Earth Conference on Biomass
All over South America and Africa, much of Asia and even Australia, a very common sight during dry seasons is the burning of scrub, bush or grassland. Most of it is deliberate, a stupid tradition, difficult to erradicate, as many people seem to believe it improves their land. Then, apart from the devastating fires of the migrating slash-and-burn farmers that eat away the rain forest and the burnings on the immense clearings of the cattle ranchers in rain forest, cerrado and other ecosystems, we have catastrophic fires such as the recent ones in California. On the whole, hundreds of millions of tons of precious "biomass" are destroyed in a most senseless way every year. What an incredible waste! Biomass is stored solar energy, and a lot more. Last time I was in Cuba, April 1994, along the road from Havanna to Santiago de Cuba, I saw dozens of big and small fires or burned fields.
Life in its fantastic evolution and diversification over three and a half billion years, has always relied on solar energy, with very few exceptions only: certain bacteria at the hot vents at the bottom of the ocean or in some hot springs. Going solar was the only way to become sustainable. If our present industrialist global culture is to survive and to evolve into a lasting future, there is no other way, but to go solar too.
Every informed person knows that our present emphasis on fossil energy, where we burn every year what it took Nature up to hundreds of millions of years to deposit, will soon lead to collapse.
Up until very recently - historically, if we look at a horizon of ten to fifteen thousand years, less than one percent of the total - the human activity most essential for our survival, agriculture, was totally solar based. Everything in agriculture came from photosynthesis. We wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for that. But now, most of what we call progress in agriculture uses more outside energy - mostly fossil - than is fixed in photosynthesis, a most unfortunate situation. It is as if at an oil well the pump consumed more fuel than the oil it brings up.
Perhaps, in its present situation, Cuba can grasp a unique opportunity for a new beginning and avoid the mistakes that have now become predominant all over the world. It could become a model of sustainability and pleasant lifestyle in its magnificent Caribbean setting.
The methods of modern agribusiness and intensive animal rearing will lead to disaster and must not be copied. So let's have a look at them and see where and why they are unsustainable and what their true costs are.
Conventional wisdom in modern industrialism considers cash crop monoculture - the bigger the better - with its intensive mechanization and chemification, the only efficient way to feed the existing human masses and what is still to come from the population explosion. The prevailing argument says that, whereas in traditional peasant cultures, such as prevailed in Europe well into the present century, around 40 percent, sometimes up to 60 percent, of the population farmed the land to feed themselves and the rest of the people, today, in a modern First World economy, only two percent, in some cases less, are farmers and they manage to feed the whole population and, more often than not, produce surpluses for export or for destruction, to keep prices right...
At first sight, this argument seems irrefutable. If this is so, we have no alternative. But it is a fallacy based on an absurd, reductionist comparison. We must look at the whole picture, not just at the people who called themselves farmers then and those who are considered farmers today. We must compare systems, not people. The traditional peasant as he prevailed well into the first half of this century in most of Europe and Asia was an integrated system of production and distribution of food. A system that produced its own inputs. The fertilizer came from his animals - manure - and the energy - draught - too. The farmer also sold most of his produce directly to the consumer on the weekly market.
But, what is the modern farmer? Not much more than a tractor driver! He is a very small cog in an enormous techno-bureaucratic infrastructure. When describing the economy, statistitians see the tractor and combine factory as machine or tool industry, the oil field, the tanker, the refinery, are seen as oil industry, pesticide and synthetic fertilizer plants are chemical industry and so on. But, to the extent that an industry, a banking system, or whatever, produces inputs for agriculture, handles, transports, packages, commercialises, precooks, deep freezes food, etc., to that extent it is part of the food producing and distributing system in that economy. The system includes agricultural schools, extension and agricultural research. For a true comparison we should really add up all the hours of work in a modern economy that go directly or indirectly into producing, handling and distributing food, including the hours people have to work to earn the money to pay the taxes and inflation that pay all the subsidies. As far as I know, this was not done yet but it is easy to imagine that it would also yield a figure close to, if not more than 40 percent.
