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(Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)
(Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)

Neil Reynolds

Energy is a second harvest Add to ...

The real environmentalists, says U.S. energy analyst Robert Bryce, are farmers who use pesticides. Writing in the winter issue of City Journal, magazine of the Manhattan Institute, Mr. Bryce notes that global production of cereal crops doubled between 1968 and 2005 though agricultural acreage remained the same: 3.7 billion acres. Citing U.S. Department of the Interior research, he reports that – without chemically intensive agriculture – the world would have needed another 4.3 billion acres to feed itself in the same 40-year period. “Where in the world – literally – would we have found an extra 4.3 billion acres of land,” he asks, “an area just slightly smaller than South America?”

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Fortunately, says Mr. Bryce, world agriculture didn’t go organic in the 1960s – or, for that matter, since. Farmland used for organic cultivation on a large scale produces 23 per cent less corn, per acre, than conventional agriculture, 50 per cent less wheat. Extrapolated to global dimensions, organic farming could have seriously reduced the world’s food supply.

Yet the world will confront almost as big a task in the next 40 years or 50 years as it did in the last 40 or 50. Population will increase by 2.3 billion (to 9.3 billion); combined with rising affluence in the developing world, the world will need to increase food production by another 70 per cent – or more. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, for its part, says that 90 per cent of the additional calories needed by 2050 “will have to come through higher yields per acre.”

Mr. Bryce is a Texas-based author and journalist (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Atlantic Monthly) who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Energy Policy and the Environment at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative New York think tank. In his latest essay (titled Get Dense), he argues that the environmental assessment of any fuel must include its “power density” – the amount of energy that can be harnessed from any given amount of land. He says that corn ethanol, for example, produces only 0.05 watts per square metre of land. By contrast, a small natural-gas well (producing only 60,000 cubic feet of gas a day) has a power density of 28 watts per square metre.

Indeed, the power density of ethanol is so low that, in 2011, the U.S. corn-ethanol industry needed to convert “a mind-boggling 4.9 billion bushels of grain” to produce 0.6 per cent (in energy equivalent terms) of global oil production. The industry used more than 40 per cent of U.S. corn production for fuel. “That’s more corn,” Mr. Bryce says, “than the combined outputs of the European Union, Mexico, Argentina and India.”

Writing last year in Scientific American, Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, reported that heavily subsidized production of biofuels has almost doubled the demand for grain and sugar in the past seven years. “Our primary obligation is to feed the hungry,” he asserted. “Biofuels are undermining our ability to do so.”

Governments think differently. “We can break our dependence on oil,” President Barack Obama declared last year, “with biofuels.” Congress authorized $7-billion in subsidies to prove him right. The administration now favours celluloid (switchgrass) ethanol over corn ethanol – but gargantuan quantities would be required to make much of a difference. Mr. Bryce says you would need to harvest every square inch of Illinois (36.9 million acres) to replace 10 per cent of U.S. oil consumption.

From the same perspective, you would need to build 770 square miles of wind turbines to produce the electricity now supplied by the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which supplies the city of New York with 30 per cent of its electricity. Indian Point’s power density? Mr. Bryce puts it at 2,000 watts per square metre. But wind turbines use (and, some argue, despoil) more than large stretches of land. Each turbine weighs 200 tons and generates 0.02 megawatts of electricity per ton. By comparison, General Electric’s LM6000 natural gas-fired turbine weighs nine tons and generates 4.7 megawatts per ton (or 230 times as much).

Thus, the folk who drill natural-gas wells and who operate nuclear power plants are, for Mr. Bryce, real environmentalists, too. It’s an interesting perspective. Our air is obviously a precious thing. But so is our land. Mr. Bryce gives new meaning to an oft-claimed (but honestly elusive) iconic environmental designation: friends of the Earth.

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