Solar is the Fastest-Growing Industry in the US

solar statistics 2011 Q1Some good jobs news: “Solar is the fastest-growing industry in the US” according to Rhone Resch, President of  The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), during his remarks accompanying release of the quarterly report “US Solar Market Insight.”  The report was jointly prepared and released by SEIA and Greentech Media (GTM).

The graphic at right summarizes the stunning growth of the solar industry. Here are highlights from the report:

Solar Driving Jobs Creation

Rhone Resch said that the solar industry employs 100,000 Americans and that that number could double in the next two years. Within a few years, the US will be the world’s largest solar market, according to SEIA.

While California, New Jersey, and Arizona remained the top three states for solar installations, Pennsylvania jumped to the number 4 position, from number 8 in the rank last year. Maryland made the biggest move from 16th to 8th in the ranks.

Solar Growing Fast

Solar electric installations surpassed one gigawatt for the first time, and the US shows signs of being one of the top, if not the top global market for solar in the coming years. New solar photovoltaic (PV) installations for Q1 2011 grew 66% over Q1 2010. Total growth of the US solar market was up 67% in 2010, over 2009.

Solar industry manufacturing growth exceeded 31%, compared to less than 4% for overall manufacturing in the US in 2010.

Solar Pricing Continues To Improve

In Q1 2011 for the solar industry, jobs were up, installations were way up for PV and Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), manufacturing growth was up and prices are coming down. Solar system pricing is down 15 percent from Q1 2010.

While fossil fuels continue getting more and more expensive and extraction of oil, gas and coal becomes more and more toxic, the much cleaner renewable energy sector, including the solar industry, pricing is getting cheaper and cheaper.

Key Details

Photovoltaics (PV):

  • Grid-connected PV installations in Q1 2011 grew 66% over Q1 2010 to reach 252 MW.
  • Cumulative grid-connected PV in the U.S. has now reached over 2.3 GW.
  • Cumulative grid-connected solar electric (PV and CSP) has now reached 2.85 GW.
  • The top seven states installed 88% of all PV in Q1 2011, up from 82% in 2010.
  • Commercial installations in Q1 2011 more than doubled over Q1 2010 in 10 of the top 21 states.
  • U.S. module production increased by 17% relative to Q4 2010, from 297 MW to 348 MW. While production from export-oriented firms and facilities dipped materially because of soft demand in the key feed-in tariff markets of Germany and Italy, plants that serve the domestic market enjoyed far healthier utilization of manufacturing capacity.
  • After a year of flat-to-increased pricing for some PV components in 2010, annual beginning-of-year feed-in tariff cuts and depressed global demand in Q1 2011 resulted in substantial price declines. Wafer and cell prices dropped by around 15% each, while module prices fell around 7%.

Concentrating Solar Power (CSP):

  • The 500-MW Blythe CSP plant obtained a $2.1 billion DOE loan guarantee.
  • Construction is underway on the-30 MW Alamosa CPV plant, with expected completion in 2011.
  • There is a concentrating solar (combined CSP and CPV) pipeline of over 9 GW in the U.S.; more than 2.4 GW have signed power purchase agreements.
  • In total, 1,100 MW of CSP and CPV are now under construction in the U.S.

All Solar Markets:

  • The total value of US solar market installations grew 67 percent from $3.6 billion in 2009 to $6.0 billion in 2010.
  • Solar electric installations in 2010 totaled 956 megawatts (MW) to reach a cumulative installed capacity of 2.6 gigawatts (GW), enough to power more than half a million households.

Solar PV installations continue their exponential growth.

US PV Installations

US PV Installations 2005 through Q1 2011

The extraordinary growth of solar makes sense. Think of sunlight as free oil. It’s all around us every day, available for collection. No need for drilling and no threat of oil spills or toxic emissions. Solar panels convert the free energy into electricity or heat. And they do it with remarkable efficiency. It takes energy to produce energy, and to my mind, one of the most important ways to measure the energy performance of something is by calculating the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) – which measures how much energy it takes to produce the energy. The higher the ERoEI, the better. Here’s a chart showing the ERoEI for various energy sources.

ERoEI

 

Oil ERoEI TrendSolar and wind have the highest ERoEI of all sources of energy, and they are trending higher. Meanwhile, looking at oil, the easy oil has been extracted, what remains is increasingly expensive and difficult to get to, and toxic to extract and process. It takes much more energy to produce a barrel of oil today than it did just 50 years ago. Oil’s ERoEI has plummeted from about 100:1 in the 1950’s to about 10:1 today.

In the US Energy Information Administration’s most recent Monthly Energy Review, they show that domestic production of renewable energy has surpassed that of nuclear power.

During the first quarter of 2011, renewable energy sources (note that this includes biomass/biofuels, geothermal, solar, water, wind):

  • Provided 11.73 percent of U.S. energy production.
  • Delivered 5.65 percent more than that from nuclear power.
  • Energy from renewable sources is now 77.15 percent of that from domestic crude oil production.

Looking at just the electricity sector, according to the latest issue of EIA’s Electric Power Monthly, for the first quarter of 2011, renewable energy sources (biomass, geothermal, solar, water, wind) accounted for 12.94 percent of net U.S. electrical generation — up from 10.31 percent during the same period in 2010.

