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Right question, wrong answer

Written By: - Date published: 10:39 am, April 28th, 2008 - 15 comments
Categories: economy, Environment - Tags: ,

Interesting to see people gradually waking up to what Fidel Castro, last year, called “The sinister idea of converting food into combustibles”.

Even crazy ol’ Mike Moore writes about it today, although he is dead wrong when he calls biofuels “a populist Green response to global warming”. Environmentalists were always suspicious of biofuels, seeing them as a half-step and worrying about the consequences of using grains as the fuel source. It was George W Bush’s subsidies to biofuel producers, introduced with the twin goals of being seen to do something about climate change and increasing returns for farmers in electorally vital Mid-West states, that started the biofuel explosion.

Not enough food, not enough energy. Along with climate change, these could well become the defining issues of international politics in the next decade.

15 comments on “Right question, wrong answer ”

  1. As we appear to be nearing ‘Peak’ water, phosphorus, oil, food and many others while climate change appears to be accelerating. US farmers switch to corn, reducing soybean crops, so the Brasilians give the cattle in the Matto Grosso the shove and plant soy while the displaced cattlemen fell more forest to feed more cattle. Meanwhile the “rainforest” is seeing less rain every year.

    We’re out of wriggle room.

    I wonder if at any point the REAL issue – population – will be addressed.

    Does New Zealand have a population policy? How many people will be “enough” on these islands? What sort of life do we all want to lead here?

    Our population would already be falling were it not for immigration. So we do have some choice in the matter of population here in NZ without resorting to any coercive measures of any sort and still allowing for some measure of immigration.

    The rest of the world needs to also have this debate. As it is, the assumption that humans can become ever more numerous, forever, is like a poorly designed pyramid scheme where people today refuse to think about the consequences of the choices they make and effectively rip off your kids and their kids to maintain present lifestyles. The last, most desperate generation will be left holding the bag when it all collapses.

    Food and energy certainly are big issues….but they are merely symptoms of the “Mother of all Resources Issues”: Human population.

    If the Earth had 1 billion people, we could all drive SUVs and live in huge homes and emit all the carbon we wanted and it wouldn’t matter. There would be vast forests and huge wildernesses for other species.

    The problem is us.

  2. insider 2

    It’s just not true to say environmentalists have been suspicious of biofuels. They have been pushing them for years. That’s why Jeanette Fitzsimons has fronted up at conferences repeatedly on this issue and why various govt departments have been at the forefront of promoting them under the ‘sustaiability’ banner.

  3. Draco TB 3

    Does New Zealand have a population policy?

    No official one that I’ve seen but I would guess that it’s something like ‘more is better’. Especially the National Party which seems to be overly concerned about people leaving. IIRC, in the 1980s they had a plan for 20 million by 2000.

    How many people will be “enough’ on these islands?

    My intuition tells me between 3.5 and 4 million. I’m sure that we could support the number we have now but it will be a huge change in lifestyle to do so once the shit hits the fan.

    What sort of life do we all want to lead here?

    Well, I want to see people live well and to do what they want within reasonable limits (Taking care of the environment etc).

    The problem is us.

    Yep, but too many people seem to hold the ‘humans = good, more humans = better’ view.

    Reminds me of the part in The Time Machine where the more staid professor asks if we will ever go to far and the more adventurous one replies that there’s “no such thing”. At the end of the movie he’s looking at the remains of the moon saying that we did go to far.

    We seem to be in the same predicament – nobody believes that we can go too far and it won’t be until later that people will say that we did. Hopefully we’ll learn from the oncoming cataclysm and not do it again.

  4. Steve Pierson 4

    insider. it is true that environmentalists have been critical of biofuels right from the start – I recall the NYT articles on the issue from when Bush first announced the biofuels plan that is was coming in the face of criticism from environmentalists. The Greens’ position here too has been that biofuels shoudln’t come at the cost of food.

    Now, you have to be sophisicated because it’s not as simple as biofuels=bad. The idea of consuming carbon in the shallow carbon cycle (plants, cars, air, plants) as opposed to the long carbon cycle (plants, million so of years, cars, air, whoops) is good but the problem is the feed stock. If its from trees that would be all well and good but we don’t have the technology for that yet, so we’re using grains and that grain could be food.

  5. insider 5

    Gotta love those population polices that were imposed by China, Cambodia and Germany. Real vote winners those.

    Wealth is a population policy. All the richest countries have low if not negative population growth projected.

  6. Stephen 6

    Some correlation with education too, one would think.

  7. Steve Pierson 7

    I don’t think the fact that there is no platable way to rapidly lower the human population takes away from the fact that it is the size of the human population that underlines all the environmental problems we’re causing.

