Dec 12, 2007

What to do with conflicting information (Food Vs. Fuel)

We all have seen lots of articles recently stating how corn ethanol is making the price of food go up.
For the purpose of this blog, I will use two articles that directly conflict each other. One, written by Forbes, says corn-based ethanol is directly causing food prices to rise. The other, written by informa economics, states that corn-based ethanol has a very small impact on food prices.

We all know that there are better feedstocks to use besides corn for ethanol production - feedstocks that takes less energy to grow and create more ethanol per acre, but that doesn't mean that corn is a bad choice for right now. While everything is connected and the rise in food costs has something to do with rising ethanol demand, we shouldn't be quick to demonize the fuel and look to some basic facts like food surplus, exports and production costs (farmers have to pass high diesel costs on to their customers, just like any delivery company).

Ethanol driving up food prices is largely presented as fact. To counter this, an ethanol trade group, the Renewable Fuels Foundation, commissioned Informa economics to do a study based on statistical analysis of the Consumer Price Index to see what is actually happening. We can, of course, assume that the Informa report is biased, but it provides a much more holistic view of the issue as it breaks down what goes into a bushel. Here is what each had to say about the issue:
The boom in ethanol, a heavily subsidized replacement for oil... is behind the doubling of corn prices over the past 15 months and the knockon effect on basic foods from milk to bread. - Forbes
...the statistical evidence does not support a conclusion that the growth in the ethanol industry is driving consumer food prices higher... only 4% of the change in the food CPI is “explained” by fluctuations in nearby corn futures prices. Even when the corn price is lagged to allow for the effects to work their way through the food supply chain, the statistical results do not improve. - informa economics
So... lets see what industry experts say on surplus and export (we don't need an industry expert to tell us that gas prices have gone up). World-Grain:
U.S. corn exports are projected to reach a record 62 million tons in trade year 2007-08, up 2 million tons this month. The U.S. marketing year is also a record at 2.45 billion bushels, up 100 million bushels. According to U.S. Census data, October 2007 corn exports were up almost 20% over those of the previous year. The report also indicated that feed grain supplies for 2007-08 are unchanged from November and are up 55.3 million tonnes from 2006-07.
So, US production and exports are up, suggesting that there is a strong market abroad for American-grown corn. Feed grain stocks are steady or going up, suggesting feed (and therefore meat prices) would be unchanged as well. Ranchers are reporting raised costs, up to 20%, which I am suspicious of, given that there is not a decrease in supply. This means that either there is some price gouging and blame shifting, or farmers are using higher-value feed (a bi-product of ethanol production).

Bottom line: everything is connected, don't be reactionary and quick to pass judgment, take everything you read with a grain of salt and check references.

Dec 10, 2007

There Is No Easy Answer

First off - congrats to Team SQ on winning the Governor's Gold Award for small business - now, lets get back to work!

Sometimes it can be hard to see through the green bubble that covers certain Oregon and NW cities and identify national trends. There is certainly greening that is happening at the local level and with large players like Walmart who are under scrutiny from every angle. Now it seems the mid-level of the US is greening as well. As reported by the Environmental Leader, Arby's is installing solar water heaters at 33 locations in North Carolina. To be fair, one of Arby's justifications is that it will save them $12k a year on their natural gas bill, but they also mention that they are reducing CO2 as well.

Solar water heaters that not only save money, but decrease a building's carbon footprint as well, are a no-brainer. Unfortunately, not everything is that clearcut and everything has a trade off - like I've said time and time again, there is no silver bullet.

Nalgene bottles, once heralded as the reusable, indestructible and non-chemical-leaching, are now being banned at a Canadian outdoor store due to questions on a chemical used in the plastic. This may not come as a complete surprise - many people have developed an overall suspicion of all plastics (I recently bought and am very happy with a Sigg thermos).

On the food front, some researchers at UC:Davis have started to do some research on the carbon impact of locally-grown food vs centrally-grown food. As a company, we of course have a local bias, but there are some very valid questions raised by the article based on economies of scale.

They use the example of a strawberry, grown in either: a large scale farm in California or a small scale farm locally. On a per-strawberry basis, the impact of transportation, fertilizer, labor, etc. has the potential to be lower on the large scale farm, due to the sheer quantity of strawberries they can produce, even when transporting them thousands of miles. The research isn't done, but it will be interesting to see what the answer is.

Close to home, wave power is getting some press. "Free energy", like solar, geothermal and wind, comes from global forces that are not tied to human activities (like biofuels are).
The big question surrounding all these energy alternatives are: what is the unintended impact on natural systems and are they a worth-while alternative?
  • Will wave power disrupt sea life?
  • How much energy does it take to produce the solar panels?
  • How many birds and bats get chopped up by wind turbines?
Every new technology has drawbacks; you can't have a silver bullet without having to worry about gun control. At least we can be sure of one thing: is renewable alternative energy overall better than conventional fossil fuels like coal and natural gas? Yes.