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grim meatoil future

Michael Pollan's excellent Omnivore's Dilemma, ISBN-13 978-1594200823, features an anecdote about the Mayans early on in the first chapter. The Maya word that referred to themselves and their civilization was "corn walker," and often you hear Chicanos and other Mexican indigenous peoples using that term on themselves even today. But Pollan points out that in fact North Americans are truly corn, walking. The reason we know this is because corn is particularly greedy when it comes fixing carbon, especially carbon-13, from the atmosphere, which leaves a nice carbon trail throughout the food chain; to wit, our carbon-13 to carbon ratios in body mass often exceed persons with corn visibly more abundant in their diets (eg, the bulk of the average Mexican's diet consists of tortillas, tamales, things fried in corn batter, drinks made with corn, etc). But a more thorough look at the diet of a typical American reveals a food landscape overwhelmed with corn: high fructose corn syrup, corn emulsifiers, modified food starches, corn-based vitamin supplements (some which even enrich bleached white flour!) and perhaps most insidiously, livestock feed. And everywhere corn is, so goes carbon-13.

One resource that corn uses in abundance to fix carbon-13 and create carbohydrates and some proteins is nitrogen, which was found in the soil abundantly only 100 years ago. Since corn taxes the nitrate levels of soil, traditional multi-purpose farming would rotate in crops capable of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere. Carbon is abundant and easy to fix from gas, nitrogen is not as easy to fix and is more scare than carbon in the atmosphere. One such crop that would rotate in after corn is a legume such as soybeans or peanuts, which lives in symbiosis with bacteria which fix nitrogen in exchange for glucose on the plant's roots. And for centuries, corn and legumes would rotate, one consuming the soil's supply of nitrogen and the other replenishing, year after year. This changed in last century when in 1909 a German Jew named Fritz Haber figured out an industrial process for fixing nitrogen to create ammonium nitrate, the industrial fertilizer used today to feed millions of acres of hungry corn stalks (as well as blow up federal buildings). He used his know-how in World War I to create a vast array of nitrate for explosive manufacture, as well as developing poison gases. He developed Zyklon B, which was ironically used to gas Jews during the Holocaust.

The downside of industrial nitrate fixing is that it requires a great deal of energy to do, energy that comes from burning coal or oil. A conservative estimate is that for each calorie of corn created, three calories of fossil fuels is burned -- but the true cost may be as much as 6-10 to one calorie where a farmer over-fertilizes, in transportation and processing cost, etc, or even more. All for something which growths naturally with neutral or even negative carbon impact on the environment. Consider the disparity of pounds of feed to pounds of meat in raising beef, and you begin to see the negative impact of industrial corn and meat cultivation in the United states: it takes roughly 32 pounds of corn to produce 4 pounds of weight gain in cattle (an 8:1 ratio), as opposed to a 2:1 ratio in chicken. Work backwards from a single calorie of grain-fed beef and you're burning maybe 100 calories of fossil fuels.

reposted from und1sk0

I know some pretty smart people. Solve this problem: Your entire food manufacturing industry is structured on an energy loss. Solve for x, where x = the magic solution to end world hunger, obesity, the oil crisis and save the environment. Tomorrow: we end the national deficit and make a timecube!
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…nitrogen is not as easy to fix and is more scare than carbon in the atmosphere.

Earth's atmosphere is roughly 78% nitrogen versus 0.04% carbon dioxide. Not that I completely write off the rest of the text, but I am concerned about such a rookie error creeping in there.

I was going to comment on this. I'm sure there are relative levels involved, such as the ease in fixing the gases (I mean, plants were basically built to fix carbon) but come on....
sorry, harder to fix therefore more scarce in terms of availability to plants.. will fix wording.
More importantly, I don't understand the worry of the energy crisis. Yippy skippy, I have my treehugger moments, but if/when oil runs out, we'll find something else. Coal is certainly not ideal, but the US is the Saudi Arabia of coal. Furthermore, there are an abundance of other energy creation methods we could use, we just don't because it's so damned easy to use fossil fuels - dig it up, burn it (yes, I realize that this is something of an oversimplification). We have nuclear, thorium-variant nuclear, which is crazy safe and abundant, solar panels become more efficient year by year, wind farms are starting to take off (ha, ha), research is being done into using oceanic thermal gradients, fission in the long-term (well, so is thorium, but not nearly as), et cetera.