So, all the chemical and technical paraphernalia do not really improve the efficiency of production in terms of man-hours. What we have is a redistribution of tasks within the economy and the creation of new power structures that did not exist in the past, and most of that power is going to transnational corporations, not to the people. Practically all research now done for more "progress" in agriculture, whether within the chemical industry, the machine industry and even state institutions, will help concentrate even more power in the same direction! This is particularly so in the new field of biotechnology, as we will see farther down.
Then, when comparing not just individual crops but the overall production on a modern farm with that of most traditional peasant farms, we can also see that the peasants produced more and more diverse and healthier food per unit of area. It is just not true that only the methods of modern agriculture can feed the masses. The opposite is true! In my home state, Rio Grande do Sul in Southern Brazil, one can easily see how our peasants, we call them "colonists", even though by now they lost much of their old wisdom, are more productive per hectare than our big cash crop plantations of soybean for export that are as "modern" as the most modern American or European farmer. And there is a significant difference: the colonists produce food for our people, the big plantations feed fat cows in the European Common Market...
As for energy, it suffices to look at the packaged food in a modern supermarket and think of the earth-soiled potatoes our mothers brought from the grocer (another race on the verge of extinction): all the energy that goes into the machines, the fertilizers, the poisons, then the plastic, additives, the supermarket, advertising, etc., etc...
But the fundamental and most ominous difference between peasant agriculture and modern farming is its unsustainability. Even where modern methods produce more per acre, they do so at the expense of future productivity.
We must make agriculture sustainable again. This certainly does not mean we have to return to the primitive methods of traditional peasants, but there is a lot to learn from them. Actually, up until almost the end of the fifties, agricultural schools, research and extension were going in the right direction. The search was to extend and improve traditional wisdom with modern scientific knowledge. After the last World War, though, the chemical industry imposed its interests on schools and research and practically took over extension. Most modern agribusiness is now almost totally dependent on transnational chemical industry.
For better understanding, at this point, it might be useful to draw attention to the fact that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides did not enter agriculture because the farmers asked for them. They were pushed on to them by industry - initially, often against strong resistance - with the help of government, the banking system and, sometimes, even special legislation. They were the result of the war effort during the two world conflicts.
During the First World War, the Germans, having been cut off from Chilean saltpeter by the Allied blockade, developed and applied on a large scale the Haber-Bosch ammonium synthesis that takes nitrogen from the air. They needed the ammonia for the explosives. When the war was over, the industry had large stocks and production capacities. So, they pushed synthetic nitrogen fertilizers on the farmers and the big chemical fertilizer industry developed.
After World War II similar developments led to the fantastic growth of the agri-poison industry. Lethal gases were derived, among other things, from phosphoric acid compounds for use in battle. Fortunately they were not used. After the war they were reformulated and offered to agriculture as insecticides. The Americans developed potent plant killers with the intention of destroying Japanese crops from the air. The atom bomb came first, the Japanese signed the armistice. The first shipment returned. The group of 2,4-D and related "herbicides" was then forced on agriculture. In the Vietnam war they came to be used in warfare after all. Tens of thousands of square kilometers of jungle were "defoliated" (a euphemism for total destruction) from the air to prevent the Vietcong from hiding. As for DDT, it was first used on the Pacific front where American soldiers were suffering from Malaria. Without the two great wars, agricultural research might not have been perverted the way it was. We would certainly have a more sustainable and healthier situation today.
Why do we dwell so much on agriculture, the subject of this Conference being biomass for energy? Because, if we can revert the present situation, make agriculture sustainable again, we will not only save enormous amounts of energy that today are uselessly wasted, but, together with forestry, industry and sanitation, agriculture will become the most important source of biomass energy, without compromising food production. On the contrary, producing more and better food.
To get out of its present quandary, agriculture must go organic again. Through more than fifty centuries, peasants knew how to keep their fields highly productive with purely organic soil management. All organic matter from the fields that was not consumed by humans and animals was returned to the soil and so were all the excrements, animal and human. Where wood and other biomass was burned for fuel, the ashes were also returned to the soil.
