Sep 17, 2010

AgWired - Blog Archives - Book Review – The Food Wars

This week I read a book about the ongoing discussions regarding the causes of the food crisis. It should come as no surprise that several of the main reasons the globe is in the midst of a food crisis, according to a The Food Wars author Walden Bello, are commodity speculation, biofuels, increased demand for food in Asia brought on by prosperity, and most influential, the massive ag policy reorientation known as structural adjustment.

“More central as root causes have been structural adjustment, free trade, and policies extracting surplus from agriculture for industrialization, all of which have destroyed or eroded the agricultural sector of many countries. No one factor can be pinpointed as the cause of the global food crisis. It is theconfluence of these conditions that has made the contemporary food price crisis so threatening and difficult to solve,” writes Bello.

One area of focus in The Food Wars, is how US and EU agriculture and agrofuels policies are hurting those very people they are indirectly supposed to be helping. At one point in the book, Bello describes the “capitalism versus the peasant” and details the move to corporate farming – even in the U.S. He cites a statistic about US government subsidies for agriculture, “currently, 38 percent of producers who provide 92 percent of US food receive 87 percent of all farm program payments.”

He then proceeds to explain how the family farm manages to persist among the growing number of corporate farms.

From there, Bello outlines how many corporate players favor the World Trade Organization’s efforts (WTO) to phase out farm programs that subsidize farmers and allow the dumping of US grain abroad. He then notes that, “the United States has steadfastly refused to significantly reduce, much less dismantle, its farm-support programs, which transfer some $40 billion a year to the agricultural sector from consumers, firms and taxpayers.” He says that this stance ultimately equates to free trade for the world and protectionism for the US.

Obviously, Bello explains the above in great detail in the book but ultimately, he segues into the idea that as we enter the world of deglobalization, there may be an opportunity for peasant and small-farmer based agriculture serving local and regional markets to play a starring role in how the production of food is organized and orchestrated.

Bello does a good overall job of trying to address all the factors that contribute to the rise and fall of food prices. In his conclusion, he offers some ways to help people take control of their food security and points again to small farmers or peasant-based farming as a good model to develop local or regional sustainable alternative economies.

Biofuels From Trash Could Replace Half of EU Gasoline by 2020, Study Says - Bloomberg - EXCELLENT VIDEO

Biofuels made from plant waste and municipal trash rather than food crops could replace more than half of gasoline used in the European Union by 2020, industry analyst Bloomberg New Energy Finance said today.
The 27-nation bloc could make 90 billion liters (24 billion gallons) of so-called next-generation ethanol in 2020, about 65 percent of predicted fossil gasoline use, the London-based group said in a study. At least 100 refineries a year could be built in the bloc from 2013, it said. The EU currently has no commercial factories that refine biofuels from plant waste.
European agriculture “can benefit from a new bioenergy industry as farmers will have an extra revenue source, increasing the euros-per-hectare ratio for every piece of land,” said Roberto Rodriguez Labastida, a co-author of the study.
While the EU industry may be worth an annual 31 billion euros ($40 billion) by 2020, the bloc has no target for making next-generation biofuels, and a business-as-usual approach would see revenue of 522 million euros, 1.7 percent of the potential, Rodriguez said. European companies making ethanol include Spain’s Abengoa SA and CropEnergies AG of Germany.
Today’s report was commissioned by Novozymes A/S and Royal DSM NV, both of which produce enzymes used to catalyze reactions during the production of second-generation biofuels. Novozymes Chief Executive Officer Steen Riisgaard said in a July interview that Europe is lagging behind the U.S., China and Brazil in developing fuels from plant matter.
Clear Incentives
“The next generation biofuel is heading for deployment,” Riisgaard said today in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “In the U.S. a lot of government initiatives have been taken with mandates on certain amounts of biofuel to be consumed. There are also government incentives for the financing and collection of biomass.”
The main barrier to the growth of the industry is an “uncertain policy environment with no clear incentives,” according to the report, which said the EU’s first priority should be to bring in a U.S.-style mandate for the bloc to derive a certain percentage of transport fuels from the fuels.
The union has a target of deriving 10 percent of transportation fuel from biofuels by 2020. It has no target for next-generation ethanol, which doesn’t use food crops. Under a 2007 law, the U.S. is required to use 36 billion gallons of ethanol in 2022, with 16 billion of it next-generation biofuels.
Business as Usual
“With the current regulatory framework, the EU is likely to underperform, leaving most of its potential in the ground and, most importantly, its companies behind the U.S. and Brazil,” Rodriguez said. “A change in direction is needed if the EU is going to be a leader.”
Under the business-as-usual scenario, there will be 15 refineries making biofuels from plant waste by 2020, compared with 946 in a “bullish” case, according to the study. Rodriguez said the more optimistic scenario could be achieved by using municipal waste and just 25 percent of crop and forestry waste, allowing the rest to stay in the soil, providing nutrients.
The push for the fuels is clouded by a debate over whether it unfairly competes with farmland used for food production.
Nestle SA, the world’s largest food company, is opposed to using food crops for biofuels. Agricultural commodity prices are rising excluding biofuel demand, making it difficult for the world to produce enough food, Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe said today at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin, China.
Water Consumption
“We have a huge multiplier in demand for food products in just the way we’re living today,” Brabeck said. “Just to produce efficient food is going to be a major challenge.”
About 9,100 liters of water are needed to make a liter of biodiesel, he said.
European companies including Portugal’s Galp Energia SGPS SA, the U.K.’s D1 Oils Plc and Sun Biofuels Ltd. and Agroils Srl of Italy are among firms from around the world that have bought African land amounting to more than the size of the Netherlands as they push to grow non-food crops such as jatropha to make biofuels, the environmental group Friends of the Earth said last month, warning of food displacement.
“With next-generation technologies, this can be avoided as they tap into currently unused feedstock,” Rodriguez said, referring to the leftover portions of food crops and waste.
To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Morales in London at

