Category Archives: Agriculture

Biofuels Technology Update

Here are some recent advances in biofuel technology. I’ve long held that if we apply ourselves to innovating in the area of alternative energy, we can and will succeed. Jazz, over at TMV highlighted a new technology involving bioengineered bacteria that produce petroleum oil. It is yet another example of how American ingenuity can free us from dependence on foreign oil if we really set our minds to it. More importantly, if we really allocate our resources to innovation rather than continuing to pour them down the same big oil rat hole that we are currently feeding.

While this new bioengineered bacteria is interesting, we are much closer to application with biodiesel from microalgae. This does not have to be done in big fermentation tanks, and uses current technology such as that used to grow spirulina. It will yield more than 30 times the oil per acre than corn or soy and does not require clean freshwater (in fact, salt water will do, something we have plenty of). Take a look at the first facility, which will produce 4.4 million gallons of oil and 110 million lbs of biomass a year. Better still, such algae production facilities could be placed at the mouths of big polluted rivers like the Mississippi, and could convert nutrients from agricultural runoff into fuel. Currently these nutrients create an enormous “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, the algae can be used to consume CO2 from power plants. Cleans up the river, sequesters carbon from polluting industries and turns it all into fuel. Oh, and the exhausted algae can be used as fertilizer after extracting the oil.

Another exciting technology in this area is a starch to hydrogen technology developed by Virginia Tech, that can convert a safe, non-toxic and nonflammable starch and water slurry into hydrogen to drive a vehicle. These are only the tip of the iceberg. We can lead in green energy and clean tech if we commit to doing so instead of bowing down to petroleum and coal interests.

We limit ourselves when we think that every problem has to be solved with current technology. This is a great failing of our current energy policies. We have shortchanged research budgets into alternatives and still, our tenacious scientists come up with new leads all the time. Meanwhile, the GOP and some of their supporters wail that the sky will fall if we don’t start drilling in Alaska today. That’s not the solution. Let’s turn the page on that old thinking.

Targeting Agricultural Subsidies

We all like to talk as if we are dedicated free marketeers. The reality is that we dispense billions in subsidies, tax breaks and other forms of corporate welfare in schemes that are not only “protectionist” but in many cases destructive and nonsensical. Here are two examples of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, from the world of agriculture.

1. The American cotton industry is worth $5.9 billion. The federal government subsidizes it to the tune of $4.5 billion. That’s not a business. It’s a federal corporate welfare scheme. The cotton we grow is shipped to China (and other cheap labor countries) to the manufactured into clothing, since we no longer have a viable manufacturing sector in garments. And the tax dollars? They go mostly to Texas agribusiness, not family farmers.

2. Americans pay twice the world market price for sugar, in order to protect sugar cane producers in Florida, Hawaii (which finally gave up on sugar), and sugar beets in the Midwest (which also didn’t fly economically, even with the supports). Because of this, our soft drinks are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, now the leading suspect in our epidemic of diabetes. In the process of supporting an unviable sugar industry, we helped to destroy the economies of Cuba, Haiti, the Philippines and many other countries that produce sugar by the labor-intensive, and environmentally sound, methods appropriate to “emerging economies”.

I appreciate how complex these issues are, and cannot offer any pat answers for addressing them. My first suggestion, though, is that we take a serious look at all of these subsidy programs, all government price supports, and all forms of government corporate welfare, and assess exactly how the composite of all of these federal state and local dollars could best be applied to meet our goals: how much money, how many jobs, what contribution to the economy, what strategic goals are supported, etc. For example, what if we give up on homegrown cotton and shift that subsidy to homegrown energy crops to replace fossil fuels purchased from hostile regimes? Or what if we target specifically family farms for support and select those crops that provide more jobs per federal subsidy dollar?

Dragging this back to the beginning topic, why not apply this same scrutiny to all federal assistance, whether through subsidies, tax breaks or whatever. Let’s target them to specific strategic goals, and not just to a general pumping up of the economy with tax dollars.