Today we have almost lost this fundamental wisdom. While population grows, worldwide, hundreds of millions of hectares of previously fertile soils are degraded and poisoned every year, as well as worn away by unnecessary erosion. At the same time, in intensive animal rearing, in industry and in sanitation hundreds of millions of tons of precious organic matter that should go back to the soil are irreversibly wasted, destroyed or dumped. The prevailing paradigm in economics and technology development sees only unidirectional flows of materials - from ecosystem, mine or oilfield, through industry and consumption to garbage and dump or incinerator, where all living systems always based their survival on perfect and total recycling of all material resources. Only energy, always solar, is a non-reversible flow, but considering our star will continue burning for another four or five billion years, it is eternal for all practical purposes, while materials are always limited.
The first priority for a healthy, sustainable economy must be the recycling of all organic wastes. The cycles we opened must be closed again. Lets have a look at the absurd waste situation in modern economies.
Every city, today, has its dumps, wild or orderly, or incinerators. Composting and sorting out of valuable materials, such as metals, paper, plastic, glas, etc., is still the exception. As for sewage, in most of the Third World it flows directly into the gutters or into the closest stream, lake or sea. In some of the First World countries, in most of Central Europe, for instance, where almost every city or village has sewage treatment plants, use of the sludge is becoming the exception. Instead of preventing sewage from becoming contaminated at the source with heavy metals and toxins from industry, which would be much easier and cheaper, the sludge is dried with high energy input and then incinerated, the ashes being taken to special and costly dumps. Totally insane!
On the peasant farm, dung was always a solution, not a problem. In modern intensive animal rearing it has become an almost insoluble problem. Again, in Central Europe, millions of tons of slurry from intensive cattle and pig rearing were simply considered waste. Up until very recently much of it was even dumped in the North Sea or illegally let into streams. Most of it is now applied on maize fields in such a way that it causes leaching of nitrates into the ground water, so that uncounted wells have become unsuitable sources for drinking water.
But slurry is something that shouldn't even exist. It is the result of an indecent way of keeping animals in concentration camps. A healthy cow on the meadow and with straw in the stable or a pig with a minimum of decent living space are naturally clean. Their dung either returns directly to the soil to enrich it or it can easily be handled in composting, biogas or other productive ways.
But, while we still have such absurdities as sludge from misguided animal rearing, we should handle it in a more intelligent way. Instead of simply trying to dispose of the stuff in ways that cause additional problems and, more often than not, require rather high energy inputs, we can use it to produce energy, while also contributing to healthy crops and clean food. The solution is anaerobic digestion - biogas. In a simple but well managed biogas digestor up to 60 percent of the biomass contained in the sludge can be turned into methane, a very practical gaseous fuel for stationary uses in heating, cooking and lighting. Large digestors can produce enough gas to run small electric power plants. As we all know, it can also be used in vehicles, but this requires rather complex technology of purification, compression and storage.
But,of equall importance if not more so than the renewable energy, is another precious outcome of this simple soft technology: the mature sludge that leaves the digestor is a marvellous liquid biological fertilizer. It is easy to apply and restores soil fertility, promoting intensive soil live. We also observed that when applied in diluted form, as a foliar spray, it stimulates plant growth and strengthens plant resistance to pests and diseases. So, contrary to what happens in today's conventional agriculture, it saves energy twice - it saves the chemical fertilizer that can only be produced with high energy inputs and it saves the pesticides that are equally demanding in energy. Actually, we should say thrice, considering the additional energy it produces. The true use of this technology, though, should be by the farmer, especially the small farmer. It can help him become independent of the chemical corporations and banks. Simple, efficient and cheap digestors can easily be built by the farmer himself, with the help of the village plumber and mason. In the tropics it is simpler still and more efficient, none of the gas will have to be used for heating the digestor, as in colder climates. But then the farmer should not use slurry - a small farmer shouldn't have slurry - but all kinds of organic refuse, from manure, to kitchen garbage to human excrement.