Iowa State Daily: News - Biorenewables - Biochar

Photo: Bryan Langfeldt/Iowa State Daily | Posted: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 11:14 pm

Robert Brown, distinguished professor in mechanical engineering and director of Biorenewables Lab, displays a jar of biochar Wednesday, Sept. 15. Biochar can be produced to help reduce carbon emissions.

Culture of agriculture | The Journal Gazette | Fort Wayne, IN

Salomon park fulfills family’s vision

As a keynote speaker at a symposium on historic farms, Dr. John Ikerd (University of Missouri) said that historic farms were “putting culture back in agriculture.” He was referring to the fact that most large farms today are more “agribusiness” and are therefore run like a large business.
Dr. Ikerd believed that in this fast-paced world, the culture of the American farm family and its customs and traditions were being lost. He was very pleased when he learned that the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department is trying to keep the culture of the old farm alive in our city.
Salomon Farm was donated to the city of Fort Wayne in 1995, and the Parks and Recreation Department began an adventure that continues to this day.
When we were given this farm by the Salomon family, it was like having a blank canvas presented to us. We, the artists, were allowed to paint the pieces of what was to become a beautiful park with a quiet, peaceful and bucolic setting. All of this was created in an area of heavy residential and commercial growth. This farm stands in stark contrast to its surroundings and hence has become a place of refuge from our hectic lives.
A lot has changed at the 170-acre farm at 917 W. Dupont Road. The bricks and mortar of park enhancement and renovation quickly began falling into place. Most of the renovation was driven by the efforts of Don Wolf, a local retired businessman and philanthropist. Mr. Wolf has been instrumental in our fund- raising and plan development. We were faced with trying to create a “working farm” that would also have a natural setting and be attractive to our visitors. Mr. Wolf made personal contributions of money and time, speaking to foundations and private citizens to raise more than $1.4 million initially. These funds helped renovate the 1880s historic barn and two outbuildings and construct a restroom facility, Learning Center building and two large storage barns. As Mr. Wolf says, “I’ve never been afraid to ask people for money to support projects I believe in.”
In the midst of all this construction, we found a club of antique tractor owners that was interested in farming the ground at Salomon. One request of the late Christian Salomon was that we farm in the style of the 1930s and ’40s. The Tri State Two Cylinder Club fulfilled this request.
Each year, they donate more than 2,700 hours of their time to planting, caring for and harvesting crops at Salomon Farm Park. The club is now headquartered at the farm, and they house some of their antique equipment there. The Two Cylinder Club puts on our largest event, the Fall Harvest Festival, taking place this year from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 24 and 25. This festival is about food grown at the farm and shows how food was harvested in the 1930s era. We partner with members of the Amish community in Allen County; they will demonstrate cow milking, cream separation and butter-making. And since it’s a festival, we have music, hay rides, food concessions and much more.
We have many valued partners at Salomon Farm, including our volunteer gardeners and the DeKalb County Horsemen’s Association. The Maumee Valley Blacksmiths agreed to adopt Salomon as a satellite meeting place for their club. They help with festivals by putting on blacksmithing demonstrations, and this year we were able to generate enough revenue to create a blacksmith’s shed to use for demonstrations and blacksmith classes.
The youth in our area benefit from our Farmin’ Fun Day Camp that rivals Franke Park Day Camp in popularity and creates those wonderful childhood memories that last forever. The camp integrates hands-on farming such as gardening, animal care and nature exploration. The older children have a more active role in crop growing and vegetable gardening and sell their organic produce at the Salomon Farmers’ Market.
The future is wide open for Salomon Farm Park. We are in process of developing the Heritage Barn. This would be a type of display barn showing antique farm equipment and appliances. We are developing a woodworking shop (an interior room of our equipment barn) where we plan to offer woodworking classes. And we are starting a honeybee operation. We hope to sell our own brand of honey at our Farmers’ Market. Another idea for the future is to have kids who attend Farmin’ Fun Camp raise and market their own brand of popcorn.
Finally, we adopted Dr. Ikerd’s words as our motto. You will find it on our logo and other areas around the farm. We are actively helping to “put culture back in agriculture” at Salomon Farm Park.

