This is my artwork entry for the ‘Freedom To Create Prize’. It is very complex in the multi-issue nature of the messages it is meant to portray. What may appear as separate issues are really a part of a larger single issue showing how the individual issues are inseparable from one another.
Please take the time to also read the footnote articles that I have provided links to below, to give you a primer as to why these issues are inseparable. I believe that once you see the bigger picture emerge you will never see the smaller issues that it involves in the same light again.
The artwork addresses the following individual issues as a whole…
1.) Feeding the population of the Earth, and not just the hungry or starving.
2.) The great public misconception that biomass fuels, such as ethanol, are really a ‘green’ alternative technology, when in fact, they are not a viable and sustainable alternative energy source, as they create exponentially many more energy, environmental, and human rights issues than they resolve.
3.) The ongoing loss and abuse of the very few fertile soils that exist on Earth due to the accepted agricultural practices we continue to use in how we grow food.
I’ll begin briefly explaining these issues and you will clearly see how they relate to the artwork, as well as, each other.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that by the year 2030 almost 30% more grain ( primarily rice, corn/maize, and wheat ) will need to be grown to feed the world’s estimated 8.3 billion people that will exist then. This estimate was calculated back in 1991, before the advent of the trend to use biomass fuel technology, so that figure would be much higher now as our scant fertile land on Earth is now being used to grow crops for fuel instead of food.
Currently, more than 6 billion people rely on food crops grown on just 11% of the Earth’s land surface, and only 3% of Earth’s land surface offers inherently fertile soil. That percentage is also being reduced due to our current agricultural practices, which is turning those fertile soils into desert badlands.
All life, especially plant life, rely on an ongoing cycle of events to remain sustainable. Plants bloom in the spring, flower and reproduce in the summer, die in the autumn returning organic matter back to the soil, and decompose during the winter providing the nutrients and microbial life to the soil that a plant needs in order to start the cycle anew the next spring. This plant life cycle is known as the ‘Soil Food Web’, and is a complex and essential cyclic process in order for the soil to sustain all plant life. If that cycle is broken anywhere, then the soil becomes incapable of sustaining the plant life that once inhabited that soil, and possibly not sustaining any type of plant life whatsoever.
This is why biomass fuels, such as ethanol, are such a dangerous proposition, as they not only take food from the mouths of the world’s hungry and starving, but they also damage the soil food web that allows those crops to grow in the first place. Current ethanol production represents only 3.5% of our gasoline consumption – yet it consumes 20% of the entire U.S. corn crop, in turn causing the price of corn to double in the last two years and raising the threat of hunger and starvation in third World countries.
The increasing acreage devoted to corn for ethanol means less land for other staple crops, giving farmers in South America, primarily Brazil, a lucrative incentive to carve new fields out of the tropical forests that help to cool the planet and stave off global warming. The energy balance of corn ethanol is only 1.3-to-1, that is, when you add up the fossil fuels used to irrigate, fertilize, grow, transport and refine corn into ethanol, the energy output is only 0.3 times higher than the energy used to create it, making it practically worthless as an alternative energy source.
Another misconception is that ethanol is a ‘green’ technology. On the contrary, corn production depends on huge amounts of fossil fuels, not just the diesel needed to plow fields and transport crops, but also the vast quantities of natural gas used to produce fertilizers. The runoff from these oil-based fertilizers in corn fields also silts up the rivers, which in turn creates ‘dead zones’ in the oceans every summer killing all the marine life that normally resides there. Ocean ‘dead zones’ are areas that have had the natural balance of oxygen in the water depleted, resulting in marine life literally dying from suffocation.
When corn ethanol is burned in vehicles, it is as almost as ‘dirty’ as conventional gasoline and does little to solve global warming. E85 fuel reduces carbon dioxide emissions by a modest fifteen percent at best, while fueling the destruction of tropical forests to make more fields for growing crops for biofuels. Those tropical forests are needed much more to help counter those carbon dioxide components of the atmosphere through there natural ability to exchange the carbon dioxide with oxygen. With the deforestation component added to the biofuels equation, biofuels actually contribute more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than there gasoline counterparts, which in turn contributes even more to global warming… not less.
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs titled “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor,” University of Minnesota economists C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer point out that filling the gas tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires more than 450 pounds of corn — roughly enough calories to feed one person for a year.
The most dangerous aspect of biofuel production is just now coming into it’s own, and that of the production of cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol is made from what some short-visioned scientists consider a breakthrough, using what they consider agricultural waste. In other words, using the stalks from corn and wheat, as well as, non-edible plants such as switchgrass, as the source for distilling the ethanol.