    Education certainly helps as does health – I read somewhere that the number of children a woman has is closely linked to her expectations of how many will live into adulthood – a high infant and childhood mortality rate encourages women to have more children (above those needed to adjust for higher mortality). Wealth is not the cause of lower fertility in itself – but, obviously, it’s a good way to get good education and healthcare.

  8. insider 8


    In a NZ context the push for biofuels has been purely an environmentalist and govt led initiative under the sustainability banner. This has been latched onto by commercial vested interests.

    The concern about food production has been minor and pushed to one side if not pooh poohed, because of the belief that this was not an issue for NZ. Unfortunately the market again has exposed some of the weak analysis about the practicalities of implementing a mandate.

    ANd of course there has been the ignoring of the fact that biomass has better and more efficient uses as a fuel than for transport, eg heat and generation. SO biofuels have been essentially politically driven.

  9. Phil 9

    Interesting piece from the NYT on food production and free trade…

    “The reality is that many of today’s commodity shortages, including that for oil, occur because ever more production and trade take place in relatively inefficient and inflexible countries. We’re accustomed to the response times of Silicon Valley, but when it comes to commodities production, many of the relevant institutions abroad have only one foot in the modern age. In other words, the world’s commodities table is very far from flat.

  10. Colvin 10

    I don’t agree that the answer is reducing the world population (or ours or whatever). This argument usually leads to people bashing poor people in poor countries for having too many children.

    People can live sustainably on earth by reducing the amount of damage we cause to the environment. There’s easily enough land in the world to feed everyone. Many other policies can be looked at to fix the food industry.

  11. RedLogix 11


    You are flat out wrong about Greens being unquestioning supporters of biofuels. In fact I attended a two hour session given by Jeannette Fitzsimmons just last week in which among other things she outlined a long history of very conditional support. Basically there are only a few sources of sustainable biofuel in the world, mostly derived from waste sources like tallows, or crops like calix grown on non-agricultural land. Leave the Greens out of this one.

    Internationally there have been many strong voices arguing against the use of food crops for fuels. In particular the corn to ethanol process was always energy and carbon negative (ie a very dumb idea) and the whole industry only ever existed because of the massive subsidies pumped into the MidWest electorate by the Bush Administration.

    Another disaster to add to the neoliberal CV.

  12. jh 12

    “No country has ever raised itself out of poverty without stabilising population growth,” said the group’s vice-chairman, Richard Ottaway MP, at a seminar on population issues this week.

    Ethiopia had five million people in 1900; now it has 64 million, of whom eight million are receiving food aid,” said Mr Ottaway. The projected figure for 2050, he said, was 145 million.
    [from the BBC]

    “”In mid-March the House of Lords published a report that found immigration to UK had no impact on GDP per capita.

    The economic beneficiaries of immigration are the immigrants, those who own property and high wage earners. The government also gets a nett GDP growth it can boast about and more taxes to spend. Since “a party of those who own property’ and “a party of those who want more taxes’ are the two main streams of Western politics, all mainstream politicians favor immigration. Any criticism of immigration is deflected with attacks on the character of the critic.

    The losers of the immigration equation are low wage natives who do not own property. They get the a*se end of increasing income disparity and see property prices & rents climb out of their reach. And for the purposes of this discussion we will call them close-minded racists who are insufficiently culturally sensitive, but in a nice way like Obama does.’

    [Quoting a commentor on Keith Ng’s blog]

    Meanwhile on Kiwiblog food price rises are being blamed on socialists and climate change alarmists. This would never have happened if it was all left to the markets to sort out:

    Gristmill has a good take on food prices:

  13. insider 13


    I didn’t say their support was unconditional, I just said they had been pushing biofuels for years and other concerns had been pushed aside or downplayed for political reasons.

    The Greens and Fitzsimons have been at the forefront of pushing biofuels. EECA is Jeanette’s plaything and led much of the policy process yet the sustainability issue is a mere add on to the policy rather than core, despite the varied warnings over the issue weirdly enough from the oil industry. It’s also odd how the mandate target was based on the expectation of corn ethanol crops being grown in NZ. So don;t tell me the greens are pure on this issue.

  14. Insider: The Greens have made it clear that biofuels must not compromise food supply. They were aware of the risk and any advocacy of biofuels was conditional on that risk being recognised and addressed. Tell the WHOLE story…not the Mike Moore version.

  15. insider 15


    That has come fairly late in the piece – go see if you can find any significant mention of it in the discussion documents or the cabinet paper leading up to the 2007 announcement that a mandate would be pursued.

    And if they have made it so clear why is there no mandatory standard saying such in the bill, and why is the Minister saying we might have to accept non sustainable biofuels in the short term?

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