Sep 16, 2010

Story of Stuff - Blog Archive - Time for All of Us To Go Back To School?

September 16th, 2010, posted by Annie Leonard

banner-imageNew Stuff Our Community From the Vault Campaign Corner

Dear Friends,

For kids across America, fall is ‘Back To School’ season—a time chock full of opportunities to try out new things and explore fresh ideas. So our team is super excited to announce the release of Buy, Use, Toss: A Closer Look at the Things We Buy, a new two-week high school level curriculum inspired by The Story of Stuffand produced by premier curriculum developer Facing the Future. The best part: teachers and parents can download and use it for free! More below.

Teaching environmental stewardship is critically important, but we’ve also got tolive it in our communities every day. That’s why we’ve included The Green Schools Network’s Seven Steps to a Green School in this month’s Campaign Corner. Find out how you can work with kids, teachers, parents, neighbors and policymakers to eliminate toxics, use resources sustainably, create green spaces and buildings and serve healthy food! Cool!

The success of The Story of Stuff has put us in touch with thousands of schools around the world teaching and living sustainability. And not just schools: also churches, community groups, businesses and so many others. It honestly feels like a shift is happening, a realization that we need to make some big changes in order to live on this planet more sustainably and more fairly than we’ve been doing.

But the truth is, while awareness about environmental and social problems is growing, the health of our communities and of Earth itself continues to deteriorate. Each year, the Global Footprint Network identifies the day on which humanity has used up the biological resources and services that the planet provides in that year. This year, Earth Overshoot Day was August 21st, the earliest yet. From then until Dec 31st, all the resources we use and the waste we produce is eroding the planet’s ability to keep producing in the future. That’s not a good trajectory, because as you know we only have one planet.

Which got me to thinking: with all the good people and great organizations dedicated to a healthy environment, how can it be that things are getting worse?

As it turns out, we all may need to go back to school.

This fall, our team has started pre-production on a series of new films for next year that take a deep look at the environmental crises we face, ask what is driving these problems, and what kinds of approaches would make real, lasting change.

We’re calling it The Story of Stuff: Season Two and we’re asking some tough questions: how is it that year after year, Americans tell pollsters that they favor mandatory controls on greenhouse gases and want investment in cleaner energy but still we’re still relying on—and even increasing the use of—fossil fuels? Why is there always plenty of money for bank bailouts or wars but never enough for things like safe schools, healthy food or clean energy? Why does the American people’s shift from rampant consumer spending to responsible saving strike fear in conventional economists’ hearts? And most importantly, what big changes could actually get us moving more quickly toward a thriving democracy, fair economy, safe communities and healthy planet?

We know these questions are tough. But we also know that we’re not going to be able to turn things around in the U.S. and elsewhere if we don’t figure them out, roll up our sleeves and get going.

So, are you with us?

Sep 14, 2010

Science of Blue Water takes his breath away - Quad Cities Online

By Jim Nowlan
The speed of supercomputers is moving from the incomprehensible to the spiritual. Witness the development of the Blue Waters supercomputer at the University of Illinois, which will take the number of calculations per second from the trillions to the quadrillions (a quadrillion equals 1,000 trillion).

As a part-time senior fellow (read "old") at the U of I's Institute of Government and Public Affairs, I recently took a stroll from the south side of campus (humanities and agriculture, largely) to the north side of the sprawling university where the engineering and computer science programs are located, mostly in severe, new dusty-peach colored brick buildings.

My objective was the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), which has been at the U of I since about 1986 and is heavily funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and grants from other federal agencies.

