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Chelsea Green Blog

One Small Step for Biokind

Like an arthritic Saint Bernard getting out of an armchair, American agribusiness is slowly responding to the potential of an energy source that environmentalists have been championing for years, if not decades: biomass.

An article on the subject in the June 26 Los Angeles Times was subtitled: “American crops could be used in place of many products’ petroleum base, some scientists say.”

In the current jargon of the street: Well, duh.

As noted in an earlier post on the Flaming Grasshopper, Rudolf Diesel himself – inventor of the engine that bears his name – noted that, “The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today, but such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum … ”

This was in 1912. Eighty-three years later, scientists and agribusiness are beginning to agree. Imagine that.

In an article that begins with what journalists call an “anecdotal lead” that leads to the actual news, the Times sets the stage thus:

“He operates 90,000 feet of hissing pipes and dozens of enormous churning vats — an industrial jungle with a single, remarkable purpose: “Essentially,” plant manager Bill Suehr says, “we’ve got corn coming in at one end and plastic coming out the other.”

The article then categorizes as news the fact that biomass can be made into fuel and raw materials for any number of products.

The good news: It’s true.

The ironic news: As noted, this fact has been broadcast for almost a century now by assorted voices in the wind.

The bad news: The corporate, agricultural monoliths – Cargill, DuPont, etc. – are rapidly cornering the market. They’re making it sound organic and cozy, though; Cargill – which could fit the Pentagon in its shirt pocket – is marketing the technology and its by-products through a subsidiary named Nature Works.

Okay – stop giggling, get up off the floor, dust yourself off, and keep reading.

Some genuinely environmentally-friendly entities are indeed signing on. Newman’s Own, for example – the line of salad dressings and other products founded by actor Paul Newman, which has donated upwards of $200 million to charitable causes – is using Nature Works products in its packaging. Other companies making clothing and other products from the plastic pellets spewed out by Cargill’s mega-machines have such names as Wild Oats Markets and The Pacific Coast Feather Co.

Academia has also joined in – the Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State University and other ivy-covered institutions are integral to developing the technology.

But don’t set off the fireworks just yet. The U.S. Energy Department hopes, according to the Times, to see 25 percent of chemical manufacturing converted to an agricultural base by 2030. Do the math: That’s one quarter of all such manufacturing, best-case scenario, 25 years from now.

Drive past an industrial super-smokestack, imagine how much crud it’s going to keep cranking into the atmosphere in the next quarter of a century, and then revisit your euphoria.

Yes, it’s happening. No, it’s not happening fast enough. Hope beats despair, but hope should not be allowed to displace continued activism and a well-focused message to politicians on all levels:

Clean it up, speed it up, and keep it up.


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