In terms of actual production, renewable electrical output increased by 25.82 percent in the first three months of 2011 compared to the first quarter of 2010. Solar-generated electricity increased by 104.8 percent, wind-generated electricity rose by 40.3 percent, hydropower output expanded by 28.7 percent, and geothermal electrical generation rose by 5.8 percent. Only electricity from biomass sources dropped, by 4.8 percent. By comparison, natural gas electrical output rose by 1.8 percent and nuclear-generated electricity increased by only 0.4 percent, while coal-generated electricity dropped by 5.7 percent.

The chart below is a concise view of the energy flow from various energy sources and destinations. Though it is only current through 2009, it gives a remarkable view into the complex landscape of where our energy comes from and how we use it.

eia energy flow 2009

(source: EIA)

U.S. Solar Market InsightTM Background Materials:

Executive Summary

Details on the reports

The U.S. Solar Market Insight: Year-in-Review 2010

June 16 Press Conference

The Q2 2011 edition of US Solar Market Insight will be available in September 2011.

Other Background Materials:

2010 National Solar Jobs Census

Details on the solar energy companies operating in each state, plus examples of the jobs being created

US Solar Energy Trade Assessment 2010 report finds the US is a net exporter of solar products

Major Solar Projects list

 

Congress Releases Report on Toxic Chemicals Used In Fracking

fracking water chemicalsDemocrats of the Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce just released a new report detailing chemicals used in the toxic gas exploration process known as Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking or fracing). Fracking is a technique used to extract natural gas from oil shale beneath the earths surface. Communities arfrackinge increasingly concerned about fracking polluting public water systems and the environment, when the chemicals leak into aquifers, rivers, streams and the atmosphere.

While the oil/gas industry has denied any problem, there is mounting evidence that public water systems and private wells are being polluted in areas around the drilling sites. In states such as Pennsylvania, politicians have welcomed Big Oil in with open arms, and thousands of gas extraction wells are expected to be drilled this year. Presently, the natural gas industry does not have to disclose the chemicals used, but scientists have identified known carcinogens and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. The chemicals can most often leak in to the water system in several ways:

Derrick – The natural gas process involves drilling 5,000 feet or more down and a comparable distance horizontally. The majority of the drilling liquid remains in the ground and is not biodegradable.

Well Casing – If the well casing that penetrates through the aquifer is not well sealed, chemicals can leak in to the aquifer.

Fractured Shale – To release the gas from underground, millions of gallons of water, sand and proprietary chemicals are injected, under high pressure, into the well. The pressure fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well. These fissures may allow the chemicals to enter the water system. In addition, recent reports suggest that radiation in the ground is contaminating the fracking fluid. This radiation has been showing up in drinking water. For more on that see the NY Times investigative article by Ian Urbina Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers.

Surface Contamination – The gas comes up wet in produced water and has to be separated from the wastewater on the surface. Only 30-50% of the water is typically recovered from a well. This wastewater can be highly toxic. Holding ponds, and handling mishaps can release this toxic brew into the environment.  For some examples, see the video below about residents in Pennsylvania and the impact of fracking on their water systems. Surface evaporation of VOCs coming into contact with diesel exhaust from trucks and generators at the well site, can produce ground level ozone. Ozone plumes can travel up to 250 miles.

fracking process

For more detailed interactive image, see below.

Horizontal fracking uses up to 300 tons of a mixture of 750 chemicals, many of them proprietary, and millions of gallons of water per frack. This water then becomes contaminated and must be cleaned and disposed of.  To date, the oil/gas industry has been secretive about what chemicals are used, and has lobbied Congress for a variety of protections. Much of the contaminated water is taken to water treatment plants that are not designed to process the chemicals and radiation found in fracking fluids.

In 2005, the Bush/ Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. It exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing. Essentially, the provision took the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) off the job. It is now commonly referred to as the Halliburton Loophole.

The FRAC Act (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemical Act) is a House bill intended to repeal the Halliburton Loophole and to require the natural gas industry to disclose the chemicals they use.

The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed by Congress, in 1974, to ensure clean drinking water free from both natural and man-made contaminates.  Remember the days when rivers were so polluted with toxic industrial waste that they would ignite into flame?

Here’s the introduction from the Democrats report from the Energy and Commerce Committee – Chemicals Used In Hydraulic Fracturing (N.B. click on the link at left to see the actual report and list of chemicals):

Today Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman, Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Edward J. Markey, and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Ranking Member Diana DeGette released a new report that summarizes the types, volumes, and chemical contents of the hydraulic fracturing products used by the 14 leading oil and gas service companies. The report contains the first comprehensive national inventory of chemicals used by hydraulic fracturing companies during the drilling process.

Hydraulic fracturing has helped to expand natural gas production in the United States, but we must ensure that these new resources don’t come at the expense of public health,” said Rep. Waxman. “This report shows that these companies are injecting millions of gallons of products that contain potentially hazardous chemicals, including known carcinogens. I urge EPA and DOE to make certain that we have strong protections in place to prevent these chemicals from entering drinking water supplies.

With our river ways and drinking water at stake, it’s an absolute necessity that the American public knows what is in these fracking chemicals,” said Rep. Markey. “This report is the most comprehensive look yet at the composition of the chemicals used in the fracking process, and should help the industry, the government, and the American public push for a safer way to extract natural gas.