This hailed solution to using food crops to produce ethanol, is in fact, the most dangerous mindset that can be taken. As stated earlier, all plant life relies on the cycle of the soil food web, and using the so-called ‘wastes’ of agriculture in effect remove two of the basic four stages, autumn and winter, from the soil food web cycle. In removing the organic matter, such as corn stalks, from the fields to make ethanol, they are also removing the nutrients and microbial life that the soil needs to sustain the next cycle of plant life. That organic matter needs to be returned back to the soil to facilitate the health of the soil from which it came, and in turn, the health of the next cycle of crops that will be grown in that soil.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, lies the undeniable proof of that for all to see. Years ago, the timber industry practiced what is known as ‘clear-cutting’ of timber – removing all of the conifers from logging sites and leaving vast barren slopes where the forest once stood. For over thirty years since then, the timber industry and other agricultural organizations have been trying to replant these native conifers without success, as the new tree saplings simply die as fast as they are planted. This is because the composition of the soil has been changed by removing all of conifers that inhabited that soil, so that the organic matter previously provided by those conifers was not available to decompose back into the soil. The soil damage has been done and can not be repaired with any of our current technologies. Nature has evolved and forced a plant succession, and these clear-cut areas now provide for a host of other new plant life that now sustain the new composition of that soil.
This is exactly the same danger that we are facing when we talk of ‘agricultural wastes’ to manufacture cellulosic ethanol, as this organic matter is not ‘waste’ at all, but rather an integral component to the soil food web that is needed to sustain both the soil health and future crops of the same kind.
To date, humankind has degraded more than 8 million square miles of fertile soil with our current agricultural practices, roughly about the size of the United States and Canada combined. We have done this through the soil compaction associated with using large and heavy agricultural equipment across our fertile lands, by using synthesized fertilizers, pesticides, and soil amendments to try and maintain the fertility of these soils, rather than nurturing the natural processes of the soil food web. Instead we try and genetically modifying our crops to try and accommodate our demands, rather than the soils needs.
The solution to hunger and starvation in third world countries does not lie in just throwing grain at the problem, but rather providing the grain for them WHILE teaching them how to enrich and care for their own soils so that they may grow their own grain.
Another integral part of the solution is to educate them about birth control, as responsibly limiting the local population to a level that the surrounding environment can sustain, is as much a key to success as hunger relief aid and soil conservation education. Without all three of these components in place, the end result will still be hunger and starvation. China recognized this fact, and in only a couple of generations have reduced their population from over 4 billion to the 1.3 billion found today.
The solution to our own glutenous energy needs does not lie in biofuels, as the production of those biofuels endanger the very source from which they are created. Biomass fuels like ethanol are really about just more big corporate greed, once again making the rich even richer at the expense of the environment of the Earth and all the life that inhabits it… period! Producers of biomass fuels are picking up right were there oil producing counterparts left off, with no regard for the environmental impact issues they create, nor the human rights issues regarding feeding the hungry rather than create their fuels.
If you really want to contribute to being green… then first, boycott biofuels such as ethanol so it will not be used as fuel instead of food. You will have a much greater overall environmental impact if you just choose to walk or ride a bike a few times a week, than you will ever have participating in biofuel use and production… after all, the rich will not make what the public will not buy. You can bank on that!
Food… not Fuel. The most basic human right of all is to be able to eat what the earth provides us.
In closing, a couple of quotes from some noteworthy and foresighted individuals…
“The history of every nation is eventually written in the way it cares for it’s soil”
.. Former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt ..
“We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot”
.. Leonardo da Vinci ..
The aforementioned issues discussed above are all reflected in this artwork, and hopefully it is an image that will never leave your mind while providing you with a new perspective and better understanding how all these issues are tightly and inseparably knit together.
All my own proceeds on the sale of this artwork are being donated to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization, as this is the only organization I am aware of that provides an agricultural assistance program combined with food relief programs to help feed the world’s hungry and starving. If you are interested in purchasing products using this artwork, you can click on the artwork image above and it will take you to that page.
This article has been written to provide a very simple and basic understanding of the issues involved, and I encourage you to further expand your knowledge and awareness by reading the associated articles that I have provided links for below. These articles all go into much greater depth and detail of these issues that my artwork represents.
Links for further understanding of biomass fuels and their impacts
US Department of Agriculture
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Soil Biology – The Soil Food Web
by Dr. Elaine R. Ingham
US Department of Agriculture
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Overview – Soil Organic Matter
The Dark Side of Biofuels – Horror in the Brazilian California
by Raúl Zibechi, Americas Program, Center for International Policy, July 23, 2007
Science and Technology
Sep 27th 2007 – Emeryville, Redwood City AND San Carlos, California
Ethanol, Schmethanol – Everyone seems to think that ethanol is a good way to make cars greener. Everyone is wrong
Rolling Stone Magazine
The Ethanol Scam: One of America’s Biggest Political Boondoggles
by Jeff Goodell – Posted Aug 09, 2007 1:36 PM
UniSci – Daily University Science News
Ethanol For Fuel Fundamentally Uneconomic, Study Says
by David Pimentel, Cornell University Agricultural Scientist and U.S. Department of Energy Consultant
National Geographic Magazine
September 2008 Issue – ‘Where Food Begins’
Our Good Earth – The future rests on the soil beneath our feet
by Charles C. Mann