We should now point to another deceit of modern agricultural technology. Intensive animal rearing - cattle feed lots, pig dungeons, chicken concentration camps or egg factories, let's not be misled by the going euphemisms - is supposed to give us maximum efficiency. This again is a lie. These schemes destroy more food, human food, than they produce. It is easy to see how. Let's look at chicken: While chicken roamed freely around the farmers house and orchard they ate only what we humans do not eat: earth worms, grasshoppers, undigested seed in cattle and horse dung, green waste from the vegetable garden, kitchen waste, etc. In this situation they increased the carrying capacity of the farmer's land for humans. We don't eat worms, insects, etc. but we eat the chicken and the egg. But what do we feed chicken in today's intensive operation? The so called scientifically balanced ration or concentrated feed is mostly grain. Grain is human food, food we can consume directly. So these chicken get food that we have to grow for them! We put them in a position where they compete with us, instead of feeding us. And what is the rate of transformation? The most efficient modern chicken "farms" operate on rates around 2.2 to 1. That is, more than two kilos of feed produce one kilo of living weight of chicken or egg. If we allow for the fact that we don't eat the feathers, bones, intestins and other parts of the whole animal and then allow for 80 percent water in meat but only around 12 percent in the concentrated feed that was dried with high energy input, we get a rate closer to 18 percent or 20 to 1. Lately, the rate is getting somewhat better, as the poor creatures are forced into canibalism. The feed now contains the offals from the slaughterhouse.
Far from contributing to the solution of the problem of feeding the human masses, modern intensive animal rearing aggravates it. While giving some luxury food to the rich, it contributes to more deprivation for many of the poor; but it creates dependency and builds power structures. The owner of a modern chicken "farm" may have the illusion of being a self-employed entrepreneur, in reality he is a laborer with no guaranteed salary and no social security. All the riscs are with him, all possible advantages are with the company that operates the slaughterhouse, that owns the feed factory and the hatchery. He has to buy all his inputs from the company and the company is the only buyer of his product. They control all the prices and command all the conditions. The farmer may have a maize plantation, but the contract of "vertical integration" he has to sign, forbids him to feed his maize to his chicken, he must use only the pre-mixed formula, but he can sell his corn to the company for their feed factory - at prices they command.
It is important that we understand that much of what today goes for technological progress is the result, not necessarily of the search for truly rational solutions, but, rather, of the growth of techno-bureaucratic power structures. It may not have developed intentionally, but, technology and power interact. As power grows, it controls technology. In the end, only those technologies that maintain and promote power will be selected, researched and imposed.
In the case of intensive animal rearing it was also not the invention of farmers. It, too, is the result of the war effort. During the last great war the Americans, with their subsidies for grain production were suddenly faced with enormous surpluses for which they had no use. So, some agricultural schools were given the task of researching non-human uses for grain. Once the chicken "farms" were operating on a large scale, the vested interests also grew. Today, even for pigs, we have "vertical integration", where the same company owns and operates the slaughterhouse, the feed factory and the mother sows. The "farmer" receives the piglets and the feed and has to deliver the fattened pig. He is a mere appendage of the big company.
The way biotechnology is now being appropriated by the agri-poison industry, the farmer will lose still more of what little autonomy is left to him. During the last two decades the chemical industry has bought up almost all seed companies, with the intention of controlling the cultivars. They want to put genetically engineered varieties on the market, varieties that are patented, that the farmer is not allowed to reproduce himself, or cannot reproduce, as in the case of hibrid corn, or the hibrid chicken brands (not races) in the chicken concentration camps. Worse still, not only do they want to control the farmers cultivars, which is bad enough, they are now concentrating great effort and money on the development of varieties resistant to their pesticides, instead of resistant to pests... One of their great dreams is a seed coated with fertilizer, with fungicide, insecticide and with a total herbicide that kills everything that happens to germinate next to it, but for which that particular variety, for which they hold the patent and registration, is resistant! That is why there is now so much pressure on deputies and senators in the parliaments in Third World countries for the approval of laws that make patenting of living beings possible. GATT is pushing the same scheme with its emphasis on "intelectual property rights", no value is given the farmer's wisdom. For centuries, through conscious or unconscious selection, farmers developed the fantastic biodiversity of existing cultivars. Modern geneticists and gen-splicers build on this wisdom. If we allow present tendencies to continue, the farmer will end up in a situation not much better than that of the worker on an assembly line. In the end, everything will be controlled by big business.