During the last Congress, the Committee launched an investigation into the practice of hydraulic fracturing in the United States, asking the leading oil and gas service companies to disclose information on the products used in this process between 2005 and 2009.

The Democratic Committee staff analyzed the data provided by the companies about their practices, finding that:

  • The 14 leading oil and gas service companies used more than 780 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products, not including water added at the well site. Overall, the companies used more than 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products containing 750 different chemicals and other components.
  • The components used in the hydraulic fracturing products ranged from generally harmless and common substances, such as salt and citric acid, to extremely toxic substances, such as benzene and lead. Some companies even used instant coffee and walnut hulls in their fracturing fluids.
  • Between 2005 and 2009, the oil and gas service companies used hydraulic fracturing products containing 29 chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for their risks to human health, or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
  • The BTEX compounds – benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene – are SDWA contaminants and hazardous air pollutants. Benzene also is a known human carcinogen. The hydraulic fracturing companies injected 11.4 million gallons of products containing at least one BTEX chemical over the five-year period.
  • Methanol, which was used in 342 hydraulic fracturing products, was the most widely used chemical between 2005 and 2009. The substance is a hazardous air pollutant and is on the candidate list for potential regulation under SDWA. Isopropyl alcohol, 2-butoxyethanol, and ethylene glycol were the other most widely used chemicals.
  • Many of the hydraulic fracturing fluids contain chemical components that are listed as “proprietary” or “trade secret.” The companies used 94 million gallons of 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret. In many instances, the oil and gas service companies were unable to identify these “proprietary” chemicals, suggesting that the companies are injecting fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify.

How Fracking Can Effect Your Community And What You Can Do About It

Once a communities water system is made toxic, property values plummet. Homeowners end up with homes that can’t be sold at anywhere near their original value. They are forced to live in their un-sellable homes and continue to be exposed to the toxic environment. Fracking can compromise public health and environmental quality.  The map below from the Gasland project shows where oil shale gas drilling areas are most intensive, in red.

fracking map

Here’s a more detailed map from the Energy Information Administration showing “Shale Plays.”

shale map, shale plays, fracking map

Shale Plays – Click for larger image (Source: EIA)

The term “play” is used in the oil and gas industry to refer to a geographic area which has been targeted for exploration due to: favorable geoseismic survey results; well logs; or production results from a new or “wildcat well” in the area. An area comes into play when it is generally recognized that there is a valuable quantity of oil or gas to be found. Oil and gas companies will send out professional “land men” who research property records at the local courthouses and after having located landowners who own the mineral rights in the play area, will offer them an oil and gas lease deal. Competition for acreage usually increases based on how hot the play is in terms of production from discovery wells in the area. The more oil and gas there is to be had, the higher the lease payments per acre are.

And money talks. Homeowners and towns can be attracted to the offer of money for exploitation of the shale. The heavy costs paid are only realized after the deal is signed – costs to the environment, increased industrial traffic through the community, attraction of outsider oil/gas workforce that can stress local community wellbeing, and of course – environmental degradation, and risk to public water systems.

Bryan Walsh, one of my favorite environmental reporters, just published this evenhanded video that looks at some specific examples of toxic fracking related events in Pennsylvania, the heart of east coast gas extraction. While business leaders in the community enjoy the increased hotel and travel related economics, the devastating impact on homeowners and communities can be tragic.

As the video shows, there is a growing conflict between public health interests and business interests. Anytime oil/gas is involved, big money is at stake. Big Oil spends tens of millions of dollars lobbying politicians to favor their business, often at the expense of public health and the environment. Local businesses welcome all the truckers, traffic and drilling personnel because it means increased commerce. But at what cost?

Communities are fighting back. Do your homework and get to know about fracking. The articles below in Recommended Reading are a good start, and rent the HBO movie documentary Gasland. You will get a good background on how communities across the US are being effected. If you think your community is being impacted by fracking, the Gasland producers have setup a good website to learn more and with tips on how to Take Action, including links to elected officials, info on local organizations, and email action alerts. Remember – oil companies are funneling big money into politicians coffers to influence public policy. It will take your steady, informed, organized community voice to counter big oil special interests.

anti-fracking protest

April 11 anti-fracking protest in Albany, NY, for safe drinking water

For ideas on how to hold your elected officials accountable, read Nicholas Kristof’s really fine article on The Power of Mockery. It highlights one of the most effective ways for grass-roots movements to speak truth to power. He also features Tina Rosenberg’s new book Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Kristoff offers examples of the techniques in action, including: how kids took on Big Tobacco and reduced teen smoking in Florida; the Egyptian revolution; Serbia, etc.

I just added this excellent video by Josh Fox, calling out NY Governor Cuomo on fracking.  It is an excellent review of secret memos leaked from the gas industry, detailing how fracking system failures pollute our water resources.  Rolling Stone Magazine online has a good article calling the Governor out on fracking.

And finally, support politicians that are committed to a strong Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The Trend Is Our Friend

Fossil fuels are becoming more expensive and extraction more toxic. The easy stuff has already been extracted over the decades. What remains poses greater and greater risk to public health and the environment. Fossil fuels are our past. Renewable energy is our future. Renewables are becoming cheaper and cheaper and are much cleaner to produce. Let’s not compromise our future trying to ring every last drop of oil and gas out of the ground. Support politicians that understand the pressing need to rapidly transition to renewable energy and invest in research and development, education, and regulation.

