Stuart Says: Biofuels are not an ever-giving free lunch


‘Apparently, in our rush to switch to biofuels from fossil fuels, we seem to have failed to work out where the pathway leads.’ - Stuart Meikle.

Stuart Says: Biofuels are not an ever-giving free lunch

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‘Apparently, in our rush to switch to biofuels from fossil fuels, we seem to have failed to work out where the pathway leads.’ - Stuart Meikle.

In a world dominated by silo-thinking, working out the consequences of actions is not what is should be. When it comes to seeing the bigger picture, I fear that the constraint that is imposed by ceteris paribus [all other things being equal or holding all else constant] within research methodology is leading to a serious of unforeseen consequences for us and our planet.

To briefly mention some examples.

We have been encouraged to consume white meat over red. The demand for [cheap] chicken has exploded. The obvious result has been the monumental over-exploitation of the chicken. The unforeseen one was the massive rise in demand for soybeans, the destruction of South American savannah and Pampas, an Amazon knock-on effect, and the mining and release of stable soil carbon.

Vegetable oils are good and animal fats are bad. A consequence is that palm oil is now found in so many products that we consume. If you think the products you used to know as a child are not what they were, look at the ingredients list and you will probably find palm oil. Nutritional choices have created a gigantic global industry that is eradicating whole ecosystems and the species within them.

A more obscure example is the devastating impact upon the Aral Sea of cotton growing. We may think that cotton is a bio-friendly, non-synthetic product, but cotton has an environmental footprint.

The exploitation that is biofuels

Addressing climate change is a massive issue for all but a few. In doing so we are; however, in danger of triggering yet another array of unforeseen consequences. Thankfully, more and more of us are aware of the threat to that iconic species, the orangutan [acting as it is as the poster-species for its entire home ecosystem] and now choosing to avoid palm-oil containing products, but how many of us are aware of palm oil being used as a biofuel to ‘offset’ global warming? It is a farcical situation.

Apparently, in our rush to switch to biofuels from fossil fuels, we seem to have failed to work out where the pathway leads. Again, we are suffering from an inability to logically join the dots.

Somewhere along the line, we have developed the concept that all things ‘bio’ are good; they, after all, must come from exploiting living organisms that can renew themselves. The alternative being to exploit the dead ones as per the carbon built up over a millennium from the processes of decay and stored within soils or carbon-based fossil fuels. What we seem to have forgotten is that if we are to operate as a species sustainably, we must get back to understanding the basic principle that our exploitation of the natural world must be in balance with the rate of decay that occurs. If we don’t we are mining our soil carbon stocks and contributing to global warming, period. It is not just about the carbon released by burning fossil fuels.

This rule must apply to our foods and our fuels. As farmers and growers, we are entrenched by N, P, K thinking. My guess is that none of us were taught to think about C and N, P and K [albeit a few other letters are now included]. Frankly, only a very few who read this will be of a generation to get what I am saying from what they learnt in their schooling days. Simply, we have moved so far in the replacement of natural cycles with our synthetics that, in general, we just don’t get it anymore.

Biofuels are not the ever-giving free lunch

We seem to be labouring under the misconception that we can keep extracting from the natural environment. In our pursuit of climate change mitigation, there is the idea around that we can grow biofuels to replace fossil fuels and that this is a complete solution. If we do not replace the nutrients to the soils that such production uses, we are still mining our natural resources; albeit less visibly so.

At a time when soil degradation is a comparable threat to our food security as climate change, we must look at all activities that deplete our soils and not assume that land-use change to bioenergy or biofuel crops is a sustainable answer. Hence, always ask just how regenerative ‘bio’ is.

There is also the idea that we can utilise agricultural ‘wastes’ for energy or create new ‘bio-economy’ industries. Is there, nevertheless, such a thing as agricultural waste? Also, the words ‘circular economy’ are in wider use, but are they being used within a context that fully appreciates that the cycles that should be of greatest concern are the natural ones, not economic ones?

An alternative viewpoint is to say that all wastes, must be returned to the soil and, ideally, in a fashion whereby they can improve soil health and fertility and re-build soils and, specifically, soil humus and soils carbon levels. My expectation is that we will soon realise that regenerating soils is more important than further soil-mining the name of climate change mitigation or economic growth.

Three questionable agricultural bioenergy ideas

Straw has been mooted as a feedstock for bioenergy plants. Indeed, there has been a long-standing, yet unfulfilled, proposal for a midlands-located plant around for a while. As we move into times where re-cycling nutrients back to soils becomes the imperative, mining soil nutrients [in this case those within the straw] for energy must be questioned in a similar vein to fossil fuel usage.

On a purely farming and immediate note, the winter of 2017/18 saw serious straw shortages for agricultural use. It will almost certainly be repeated in 2018/19. And that is not to mention the mushroom sectors need for 100,000 tonnes a year of straw to produce compost. Hence, despite farmer association support, will such a bioenergy investment ever be feasible or correct?

Grass-based anaerobic digestion is another climate-change mitigation possibility that is likely to fall foul of recent weather events. Any such investment needs secure feedstock supplies, not ones that play second fiddle to the farming industry’s needs. At present, Ireland is struggling to produce sufficient forage to supply its livestock numbers without using grass as an anaerobic digester feedstock. As with, using straw, is such an energy production system too extractive for our soils to sustain? Is it taking the belief that Ireland produces endless amounts of cheap grass a little far?

So, what does woodchip have to do with all of this? Surely it is an ideal source of bioenergy and one that is non-competitive with agriculture, broader land-use issues excepted. With so many of our soils having been formed over millennia under either the great plains or under native forestry, there is a link in that composted wood-processing residues may be better employed to re-build soils depleted of organic matter than being burnt [well unless that is within a biochar-creating process but that is a subject too far here]. The point is, what are our priorities, re-building soils or promoting alternatives to wave, wind or solar or the energy generation by processing gaseous on-farm ‘wastes’?

Would woodchip be better used in composting barns?

To take this one stage further, should we be considering the future of slurry-based animal-housing systems? Is untreated animal waste really the fertiliser it is cracked up to be when viewed in the context of soil health rather than just in-out, plant-nutrient supply? Courtesy of Professor Keith Woodford [Lincoln, NZ] I have been following and researching the progress of composting barns.

Apparently, the environmental implications of NZ’s dairy expansion are such that housing is now having to be considered. Prof. Woodford’s ‘clean-sheet’ approach is highlighting composting barns. They are common in the Mid-West and being researched in a few EU countries. Done well, they appear to provide a low-capital-cost housing option with little effluent run-off and high animal welfare conditions. Straw, miscanthus, sawdust and woodchip are being used as bedding with the forestry by-products seeming to be the preferred option.

Hence the question, should we be considering woodchip in the context of it having a potentially invaluable role in animal bedding; compost creation and soil regeneration rather than burning it? A question that, yet again, highlights the complexity of the climate-change/food-security conundrum.

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