True, we're going to regret some of the things we're doing now - like the pollution we're dumping, and the poisons we spew, but I'm willing to bet we're not going to do anything so crazy that it destroys us (please note that this is completely disregarding weapons of any sort, be they biological, chemical, conventional or nuclear) since we'll constantly come up with a way to get around what someone is calling a limit.

There is no real energy crisis. It'd be nice if we stopped eating fucktons of beef and such, and maybe did more to ensure that people had enough food to live (which is entirely possible, props to Normal Borlaug here), yes, but the real problem is that the general populace just doesn't care.
nature abhors homogeny.. if all you eat is corn and corn by products, nature will punish you (obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc).

not to mention that corn subsidies are bad for farmers, bad for the environment (cattle waste from a grain diet is too toxic for fertilizers), and is really just passing taxpayer money, almost wholesale, into the hands of agribusiness giants like conagra foods, general mills and adm.

these companies, at least, do not need a taxpayer subsidy that is north of $20billion a year, just like how we don't need to subsidize oil companies that are making record profits.
Which is fine and good, but it has nothing to do with what I said. I'm not saying it's healthy, and I didn't say it was fiscally smart for the nation as a whole; I'm just saying that there's not any kind of energy crisis.
nature abhors homogeny.. if all you eat is corn and corn by products, nature will punish you (obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc).

You might want to look around at nature then. Most creatures have a relatively limited range of things they eat.

Obesity, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer, and virtually any other malady you name by and large effect those of us who are older. Plain and simple, we humans live longer than our ability to care for ourselves lasts.

It sure as heck beats the alternatives though.
whats good for koala bears is not good for omnivores (get it? omnivore's dilemma?). so, variety matters in our diets -- and while there may seem to be a glut of choices at safeway or on the menu of mcdonalds or even subway, the mass spectrometer doesn't lie: corn, everywhere.

i'm not going to disagree with the age argument, however, but it is predicted that ours (i'm 32) will be the first generation in a long time whose average live expectancy will be shorter than their parents' generation -- due in large part to otherwise preventable maladies related to what we eat; obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease. the three leading causes or contributing factors to early death.
So, what you really mean by "nature abhors homogeny" is that "nature abhors homogeny in omnivores only". Let's run with that.

Grizzly bears -- as an example of an omnivorous species -- tend to eat a far more limited diet than most people. That natural diet dooms them to a life shorter than yours in the longest cases.

Even if we assume the correctness of the statement that corn is in everything, it doesn't mean that corn *IS* everything. It also doesn't mean that corn is bad.

A counterexample: Water is in even more things than corn. The soda can on my desk contains far more water than all other things in it combined. Water, typically, is not seen as a bad thing -- excepting by the coalition to ban DHMO -- so the burden of proof is on you to show that corn is bad and that nature truly abhors our intake of it.

In your attempt to prove that, remind yourself that over the last 100 years, there have been a number of theories on nutrition -- and each one of them has fallen flat on its face. We know very little for certain about nutrition and its effects on us.
I wanted to add that, yes, one of the highest "calorie" substances we had to use for energy is gas/oil -- consider drinking a big gulp, but instead of it being 1200 calories, its 120,000. Regardless, we shouldn't use it an un-renewable resource when it isn't, especially in the place of a resource that is, for all intents and purposes, un-renewable (the sun). Sure, oil is renewable, but at the rate we use it, we will have to cool our heels for a few million years to refresh the supply. And there is a timer on the sun that will run out on about 14 billion years. But the main point is, why are we burning fuel to grow something we have so much of an excess of that we have a hard time figuring out new ways to use it? "Zea mays" does a good job growing in a wide variety of environments without ammonium nitrate from fossil fuels, yet we have a welfare state that encourages zealous overproduction in an economy fixed against the family farmer.
Personally, I feel that oil is a resource, to be used as any other. I also think, though, that using it as a simple energy source is insane. Its real value lies in petrochemicals. Plastics are very important, and I don't mean in tupperware, but use in things like hospitals. We can't make all the plastic we need out of corn et al (yet).

We're using it up to (skipping some steps) grow corn because people are making money doing it that way. It's really that simple. People have made whole industries counting on selling this to them, that to those, who pay for with it subsidies, so on and so forth, ad nauseum.
butter is a resource too, that doesn't mean i should take baths in the stuff. what's wrong with a little conservation? just because we can do something doesn't mean we have to. and how do you think the wholesale waste of the world's large but finite supply of fossil fuel calories on livestock and HFCS and ethanol in America look to, to be cliche', a starving kid in africa?