I’ll leave you with this interactive diagram from the Gasland website. Click on the small circles to learn more about fracking. Click on the “To The City” arrow to scroll the image to the left to see how fracking contaminated water effects community water systems.

http://8020vision.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/fracking.swf

 

Recommended Reading

Shale Gas Exploration: The Coming Storm by Jay Kimball

Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers by Ian Urbina

Chemicals Were Injected Into Wells, Report Says by Ian Urbina

Shale Gas Isn’t Cleaner Than Coal, Cornell Researchers Say by Mike Soraghan

Studies Say Natural Gas Has Its Own Environmental Problems by Tom Zeller Jr.

Gas Industry Spent Record Amount Of Money Lobbying To End New York Fracking Moratorium

Arkansas Is Shaking: 50+ Earthquakes In Past Week; 700+ In Last Six Months at NPR

Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World by Tina Rosenberg

Natural Gas Watch a nonprofit reporting on the the oil/gas industries impact on public health and safety

Iris Parker Pavitt

I was reading an article at Time’s Ecocentric blog called European Energy Companies Funding Climate Skeptic Campaigns in the U.S. I am concerned about climate change and the behind the scenes attempts by big oil to create FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) around global warming.

So I was reading the article, and when I got to the end, I like to read the comments. And there, at comment #2, MeMeMine69 wrote the following:

Are WE not the new neocons when we condemn our kids to a CO2 death, just to get them to turn the lights off more often? Climate change has done to us what Bush did to the neocon’s reputation.

System Change, not Climate Change.

Environmentalism is strong, successful and progressive. Just remove the CO2 mistake from the equation and let’s all just carry on. Why does it seem like we WANT this crisis to happen? I can’t do this anymore.

I’m liberal. I’m progressive and a New Green Denier.

I’m ahead of the curve because this can’t continue without alienating the rest of the voters who don’t believe this “promise of unstoppable warming” to happen to the planet Earth.

My reply:

Hi MeMeMine69.

Most of the kids I know are not afraid, they are energized, and part of the solution. They give me hope.

Think back to the 70s, when it was kids that helped their parents realize the importance and opportunity of recycling.

One of my heros is Iris Parker Pavitt. Iris served as a teen delegate to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, and is a coordinator for FEAST (Farm Education And Sustainability for Teens), and is a member of the Farm to Cafeteria Program, to bring healthy organic foods to school food programs.

Here’s a great interview with Iris:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Wtrknd2rqY&feature=related

I am happy to have her in our community, and I assure you, there are kids like Iris all over the world.

Take heart!

Iris is just one of many kids who are engaged, informed, and active in leaving the world better than we found it.

I love these kids – Let’s give them wings!

Why Farmers Need a Pay Rise…

The world’s farmers need a pay rise – or, come the mid-century, the other 8 billion of us may well find we do not have enough to eat.

True, this assertion flies in the face of half a century of agricultural economics orthodoxy – but please bear with me as I explain.

Globally and especially  in developed countries, food has become too cheap. This is having a wide range of unfortunate – and potentially dangerous – effects which include:

  • Negative economic signals to farmers everywhere, telling them not to grow more food
  • Increasing degradation of the world’s agricultural resource base
  • A downturn in the global rate of agricultural productivity gains
  • An ‘investment gap’ which is militating against the adoption by farmers of modern sustainable farming and other new technologies
  • A deterrent to external investment because agriculture is less profitable than alternatives.
  • The decline and extinction of many local food-producing industries worldwide
  • A disincentive to young people (and young scientists) to work in agriculture.
  • Loss of agricultural skills, rural community dislocation and increased rural and urban poverty affecting tens of millions
  • Reduced national and international investment in agricultural research and extension
  • Lack of investment in water, roads, storage and other essential rural infrastructure
  • The waste of up to half of the food which is now produced
  • A pandemic of obesity and degenerative disease that sickens and kills up to half of consumers of the ‘modern diet’, resulting in
  • Soaring health costs causing the largest budget item blowout in all western democracies
  • The failure of many developing countries to lay the essential foundation for economic development – a secure food and agriculture base – imposing direct and indirect costs on the rest of the world through poverty, war and refugeeism.

From this list it can be seen that low farm incomes have far wider consequences for humanity in general than is commonly supposed.

Indeed, in a context in which all of the basic resources for food production are likely to become much scarcer, it may be argued that, indirectly, they imperil every one of us.

A Market Failure

This aspect of future global food security is primarily about a market failure.

At its ‘How to Feed the World’ meeting in October 2009 the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation stated that investment of the order of $83 billion a year was needed in the developing world alone, to meet the requirement for a 70 per cent increase in food production by 2050. (source: ii)  However, almost in the same breath, it noted “Farmers and prospective farmers will invest in agriculture only if their investments are profitable.” (My emphasis).

The logic is unassailable. Today most of the world’s farmers have little incentive to invest in agriculture because the returns are so low. This applies as much to farmers in developed countries , as it does to smallholders in Asia or Africa.

