Wither Bioenergy?

biogass plant, Ghana West Africa
Model biogas plant in Ghana West Africa. Burning wood is still the traditional energy source for heating and cooking purposes in low-income countries. Bioenergy has promised to improve rural livelihoods but impacts in North America have been uneven. Image source: R. Walters

Let it not be said that we don’t live in interesting times, a point that could not have been foreseen even a year ago: oil sinking under US $30 a barrel; dislocated energy markets; silenced fracking rigs; and a global commodities glut showing no sign of recession any time in the near future. Harking back a decade, things were very different. In 2005, the US Congress passed The Energy Policy Act (EPA 2005), which laid the groundwork for domestic biofuels by mandating the blending of renewable fuel with gasoline, up to 7.5 billion US gallons by 2012. Two years later, renewable fuel targets were extended to 36 billion gallons by 2022 under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007). Ever since, foes have lobbied, unsuccessfully up to this point, to repeal the ethanol mandate. Meanwhile, the bioenergy sector has languished through the Great Recession despite oil peaking above $145 per barrel in 2008 and $100 multiple times from 2011-2013. On the other side, corn growers are rejoicing the ethanol mandate because it locks in demand for a product they have to sell. Continue reading

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Let Us Now Praise Famous Roots

Dr. Joe Manu Aduani, breeder CSIR Crops Research Institute Ghana, demonstrates Ampong cassava, an improved mosaic tolerant variety yielding up to 60 t/ha in the humid forest zone. Photo source: YouTube.

Back in April, a recruiter with ACDI/VOCA in Washington, D.C., pitched an upcoming assignment in Ghana aimed at improving cassava root production. The project would be funded through USAID’s Farmer to Farmer program, which provides short-term (two to four week) voluntary technical assistance to farmers, farm groups, and agribusinesses in developing and transitional countries to promote sustainable improvements in food security and rural industry. Funding for the program was authorized by the U.S. Congress in the 1985 Farm Bill, and continues to operate to this day under that vehicle. Continue reading

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Tomorrow Is Our Impermanent Address

Floating gardens in Bangladesh. French agencies joint report Agrimonde says the state of global agriculture is better than you think. But assumptions are easily punctured, throwing human predictions off course.

What are the forces that will shape food and agriculture in 2050? Will farming be human- or robot-centered? Organic or conventional? Artisan or industrial? Will it be châteaubriand, filet mignon or, an extra helping of Soylent Green for all? Is it even conceivable that a human population of 9+ billion can sustain itself, or is global ecological collapse inevitable? Aye, Robot aside, nothing is shot with more uncertainty and grand illusion than conjuring the future. Wendell Berry, essayist and latter-day agrarian prophet, wrote that the fetish of “crystal-balling” arises out of too few jobs for people to do in the present. Maybe so. But there’s no denying that future gazing is serious business aimed at riveting public attention (and research $$). As ever, there’s no shortage of future seekers competing in the public arena nowadays and, buddy, the competition is fierce. TED is omnipresent! Unfortunately, the future has a habit of veering off course, heedless to the beck of human-induced analysis, out-gassing, or apoplexy. Continue reading

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The Biochar Mystique

Every now and then, some new brain wave assails the scientific community hive mind that promises to shift paradigms, usher a new era, herald a new understanding, save humanity, or some combination. Hubbub in the form of international conferences and coffee-laced symposia is kindled to drum up excitement. If science was YouTube, it would be the equivalent of the viral cat video. Kindly known as “bandwagons” among the science Illuminati, they can be charted by the number of peer-reviewed articles published annually on a topic. If you stretch the publishing window out years and/or decades, what you get is a bell-shaped curve looking something like this:

Early on, a few intrepid pioneers dip their toes, the “hey look me over” phase. This is followed by a steep rise, middle peak, and finally, a period of waning frequency that characterizes so many natural and human social phenomena. Biochar, the ancient soil amendment of the Amazon, fits this trend perfectly. Continue reading

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Peasants, Farmers and Scientists

Book-coverEver hear of farming systems research, training and visit, participatory rural appraisal? If so, chances are you’re a veteran of the 1970s and 80s era war on food insecurity then blitzing across the African continent. This war had no generals, shock troops, enfilades, pincer movements, or Maginot line to defend. No hearts and minds to spar over. As Henk J.W. Mutsaers tells it, the battle was played out in the rarefied confines of elite international research centers, extension bunkers, and donor silos, edging off into the tactical embrace of consultants and purveyors of development aid armed with infectious good will and an appetite for money. In the end, its Waterloo came in the late 1990s when the patience of the World Bank, IMF, and bilateral and philanthropic entities had been tried enough to cut the cord and move on. Today, Africa’s production of cereal grains (kilograms per hectare) places at the bottom of global rankings and food deficits in many countries are still endemic. What went wrong? Continue reading

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