I hope I will not be misunderstood. If I seem to wander away from strict technical discussion of biomass for energy, it is because only if we understand the true reasons for the absurd situation in modern food production and in technology in general, will we be able to do something to stem the tide. Cuba is now in a particularly critical situation. It has the unique chance of going a new, sustainable, humanly significant way or to repeat errors and get stuck with everybody else. Modern global industrial culture must now rethink its technology, its aims. Cuba could be a wonderful place to initiate practical work in the new direction.
Last time I was in Cuba I saw an abandoned conventional pig operation. The supply of concentrated feed had stopped with the collapse of the Soviet Union. All around the pig sties the abandoned fields in the landscape were almost impenetrable with a thicket of luxurious native vegetation, (partly burned off) atesting to the incredible productivity of the tropics. My God! What waste! Cuba need not import from overseas feed for pigs, cattle or chicken, much less from a cold climate. And there are plenty of smart people around willing to do intelligent work.
In our foundation, the Gaia-Foundation, we have learned to feed pigs with feed that costs us almost nothing, except labour. Pigs love all kinds of greenery and need it for their health. One type of vegetation that is incredibly productive in the tropics and sub-tropics is floating water plants: Eichhornia, Pistia, Limnobium, Heteranthera, Salvinia, Myriophillum, Lemna, Spirodella, water grasses and many others. Eichhornia, the water hyacinth, in the tropics, can produce more than 500 tons of biomass, dry matter, per hectare per year, if the water is sufficiently rich in nutrients, that is, sufficiently polluted - with sewage, for instance. The prevailing alienation in our present industrial culture, though, likes to see the water hyacinth as a pest and, when possible, kills it off with herbicides. But, water plants accomplish two jobs at once: They produce a lot of food, while cleaning dirty water, thus preventing precious nutrients from being lost to the ocean.
The dry matter of the water plants contains more than twenty percent of protein. The rest is mostly fibre, indispensable for a healthy digestion. There is a deficit in energy, though, that is, of starches. We complement with rice bran. In Cuba there is plenty of energy available for pigs. There is nothing a pig seems to like more than to chew a sugarcane stalk. The big guys handle them easily, for the piglets it suffices to cut them down with a machete.
Our experiment is somewhat different, but also applicable in Cuba. We feed our pigs water plants and autoclaved stomach contents with the corresponding amount of blood from a slaughterhouse, plus the rice bran.
There is another interesting and very successful experiment in our state. A large tannery, about two thousand hides a day, manages to fatten over twelve thousand pigs a year with its waste. Previously, the hides went into the process as they came from the slaughterhouse, only the salt was washed off. Then, the tailings were cut off first and taken to the city garbage dump. This saved chemicals but caused a serious problem with stench and flies on the dump. Now, the tailings are autoclaved with corn meal and fed to the pigs. Unfortunately, the pigs are still held in a conventional way. So, there are some thirty tons a day of sludge to dispose of. This material is now used as fertilizer on hundred and fifty hectares of maize and fifty hectares of apples. The maize goes into the pig feed, the apples are of excellent quality and almost free of chemicals. The scheme could be improved, but it is already an example of how, what usually is seen as worthless waste, can be put to precious use.
Personally, I'm an agronomist, but for the last twenty years, as a consultant and small entrepreneur, I have been working mostly in sanitation. I want to contribute to healthy, sustainable agriculture. As was pointed out above, the cycles must be closed again. But sanitation also needs a revolution. The prevailing paradigm must be inverted.