Reasons for the low returns are not hard to find: farmers are weak sellers, trapped between muscular globalised food firms who drive down the price of their produce, and muscular industrial firms who drive up the cost of their inputs. This pincer movement not only discourages ‘developed’ agriculture but also prevents undeveloped agriculture from developing.

Nothing new here, you may say. So what has changed? The growing imbalance in power between farmers and those who dominate the food supply chain is what has changed.

Two decades ago most farm produce was largely sourced from local farmers by local buyers for local markets and consumers, as it was through all of history.  In the 21st century there has been a massive concentration of market power in the hands of a tiny number of food corporations and supermarkets sourcing food worldwide.  These are – quite naturally – doing all they can to reduce their input costs (farm prices) as they compete with one another. This is not a rant about globalisation: it’s a simple observation about one of the facts of global economic life.

The power of the farmer to resist downward price pressure has not increased. Indeed it has weakened, as the average producer now competes against some struggling farmer in a far away country, rich or poor, who is also simply trying to survive by selling at the lowest price.

The power of the global input suppliers – of fuel, machinery, fertilizer, chemicals, seeds and other farm requirements, has also grown as they concentrate and globalise.  This makes it easier for them to raise the cost of their products than it is for farmers to obtain more for their wheat, rice, livestock or vegetables or to withstand input price hikes.

As a consequence of this growing market failure, the economic signal now reaching most of the world’s farmers from the market is “don’t grow more food”.

Its effect is apparent in the fact that world food output is now increasing at only about half the rate necessary to meet rising global demand, and that yield gains for major crops have stagnated.

While some will argue such cost/price pressures make for greater economic ‘efficiency’, the logical outcome of unrestrained global market power will eventually displace around 1.5 billion smallholders out of agriculture, with devastating consequences for the landscapes they manage and the societies most affected. Putting one in five of the Earth’s citizens out of work and destroying the food base is not a strategy any intelligent policy or government would advocate, one hopes. But it is one of those ‘externalities’ which classical economics sometimes omits to factor in – and is happening, nevertheless.

Global Degradation

In a recent satellite survey, researchers working for FAO reported 24 per cent of the Earth’s land surface was seriously degraded – compared with 15 per cent estimated by an on-ground survey in 1990. The FAO team noted that degradation was continuing at a rate of around 1 per cent a year. (source: iii)

Every agronomist and agricultural economist knows that, when farmers are under the economic hammer, a good many of them will overstock and overcrop in a desperate effort to escape the poverty trap leading to severe resource degradation. In drier, more marginal country, cost/price pressures can devour landscapes – and this is undoubtedly a major factor (though not the only one) in the degradation of land and water worldwide, especially in the world’s rangelands.

If we continue to sacrifice one per cent of the world’s productive land every year, there is going to be very little left on which to double food production by the mid-century: crop yields in 2060 would have to increase by 300 per cent or so universally, which is clearly a tall order.

Much the same applies to irrigation: “In order to double food production we need to double the water volume we use in agriculture, and there are serious doubts about whether there is enough water available to do this,” is how Dr Colin Chartres, director general of the International Water Management Institute summed it up recently. (source: iv)  Dr Chartres estimates that doubling world food output could require up to 6000 cubic kilometres more water.

Solutions to land and water degradation are reasonably well known, and have been shown to work in many environments – but are not being adopted at anything like the rates necessary to double world food production or even to conserve the existing resource base. One reason is that farmers, in the main, cannot afford to implement them, even though many would like to do so. The economic signal is wrong.

As a result, world agriculture is today primarily a mining activity. We all know what happens to mines when the ore runs out.

Productivity Decline

There is also persuasive evidence that world agriculture is dropping off the pace – that it is no longer making the yield advances and total productivity gains achieved in the previous generation. In a recent paper Alston and Pardey (source: v)  documented this decline both in the US and globally, attributing it significantly to falling investment worldwide in agricultural science and technology and extension of new knowledge to farmers.

The role of low returns in discouraging farmers, in both developed and developing countries, from adopting more productive and sustainable farming systems cannot be ignored. While a few highly efficient and profitable producers continue to make advances, the bulk of the world’s farmers are being left behind. Since small farmers feed more than half the world, this is a matter for concern.

One of the indirect effects of the negative economic signal for agriculture can be seen in the growing reluctance of governments to invest in agricultural research and development, and their increasing tendency to cut ‘public good’ research. This has happened in most developed countries and even in places such as China the level of ag R&D support is falling as a proportion of the total science investment. With agricultural R&D comprising a mere 1.8 cents of the developed world’s science dollar in 2000, one has a very clear idea how unimportant most of the world’s governments now consider food production to be. (source: vi)

The fact that agriculture appears perennially unprofitable and suffers from continuing social malaise probably contributes, subliminally, to a view among urban politicians that society ought not to be wasting its money funding research for such a troubled sector: there are a thousand other more attractive and exciting fields for scientific investment. This negative (and false) image of agriculture is an unspoken driver behind the reduced global R&D effort.

Today the world invests around $40 billion a year in agricultural research – and $1500 billion a year in weapons, as if killing one another were forty times more important than eating.

Is food too cheap?

For affluent societies at least, food is now the cheapest in real terms it has ever been in human history.