<rant>of course, i'll probably be labeled a "fringe liberal" for that sentiment by some people, but there was a time when conservation and conservative were not antagonistic ideologies. now we have bill o'reilly, the intellectual equivalent of a chicken mcnugget, calling the shots.. sigh.</rant>
Really, I don't think you bother paying attention to the stuff I actually say; you just keep ranting on. I never said it was wise to continue down this path, but oil is what oil is and it's going to be used; I just wish we'd realize that it's got more important uses that simple energy generation.

As an aside, your butter analogy is terrible and make little sense. Butter is not a natural resource.
No, people like to debate, and even commenting in a livejournal entry lends itself well to this style of intellectual discourse. It just doesn't serve anyone's purpose, including your own, to keep saying the exact same thing whenever anyone comments. They got that information from the original entry. Come up with more arguments to support your point and maybe people won't simply dismiss you out of hand.
nothing was up for debate in the first place. its a book review. look at the original post. i guess what i'm saying is, i don't care either way what you opinion is. hep reposted it because she has an agenda and attached that agenda to the original message. i don't have an agenda either way, eat what you want, let the market decide what's best. i never asked for a policy debate on our fossil fuel use, or anything of that nature. since then, i've been called a liberal, i've had my summarization of someone else's (themselves summarize) facts checked and questioned, and now you're trying to school me on my forensics technique.

DONT YOU PEOPLE HAVE JOBS?
Re: ETA
I'm not sure what point you're trying to make here. Come out and say it, if it indeed exists; and if you're not parrorting some stupid liberal bullshit science that means nothing.

That's the problem with intelligent fringe liberals.

They may have good points, but they're too pussified to actually make a stand on them, or care about any sort of reprecussions other than those that affect issues close to their heart.

Should I stop eating corn, and more rice?

Should I write to my congressman about how cow farts need to contain more nitrogen and he needs to deal with this important issue immediately before we all starve to death and our atmosphere disappears?

What the fuck. Should I write up signs on how we're all going to eventually die and we won't be able to have our can a week of blue diamond almonds so obviously the answer is we need to plant soy beans beneath our nipples so we can safely and heroically breastfeed off of one another when the corn will inevitably run out?

If you really believe in what you preach, become a mass murderer. That will actually improve things.
Solve this problem: Your entire food manufacturing industry is structured on an energy loss.

Incomplete premise. The entire universe is structured on energy loss. Consider, for example, the heat death of the universe

Solve for x, where x = the magic solution to end world hunger, obesity, the oil crisis and save the environment.

The Earth only gets as much as energy as the sun puts out. If those on Earth use more energy than the sun puts out, then there is an energy problem. Plants depend on the nitrogen cycle and there has been no shortage of people able to grow plants. In fact, considering the Green Revolution, quite the opposite.

At this point, it's worth noting that world hunger is a problem of distribution, not supply.

I still remain unconvinced about global warming. The evidence is thinly corroborated and not infrequently contradictory.

The oil crisis is so....1970s. It's overplayed quite a bit by a lot of people with biases. Check your sources and you'll find that the United States is the 10th largest producer.

Assume the worst -- that all oil production stops suddenly -- the United States has enough oil to last a year and a half on current rates. That's not even including rations!

Moreover, lots of smart people are doing lots of good work to transition to other means -- well ahead of any crisis.

nitrogen is not as easy to fix and is more scare than carbon in the atmosphere.

Trivially false -- even counting all compounds containing carbon, we have several orders of magnitude more N than C in the atmosphere.

Work backwards from a single calorie of grain-fed beef and you're burning maybe 100 calories of fossil fuels.

And in doing no work at all, the sun provides much more energy than that which is absorbed by our atmosphere and crops.

If you're going to suggest that there's an energy shortage, then you may want to check your facts -- the United States produces about 300 terawatts more than it uses. We export the remainder elsewhere.

I know some pretty smart people.

I do too. I'm sorry that some of them fall for this sort of thing.
Indeed. It should also be said that plants do not fix nitrogen at all, the prokaryotes in the soil and the root nodules of especially legumes do all the work. It's therefore disingenuous to compare the rates of fixation.