Public information specialist Trish Barker met me. An engaging, articulate former copy editor reporter at the The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus, Trish tried to drill into my Smith-Corona typewriter-era brain some of the dimensions of this new Blue Waters computer, which should be up and running next year.

The UI's NCSA received an award from the NSF for the management of the computer over competition from the best universities in the nation, of which the U.I. is one. Over several years, Blue Waters will represent about half a billion dollars in revenue for the university!

Blue Waters is a joint effort of IBM (thus the "blue" in Blue Waters), the U.I. and the NSF. The massively parallel computer (lots of small computers lashed together) will have 300,000 cores, with 8 processing cores on a chip.

Trish said Blue Waters will have the computing power of "about one million cutting-edge laptops." It will be able to reach a peak power of about 10 petaflops (10 quadrillion floating operations per second) and a general running speed of about 1 petaflops.

Why is all the speed necessary? Well, to mathematically model or simulate, and ultimately predict, future events like tornadoes or cyclones requires quadrillions of calculations to replicate the dynamic movement of seemingly chaotic molecules as they hurtle through space.

The same magnitude of computing power is needed to see beyond microscopes to the likely motion of proteins as they fold and unfold within a cell. The computer software and almost infinite calculations help us to describe the natural world that we cannot see through microscopes or telescopes.

Computers don't think for themselves. They require inputs from scientists. At present about 1,500 scientists and other investigators from around the country use computer time on the supercomputers already at NCSA.

They use "Abe," for example, in 2007 one of the world's Top 10 fastest computers. Three years later Abe ranks only in the top 100 for number crunching power. Blue Waters will come on line as the fastest, or one of the two fastest, computers in the world, but will probably soon be overtaken in the hyper-kinetic race to build ever faster computers.

In addition to weather forecasting, the practical applications of supercomputing are many. For example, if Boeing wanted to design a wing for a new aircraft, it might design a number of possibilities. Rather than build and test various designs in wind tunnels, supercomputers can simulate the design properties of the new wings, allowing Boeing to discard several of the possible designs.

At the more humble level, Trish Barker pointed out that a supercomputer (not at U.I.) was called upon to test the aerodynamic properties of Pringles, which had been moving along the manufacturer's conveyor system so fast that they tended to fly off.

Housed at NCSA, Blue Waters provides great recognition for the U.I. as a long-time leader in high performance computing. While scientists and businesses from across the country may submit proposals for use of supercomputing time at NCSA, machines like Blue Waters attract faculty and students from all over the world who want to be trained to work with the fastest in the field.

Since Blue Waters has not yet been constructed in its new building, I went with Trish to visit Abe in one of the nondescript buildings that house computing facilities on the U.I. campus. If Blue Waters looks like Abe, it will simply be row upon row of black refrigerator-shaped boxes, each holding stacks of probably commercially-available computer servers. Abe and most predecessors are air-cooled; Blue Waters will be water-cooled, with tubes "the size of my pinkie finger," says Barker, running throughout the "refrigerator boxes" of servers.

The lesson I came away with is that the rate of change in the world of science and technology is breath-taking. I have been left completely in the dust. I recommend that you admonish your children and grandchildren regularly to take as many math, science and computer courses as possible, or risk being left in the dust as well.

Jim Nowlan is a former Illinois legislator and state agency director. He is a senior fellow at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

Thanks to Lee Swanson for sending me this article... We have come long way in our computing power... U of I plus others continue to lead the way... Monte

Making Biochar - Small to Large Scale Production of Biochar from Biomass

The biochar making process is called pyrolysis and this offers a sustainable and effective means of producing energy from biomass and eventually, confiscating the carbon from the atmosphere in form called biochar. Slow pyrolysis and fast pyrolysis are two methods of making biochar.

How Biochar is made

Pyrolysis offers a sustainable and effective means of producing energy from biomass and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere in a form called biochar. However, there is a need for additional care to ensure the pretreatment, harvesting, transport, process of application, and even the post treatment are accounted for and to not create more carbon than it is captured by transforming the biomass into biochar.
Hence, this will create a need for innovation and a coherent strategy for low-carbon pyrolysis energy generation. Biochar is called a "carbon negative" energy generator because it is capable of sequestering more carbon than is produced. When compared to many other bio energy technologies, the vital advantage of biochar is that the wide variety of feedstock which it can be made from. Additionally, biochar can be produced at a large scale range from a simple cook stove to mobile farm pyrolysis. Because of the transportation costs and carbon emissions, this is highly favorable for decentralized approaches and smaller scale ones.
Note: For more information and a backgrounder about biochar, including notes about biochar production efficiencies and the cost and availability of commercially produced biochar (used in making biogas from various biomasses), please read "Biochar vs Charcoal - A Greener Alternative for the Soil and the Planet" also by this author and then return to this article.