Back in our grandparents’ time, in the early part of the 20th century, the average western wage earner devoted about a third of their weekly income to food.  Rent was relatively cheap, people didn’t have cars, iPhone bills, plasma TVs, facelifts or overseas vacations – and food was essential. By the 1970s the amount of household disposable income spent on food was down to 20 per cent. Today it is around 11-12 per cent in Australia and similar in other western nations. As incomes rise in China and India, the proportion is falling there too.

Historic commodity food prices from FAO

Click for larger image

When something is too cheap, people do not value it as they should.  This produces a lack of respect for the product itself, for the people and industries involved in its production – farmers and scientists – and for the places it is produced and for the resources of land, water and human skills that produce it. This is one explanation for the negative image held by governments, businesses and most societies towards agriculture and its investment needs.

In an age where 3.5 billion humans have only the dimmest notion where their food comes from, lack of respect for the main thing that keeps them alive is coming to be a predominant ‘value’ in the human race and this is a potential danger.

A Culture of Waste

Food is now so cheap that developed societies such as the US, Britain and Australia throw away nearly half, while developing countries lose nearly half post-harvest. (source: vii)

Societies that pay their farmers such low returns, have found they can afford to send nearly half of the farmers’ efforts to landfill. Or burn in an recreational vehicle enough grain as biofuel in one week to feed a poor person for a year.

Where our ancestors stored, conserved and recycled nutrients, humanity now appears to waste 70% -90% of all the nutrients used to produce food.  On farm, up to half the applied fertiliser does not feed crop or pasture but escapes into the environment. Of the harvested nutrients, some are lost post-harvest, in transport, processing and cooking – but more than 30 per cent are simply discarded, in the shops and in the home. Then we dump around 90 per cent of our sewage nutrients in the ocean.

In short, the modern food system has established a culture of absolute and utter waste, sustained only by the mining of energy and nutrients (from rock or soil), which will eventually run out or become unaffordable to most farmers.

The universal practice of recycling, in use since agriculture began more than 6000 years ago, has broken down. The planetary nutrient cycle is now at risk from the colossal nutrient pollution now occurring.

This situation cannot persist more than a few decades. We will need to recycle and invest in new systems – but for that to occur, farm incomes and the incentive to invest in food production must rise and the economic signal to invest in agriculture must change.

An Unhealthy Situation

Cheap food is at the root of a pandemic of disease and death larger in the developed world than any other single cause of human mortality, and spreading like wildfire in the newly-industrialised world. Cheap, abundant processed food is a driver for obesity, which now affects one in five humans, and plays a significant role in the society-wide increase in cancers, heart disease, diabetes, stroke and bowel disorders.

Cheap food, in other words, is an economic invitation to consumers – including millions of children – to kill themselves prematurely through overindulgence.

Cheap food is the chief economic driver of the greatest budget blow-out in all western democracies: healthcare.

Solving the Food Challenge

The purpose of this essay is to call attention to the effect a never-ending reduction in farmers’ incomes will have on world food security at a time of rising physical constraints to production, including scarcities of land, water, energy, nutrients, technology, fish and stable climates.

At the very time when most experts agree we should be seeking ways to double food output sustainably over the coming half-century, the ruling economic signal is: “don’t do it”.

Of course, we can simply obey the economic signal and allow agricultural shortfalls to occur – but that will expose 8 or 10 billion consumers to massive unheralded price spikes, of the sort experienced in 2008, which have a dire impact on the poor, start wars and topple governments – and will not benefit farmers as much as a stable, steady increase in their incomes.

Most of the world’s poorest people are farmers, and it follows that one of the most effective remedies for world poverty is to increase the returns to agriculture. True, this will involve raising food prices for the urban poor but they are less numerous and can more easily be assisted by other government measures. At present rural poverty is maintained throughout the world largely by the economic policy of providing affluent city consumers with cheap food.

It is necessary to state this essay does not advocate a return to agrarian socialism, protectionism, commodity cartels or an end to free markets. In fact, we probably need to move much faster and further towards totally free trade in agricultural products in order to encourage efficient producers – large and small – around the world.

But it does hold up a warning flag about the universal dangers of underinvestment, negative signals and sentiment, resource destruction and rural dislocation caused by the undervaluing of the one commodity humanity absolutely cannot do without, as we approach the greatest demand for food in all of history.

There are numerous ways this issue might be addressed. Here are a few:

  1. Price: through an educated “community consensus” that results in willingness on the part of consumers, supermarkets and food processors to pay more for food so as to protect the resource base and enable farmers to invest in new technologies (source: viii)
  2. Subsidy: by the payment of a social wage to farmers by governments for their stewardship on behalf of society of soil, water, atmosphere and biodiversity, separate from their commercial food production
  3. Regulation: by limiting by law those practices or technologies which degrade the food resource base and rewarding by grant those which improve it
  4. Taxation: by levying a resource tax on all food which reflects its true cost to the environment to produce, and by reinvesting the proceeds in more sustainable farming systems, R&D, rural adjustment and enhanced resource management.
  5. Market solutions: by establishing markets for key farm resources (eg carbon or water) that result in higher returns for farmers from wise and sustainable use.
  6. Public education about how to eat more sustainably; industry education about sustainability standards and techniques.
  7. A combination of several of the above measures.

