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Food & agriculture - May 14

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage


A handful of carbon

Johannes Lehmann, Nature
...An existing approach to removing carbon from the atmosphere is to grow plants that sequester carbon dioxide in their biomass or in soil organic matter2. Indeed, methods for sequestering carbon dioxide through afforestation have already been accepted as tradable 'carbon offsets' under the Kyoto Protocol. But this sequestration can be taken a step further by heating the plant biomass without oxygen (a process known as low-temperature pyrolysis). Pyrolysis converts trees, grasses or crop residues into biochar, with twofold higher carbon content than ordinary biomass. Moreover, biochar locks up rapidly decomposing carbon in plant biomass in a much more durable form4.

The precise duration of biochar's storage time is under debate, with opinions ranging from millennial (as some dating of naturally occurring biochar suggests) to centennial timescales (as indicated by some field and laboratory trials)5. Whether biochar remains in soils for hundreds or thousands of years, it would be considered a long-term sink for the purposes of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

...Biochar is a lower-risk strategy than other sequestration options, in which stored carbon can be released, say, by forest fires, by converting no-tillage back to conventional tillage, or by leaks from geological carbon storage. Once biochar is incorporated into soil, it is difficult to imagine any incident or change in practice that would cause a sudden loss of stored carbon.

The bottom line is that plant biomass decomposes in a relatively short period of time, whereas biochar is orders of magnitudes more stable.

...At the local or field scale, biochar can usefully enhance existing sequestration approaches. It can be mixed with manures or fertilizers and included in no-tillage methods, without the need for additional equipment. Biochar has been shown to improve the structure and fertility of soils, thereby improving biomass production3. Biochar not only enhances the retention6 and therefore efficiency of fertilizers but may, by the same mechanism, also decrease fertilizer run-off.

For biochar sequestration to work on a much larger scale, an important factor is combining low-temperature pyrolysis with simultaneous capture of the exhaust gases and converting them to energy as heat, electricity, biofuel or hydrogen

...The consequences of climate change are already being felt1 and there is an urgency not only to identify but also to implement solutions. Biochar sequestration does not require a fundamental scientific advance and the underlying production technology is robust and simple, making it appropriate for many regions of the world. It does, however, require studies to optimize biochar properties and to evaluate the economic costs and benefits of large-scale deployment.
(9 May 2007)
The full article is behind a paywall. A good place to start looking for more information is Professor Lehmann's homepage.

Contributor SP writes:
For the Terra Preta fans out there.


New York barges into sustainable urban farming

Caroline McCarthy,News.com via NY Times
Standing behind a podium in front of a crowd of several hundred people, Ted Caplow lifted a ripe green vegetable and said, "This is a pretty cool cucumber."

The cucumber in Caplow's hand had been grown with no pesticides or net carbon emissions, and with recirculated water--in a hydroponic barge floating on the Hudson River. Caplow, executive director of the nonprofit New York Sun Works Center for Sustainable Engineering, is the designer of the Science Barge, a combination of an environmental education center and potential model for sustainable urban agriculture.

...But more than just a way to show off trendy (and educational) environmental technologies like solar panels and hydroponics, New York Sun Works sees the Science Barge as a prototype for a solution to many of the ecological threats that currently face the planet.

"Growing the food to feed the people of greater metro New York City takes 60 million acres," Caplow said in his speech at the press conference, speaking into a microphone powered by the barge's biodiesel generator. "That's an area the size of Wyoming."

Cities aren't exactly agricultural epicenters. Food and water are shipped over hundreds, even thousands of miles to reach urban areas, and that consumes a massive amount of processing and transportation fuel, which in turn contributes excess carbon dioxide to Earth's atmosphere. Traditional agriculture, too, consumes energy and large amounts of water, and despite the popularity of organic food, toxic pesticides are still in wide use. And since the world population is continuing to grow rapidly, Caplow explained, it's going to get worse. "As our city grows with new people and new buildings, it will place increasingly huge demands on the countryside for food, for power, and for water," he said to the crowd.
(4 May 2007)


Milk Production Peaking

Greg Jeffers, Mentatt
Those of you following this blog for a while know about my rants on the impact of higher oil prices, and declining availability of oil, on food prices and availability. (Economists might prefer the word “scarcity”, but I doubt our politicians would be happy about the use of “scarcity” and “food” in the same sentence.)

Milk prices worldwide are rising at the fastest rate ever and won't be falling anytime soon because of growing demand in China and Latin America and dwindling government supplies.

Dairy farmers have failed to keep pace with a 3 percent increase in annual milk consumption, according to Rabobank Groep in the Netherlands, the world's biggest agricultural lender. Reduced subsidies eliminated milk surpluses in Europe and slowed production growth in the U.S., government data show. The rally started last year after Australia reduced exports because of its worst drought in a century.

``Over the next several months we're going to see some pretty strong prices on all milk,'' said Larry Salathe, an economist and dairy expert at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington. Production needed to bring prices down ``takes at least several months, usually a year to two years, to come.''

Skim-milk powder, the benchmark for world trade, has risen 60 percent in six months to a record $1.58 a pound May 4 on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, seven times higher than the five- year average.

During the first five months last year, prices fell 14 percent. Fluid milk futures on the exchange advanced to a record $19.15 on May 3 and have risen 63 percent in the past year. The commodity traded at $18.75 on Friday.”

- Bloomberg New, May 14, 2007

Tradable milk (skim-milk powder) is up 60% in 6 months. Corn doubled in the past 2 years. Wheat has nearly doubled during that period. The average retail price of a gallon of whole milk in U.S. grocery stores was $3.32 last month (April), right in line with its historical relationship to retail gasoline, which was just over $3 retail (milk has sold, for the most part, at 110- 125% of the price of gasoline since 1960, data from Illinois farm bureau). The correlation between the prices of bread, eggs and milk is very high. It seems it would follow that when the price of gasoline/diesel heads to $4, $5, $6 per gallon at the pump, that milk, eggs, and bread are headed 25%, 50%, 100% higher from today’s higher prices.

But let’s forget prices for a moment, and let’s talk availability:

U.S. inventories of butter, cheese and dry milk peaked at more than 2.7 billion pounds in 1983. The government that year spent $2.5 billion on surplus dairy products to support prices and farmer income. Today, the U.S. has no surplus after selling the 27 million pounds it held in 2005, USDA data show.

European warehouses, which had 200,000 tons of milk powder in 2003, are empty, according to Erhard Richarts, dairy expert with the Bonn-based market and price reporting agency ZMP. Skim milk powder exports from Europe fell to 84,000 tons last year from 194,000 tons in 2005, he said.

The European Union said in March that only ``residual quantities'' of butter are left in member countries after a sale of some 6,000 tons that month.

[Ibid] Bloomberg news May 14, 2007

“No surplus”, “European warehouses… are empty”, “residual quantities”???!!! I don’t think I need to hype those statements. Here comes the kicker:

The world consumes about 1.9 billion liters of milk a day, enough to fill five supertankers, based on estimates by Rabobank. The 14 percent jump in milk demand during the past seven years outpaced the 13 percent rise in oil use, according to estimates from the International Energy Agency in Paris.
[Ibid] Bloomberg News May 14, 2007

The writer had the cerebral capacity to link oil production to milk production!!! Halleluiah!!! Is it too much to think that the mainstream media might be getting it? Maybe. If oil production has peaked, has milk production peaked? Yep.

Unfortunately, for many more poor children in developing countries, and for poor children right down the street, the concept is not going to be quite so abstract.

Mentatt (at) yahoo (dot) com
(14 May 2007)

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