and argues the case against industrial algal production. See pages 47-50.

So here I was thinking that bio polymers would be the wave of the future.   Now I don’t know what to think!  Looks like I’m in for a lot of reading.  If any of you have insights into these issues, I’d love to hear them.

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 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.