The technical solutions to most of the world’s food problems are well-known and well understood – but they are not being implemented as widely as they should because of a market failure which prevents their adoption. To avoid grave consequences, affecting billions of people, this failure needs correction.

It also needs correcting because, as long as world food production remains an undervalued activity, then so too will investing in the research essential to overcome future shortages –crop yields, water use, landscape sustainability, alternative energy, the recycling of nutrients and the reduction of post-harvest losses. To satisfy a doubling in demand for food over the coming half century calls for at least $160 billion in worldwide agricultural R&D activity a year – equal to a tenth of the global weapons budget. However this would leave the world both more peaceful – and better fed.

It is not the purpose of this essay to solve the issue of how to deliver fairer incomes to farmers worldwide, but rather to foster debate among thoughtful farmers, policymakers and researchers about how we should go about it.

However it does question whether some of the ‘old truths’ of the 20th century still apply in the 21st, or whether the era of globalisation and resource scarcity has changed the ground rules.

It also asks whether the unstinted application of overwhelming market force against farmers is the act of a sapient species – or a mob of lemmings?

Over to the sapient ones among you.

–– Julian Cribb FTSE

Julian Cribb is Founding Editor of Science Alert, and is the principal of Julian Cribb & Associates, specialists in science communication. He is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

Sources

i. Sources for this essay are those cited in Julian Cribb's  book The Coming Famine, University of California Press, 2010. Since they take up 24 pages, we have not reproduced them all here. See the book at Amazon or UC Press for full reference listing.

ii. FAO High Level Export Forum, How to feed the World: Investment, Rome, October 2009. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/Issues_papers/
HLEF2050_Investment.pdf

iii. Bai ZG, Dent DL, Olsson L and Schaepman ME 2008. Global assessment of land degradation and improvement 1: identification by remote sensing. Report 2008/01, FAO/ISRIC – Rome/Wageningen

iv. Chartres C, World Congress of Soil Science, Brisbane, August 2010

v. J. Alston, J.M.Beddow, P. Pardey, “Mendel versus Malthus: research, productivity and food prices in the long run,” University of Minnesota, 2009. http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/53400/2/SP-IP-09-01.pdf

vi. Pardey P et al, Science, Technology and Skills, CGIAR report, October 2007.

vii. See for example Lundqvist, J., C. de Fraiture and D. Molden. Saving Water: From Field to Fork – Curbing Losses and Wastage in the Food Chain. SIWI Policy Brief. SIWI, 2008.

viii. In case this should raise a sceptical eyebrow, the recent stakeholder report by Woolworths Australia “Future of Food”, 2010, suggests at least some of the major players in the food game have a dawning grasp of the consequences of their actions and are now looking to invest in (mainly non-income) ways to support farmers.

For more on the global food issue, see:

Recommended Reading: The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It by Julian Cribb

Climate Change May Reduce Protein in Crops

Warmer Temperatures in China to Reduce Crop Yields

The Real Population Problem

987zzz321
987zzz321
zp8497586rq

Recommended Reading: The Coming Famine

Keywords: Julian Cribb, The Coming Famine, food, water, population, climate change

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that we track several core issues that we believe will have profound impact on us all – rich and poor, individuals, communities, business, and government. They are population, energy, water, food, climate change and healthcare. In a sense, food interrelates to all the other issues – it takes tremendous energy and water to produce our food, climate change will reduce food production, and food choices affect our health.

An excellent new book has just been published that clearly and concisely lays out the global food challenges unfolding around us and details what to do about it. The book is The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It by Julian Cribb. The NY Times has an excellent excerpt and leads with this compelling quote:

Lo que separa la civilización de la anarquía son solo siete comidas.
(Civilization and anarchy are only seven meals apart.)

—Spanish proverb

Food, water, shelter and security are the fundamental building blocks of  a persons survival. When those basics are removed, even for a few days, a civilized population can move toward anarchy in a heartbeat.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - from thrive to survive

Rather than highlight the NY Times excerpt, I think it is worth looking at the solid concise description Cribb provides, of the main drivers challenging the supply and demand sides of food production. If you read nothing else in this book, read this and remember it as you  try to make sense of the news stories realted to food that will become more common as the crisis deepens.

Excerpt of The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb

To see where the answers may lie, we need to explore each of the main drivers. On the demand side the chief drivers are:

Population. Although the rate of growth in human numbers is slowing, the present upward trend of 1.5 percent (one hundred million more people) per year points to a population of around 9.2 billion in 2050 — 3 billion more than in 2000. Most of this expansion will take place in poorer countries and in tropical/subtropical regions. In countries where birth rates are falling, governments are bribing their citizens with subsidies to have more babies in an effort to address the age imbalance.

Consumer demand. The first thing people do as they climb out of poverty is to improve their diet. Demand for protein foods such as meat, milk, fish, and eggs from consumers with better incomes, mainly in India and China but also in Southeast Asia and Latin America, is rising rapidly. This in turn requires vastly more grain to feed the animals and fish. Overfed rich societies continue to gain weight. The average citizen of Planet Earth eats one-fifth more calories than he or she did in the 1960s — a “food footprint” growing larger by the day.

Population and demand. This combination of population growth with expansion in consumer demand indicates a global requirement for food by 2050 that will be around 70–100 percent larger than it is today. Population and demand are together rising at about 2 percent a year, whereas food output is now increasing at only about 1 percent a year.