Production of Biochar

There are various systems for producing biochar. It is a complex subject and technical, too, but it is really reasonably easy to understand at its core. Fundamentally, in the process of pyrolysis the biomass feedstock is heated in the range of 250 - 800 degree C in an oxygen free atmosphere. Biomass is basically heated until the various cellulose and lignin products break down to generate a rich fuel of hydrogen that can be either condensed and combusted for the generation of energy and the high carbon rich product that remains is biochar. Biochar contains 17.60% ash, 18.70% volatile matter, and 63.70% fixed carbon. The heating value of biochar is 25.3 MJ/kg.

How Biomass is turned into Biochar

The first pyrolysis phase is endothermic, in which it needs a higher level of energy than it generates. The last phase of pyrolysis is exothermic, in that it generates more heat than it needs to get started. 10% of the final energy it generates is making it effective at capturing valuable carbon.
Under the molecular pressure of heat, biomass is turned into charcoal. This process is thermal decomposition, where a stable, active flow of carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen (H), and methane (CH4) gases which are known as syngas is created. The only part that remains, again, is charred materials of the carbon exoskeleton, and it is called biochar.

Thermal Decomposition Process

The thermal decomposition process may include:
  1. torrefication
  2. carbonization
  3. slow pyrolysis
  4. intermediate pyrolysis
  5. fast pyrolysis
  6. microwave pyrolysis
  7. gasification
  8. hydrothermal carbonization
  9. steam gasification
With this variety of systems, there is greater range of operating scales- from small pyrolysis units and gasification stoves that are small enough to be home based to large scale plants.
Thus both the small scale and larger scale plants will have the ability to deliver power and heat to houses, communities, and countries, and this will replace the demand of oil and coal in a carbon negative process of energy production.

Slow Pyrolysis

Slow pyrolysis is the most efficient method to turn biomass into biochar and that is commonly cited in literature as the most promising technology to generate biochar. Slow pyrolysis needs low to medium temperatures that range from 350 to 700 degree C at a very long residence time which takes a day and generates three yields: biochar of 30- 50% from the actual weight of biomass, water, and syngas. The resulting syngas and biochar properties are greatly determined by temperature, feedstock, and residence time.

Fast Pyrolysis

Biochar generation is basically maximized with very slow pyrolysis, but fast pyrolysis offers the advantage of the production of bio-oil in addition to the biochar generation. This is called “flash carbonization,” which occurs in a matter of 0.2 to 2 seconds with the modest temperature of 400 – 600 degree C. And this yields up 60% of bio fuels, 20% of biochar, and 20% of producer gases.

Biochar Production at Small scale level

The eagerness for small-scale or home-based biochar units is at very high level now, and many people are attempting to do this process. Biochar is made using simple techniques at home and at small-scale levels. Residential pyrolysis plants are an appropriate technology where biomass is easily available and cheaper than fossil fuels like natural gas, electric heat, or heating oil. And some of methods that are frequently used are the simple two-barrel biochar retort, the experimental CarbonZero biochar kiln, and the simple two-barrel biochar retort with afterburner.

Medium and large sized biochar pyrolysis units

Many companies are generating biochar from biomass and are producing commercial scale systems to process paper by-products, agricultural waste, and even community waste. There are three basic methods for deploying this pyrolysis system. The first is a centralized system- all the biomass in the region is collected and brought for the pyrolysis plant for processing. The second one is amedium tech pyrolysis kiln, and the third is a mobile system in which a truck equipped with the pyrolyzer is driven to convert the biomass. This could be powered with a syngas system, leaving the biochar to the environment. For biochar storage and transport, is important that everyone have care about storing, transporting or combusting for this biochar is readily inflammable.


biochar pyrolysis unitssimple step of how biomass is turned into biochar


Laird, D.A. (2008) “The Charcoal Vision: A Win-Win-Win Scenario for Simultaneously Producing Bioenergy, Permanently Sequestering Carbon, while Improving Soil and Water Quality”, 100 Agronomy J. 178.
Brown, R. C. (2003) “Biorenewable Resources: Engineering New Products from Agriculture,” Blackwell Press, Ames, IA.
Tilman, David; Hill, Jason; Lehman, Clarence. 2006. “Carbon Negative Biofuels from Low-Input-High-Diversity Grassland Biomass,” Science, 314, 1598-1600.

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