The Still Revolution - Part 2
By Bill Moore
"The simple answer is the bottom line," replies permaculturist and author David Blume, when I ask him how do we, as a society, encourage the farm community to switch from the petroleum-intensive, subsidy-dependent, industrial agricultural practiced today in America -- and much of the rest of the developed world -- to the kind of sustainable system he advocates in his book, Alcohol Can Be A Gas.
Blume envisions the Carbohydrate Economy of the future involving a monumental -- but very doable -- shift away from the mono-crop, factory farm that is heavily reliant on fossil fuel-derived inputs, from fuels to pesticides to herbicide to fertilizers, back to a more integrated, holistic approach where what flows from the farm is a rich and enriching variety of wholesome commodities from renewable fuels to foods.
By "the simple answer is the bottom line", he means that if we provide the right incentives for our farmers, they'll quickly adapt more profitable crops and commodities; and in doing so, create a more natural, closed-loop system that is self-sustaining and ultimately more profitable to the farmer. This system, often referred to as permaculture, will improve the health of the soil, stop the poisoning of our waterways and oceans, especially the "dead zone" off the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas, and also eliminate, to a large measure, the problem of soil erosion.
And alcohol (ethanol) is a very real part of that vision, where more productive, sugar-rich crops like sugar beets, sugarcane and Jerusalem artichokes, in rotation with corn and sweet sorghum, can produce the fuels we need, without jeopardizing the planet's ability to feed us.
It's a bold and perhaps controversial vision, but one that Blume makes a strong case for within the 550 pages of his book. And the biggest question is, assuming he's right, how do we get there from here?
You can listen to the audio of Part 2 of our interview using either of the two MP3 players at the top of the page, or you may download the 5.88 MB file to your computer hard drive for playback on your favorite MP3 device. I also encourage you to listen to Part One, as well.
IN BRIEF: Synopsis of Part 2 of Interview
Alternatives to corn like sweet sorghum, sugarbeets and Jerusalem artichokes can produce 2-to-3 times the amount of alcohol per acre as corn, as well as generating a superior, protein-rich feed for livestock from the residue of the fermentation process.
But since there is no market for crops other than corn and soybeans, farmers can't justify growing the 6-8 alternatives that Blume thinks make the most sense. But when you bring farm-based, small-scale alcohol production into the picture, the economics start to look much better, he contends. Instead of growing a low-value commodity crop like corn, alcohol is the starting point of a shift that allows the farmer to convert the output of his land to higher value products, including mushrooms, tilapia fish, or earthworms and their castings, which are a rich natural fertilizer, from the "waste" of the distillery process. Five cents of corn can produce $3 worth of farm-raised fish or $7-8 worth of shiitake mushrooms. Under our current system, feedlot owners and beef processes take that 5 cents worth of corn and turn it into $14 steaks, leaving the farmer with little to show for his efforts other than his subsidy check.
He believes that charging electric cars and plug-in hybrids at night using off-peak power only gives a new market for dirty fuels like coal.
He notes that Fiat made a small co-generator unit in the late 1970s -- TOTEM -- that runs on a multiple number of fuels. How to build your own is explained in the book, along with detailed instructions on building your own distillery/refinery.