These demand-side factors could probably be satisfied by the world adopting tactics similar to those of the 1960s, when the Green Revolution in farming technology was launched, were it not for the many constraints on the supply side that are now emerging to hinder or prevent such a solution:

Water crisis. Put simply, civilization is running out of freshwater. Farmers presently use about 70 percent of the world’s readily available freshwater to grow food. However, increasingly megacities, with their huge thirst for water for use in homes, industry, and waste disposal, are competing with farmers for this finite resource and, by 2050, these uses could swallow half or more of the world’s available freshwater at a time when many rivers, lakes, and aquifers will be drying up. Unless major new sources or savings are found, farmers will have about half of the world’s currently available freshwater with which to grow twice the food.

Land scarcity. The world is running out of good farmland. A quarter of all land is now so degraded that it is scarcely capable of yielding food. At the same time, cities are sprawling, smothering the world’s most fertile soil in concrete and asphalt, while their occupants fan out in search of cheap land for recreation that diverts the best food-producing areas from agriculture. A third category of land is poisoned by toxic industrial pollution. Much former urban food production has now ceased. The emerging global dearth of good farmland represents another severe limit on increasing food production.

Nutrient losses. Civilization is hemorrhaging nutrients — substances essential to all life. Annual losses in soil erosion alone probably exceed all the nutrients applied as fertilizer worldwide. The world’s finite nutrient supplies may already have peaked. Half the fertilizer being used is wasted. In most societies, up to half the food produced is trashed or lost; so too are most of the nutrients in urban waste streams. The global nutrient cycle, which has sustained humanity throughout our history, has broken down.

Energy dilemma. Advanced farming depends entirely on fossil fuels, which are likely to become very scarce and costly within a generation. At present farmers have few alternative means of producing food other than to grow fuel on their farms — which will reduce food output by 10–20 percent. Many farmers respond to higher costs simply by using less fertilizer or fuel — and so cutting yields. Driven by high energy prices and concerns about climate change, the world is likely to burn around 400 million tonnes (441 million U.S. tons) of grain as biofuels by 2020 — the equivalent of the entire global rice harvest.

Oceans. Marine scientists have warned that ocean fish catches could collapse by the 2040s due to overexploitation of wild stocks. Coral reefs — whose fish help feed about five hundred million people — face decimation under global warming. The world’s oceans are slowly acidifying as carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels dissolves out of the atmosphere, threatening ocean food chains. Fish farms are struggling with pollution and sediment runoff from the land. The inability of the fish sector to meet its share of a doubling in world food demand will throw a heavier burden onto land-based meat industries.

Technology. For three de cades the main engine of the modern food miracle, the international scientific research that boosted crop yields, has been neglected, leading to a decline in productivity gains. Farmers worldwide are heading into a major technology pothole, with less new knowledge available in the medium run to help them to increase output.

Climate. The climate is changing: up to half the planet may face regular drought by the end of the century. “Unnatural disasters” — storms, floods, droughts, and sea-level rise — are predicted to become more frequent and intense, with adventitious impacts on food security, refugee waves, and conflict.

Economics, politics, and trade. Trade barriers and farm subsidies continue to distort world markets, sending the wrong price signals to farmers and discouraging investment in agriculture and its science. The globalization of food has helped drive down prices received by farmers. Speculators have destabilized commodity markets, making it riskier for farmers to make production decisions. Some countries discourage or ban food exports and others tax them, adding to food insecurity. Others pay their farmers to grow fuel instead of food. A sprawling web of health, labor, and environmental regulation is limiting farmers’ freedom to farm.

The collapse in world economic conditions in late 2008 and 2009 has changed the prices of many things, including land, food, fuel, and fertilizer — but has not altered the fact that demand for food continues to grow while limits on its production multiply. Indeed, the economic crash exacerbated hunger among the world’s poor, and has not altered the fundamentals of climate change, water scarcity, population growth, land degradation, or nutrient or oil depletion.

As Cribb astutely points out, as developing nations become more affluent, they consume more protein, in the form of fish, meat, milk, eggs, etc.

Meat Protein Consumption in US and China

(source: US Department of Agriculture)

That protein is produced with grain, and it is an inefficient process:

  • It takes 1,ooo tons of water to produce a ton of grain
  • It takes about 15 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef
  • It takes about 5,200 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef

Thinking about the Butterfly Effect – the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world, changing patterns in the air, can cause a tornado in another part of the world – we can see that famine in one part of the world becomes a kind of super butterfly. All nations – rich and poor – will feel the impact.

Cripp summarizes the challenge and frames the solution:

To sum it all up, the challenge facing the world’s 1.8 billion women and men who grow our food is to double their output of food — using far less water, less land, less energy, and less fertilizer. They must accomplish this on low and uncertain returns, with less new technology available, amid more red tape, economic disincentives, and corrupted markets, and in the teeth of spreading drought. Achieving this will require something not far short of a miracle.

Yet humans have done it before and, resilient species that we are, we can do it again. This time, however, it won’t just be a problem for farmers, scientists, and policy makers. It will be a challenge involving every single one of us, in our daily lives, our habits, and our influence at the ballot box and at the supermarket.

It will be the greatest test of our global humanity and our wisdom we have yet faced.