The reason most cities, large and small, in the Third World and often in the First, have no sewage treatment and no sensible recycling of garbage and rubble is because the administrations are confronted only with extremely expensive, complex and centralising solutions for which there is no money. But, when sewage and garbage are handled in a decentralised way, very simple and cheap solutions are available, solutions that make the citizen participate. Garbage can be sorted out at the source for recycling and composting. Those households that have gardens can do their own composting of the organic part. If sewage is handled separately in each catchment basin, then it can almost always be treated in ponds with water plants, either floating plants or rooted swamp plants in a system that makes the sewage percolate through the root area.
These simple methods can also be applied to many of the effluent or refuse problems of industry.
Most conventional sanitation wants to sell expensive projects, then install sophisticated and even more expensive plants, the idea being to make vanish unwanted stuff, defined as dirt, waste, etc. In the end it almost always ends up in dumps or incineration. In Germany, today, the disposal of garbage usually costs communities more than US$ 200,- a ton. Industrial waste goes into the thousands of dollars per ton. In one of my operations, we have a guy with his family of four sorting out about ten tons of domestic and office garbage a day and making between five hundred and eight hundred dollars a month from the sale of paper, glass, rubber, metal and plastic for recycling.
If we apply soft technologies, solutions are always simple, cheap and socially desirable, as well as ecologically sound. I just heard of a project in Argentina where the effluents of seventy tanneries are supposed to flow into one plant for collective treatment. This would be the most absurd way of solving the problem and it will not solve anything, it will create more problems. The right solution would be to take decentralization into each tannery. The effluent of each different bath inside the tannery should be treated separately. The chromium can then be recycled with profit, the organic matter will not be mixed with the heavy metal and can be used on fields as organic fertilizer. Before that, it could yield some energy in biogas digestion. Also, when the effluents of the different baths are kept separate, the tannery ceases to stink. Solutions of this kind can be carried out step by step, with almost no cost to the industry.
Personally, with one of my small enterprises we took over between 500 and 700 tons a day of solid waste from a large pulp mill. Where the company spent more than half a million dollars a year to bury the stuff in big pits, we solved the problem step by step. We have sixty jobs and live with the proceeds from the sale of the materials: organic fertilizers, plant stimulants, fly ash from mineral coal for cement factories, scrap and other valuable materials.
I mention these few instances of alternative solutions in order to provoke thought on all that can be done with the waste from slaughterhouses, dairies, cellars, canning industries for fruit, vegetables, meat and fish; with tanneries, paper mills and cellulose factories; sawmills and all the agricultural wastes that are lost today. There are enormous amounts of energy and raw materials to be saved or produced, while making agriculture and the economy sustainable again.
In this paper I will not go into the other uses of energy from biomass as they will be treated by other speakers. What I want to stress is a new philosophy - the necessity for holistic approaches that take into account ecological sustainability, preservation of non-renewable materials as well as social justice and human significance.
Modern technocracy wants ever more centralization and megatechnology. This leads to ever more devastation, waste, uprooting and alienation. All over the World today, we can now see the final disruption of the last remaining organically and historically grown, stable, humanly significant, ecologically sustainable and beautiful social structures: peasants, artisans, fishers, rubber tappers, forest dwellers and aborigines, they are all doomed. The globalization of the economy as now furthered by GATT and other international treaties will only accelerate the disaster. The last fifty years have been bad enough. Witness the slums in all the cities of the Third World and, now, growing unemployment even in the First World.
It is the small, intelligent, locally conceived, locally adjusted and adapted, and, most important, locally decided solutions we need - free reign to the genious of the small guy. That would be true socialism!
Ernst Schumacher, in his epochal book "Small is Beautiful", coined a most significant slogan:
What we need is not mass production, but the production of the masses.
Let's hope, the Cuban can avoid the disasters to come. After all their suffering, they deserve it!
Porto Alegre, January 6, 1995