Let’s Start Imagining Win-Win-Win Scenarios

By Tom Bryan | June 26, 2013

Last month, Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, aptly pointed out in his “View from the Hill” column that oil—not corn or ethanol—drives food prices. He reminded us that every step of the food chain is reliant on petroleum products. His column was accompanied by a chart that illustrated the near-perfect relationship between global food prices and global oil prices over the past 13 years.   

I reflected on Bob’s lucid point after reading this month’s cover story, “Pretreated Biomass for Food and Fuel.” In this page-44 feature, EPM Senior Editor Sue Retka-Schill describes the epiphany-like conclusions that renowned Michigan State University biofuels researcher Bruce Dale, and his colleagues, recently arrived at. To put it simply, they think biofuels done right could save the world. My words, not theirs.  

After a thorough examination of global population dynamics, food demand, land use and productivity and the impact of energy and biomass production, Dale and his fellow researchers determined that, by 2050, the world will simply run out of adequate land to grow all the food and feed it needs unless we create new ways to get more of both from existing acres. So why not fuel, too?    

As Retka-Schill explains, Dale has a vision of what agriculture could look like 20 or 30 years from now. It’s exciting. He sees a new agriculture that uses land resources super efficiently, and he foresees a number of ways in which biofuel production can enhance, rather than compete with, feed and food production. Talk about believing in abundance theory. 

Dale prophesizes all manner of cool things: early harvests, double cropping, biomass processing depots, pretreatment and pelletization strategies, and the like. Flying cars? Maybe so, but you’ve got to read the piece for yourself to understand his vision. It’s an audacious plan from one of the smartest guys in the business.     

So where does the relationship between food prices and oil prices fit into this? Dale, like Dinneen, knows “the age of stable, cheap oil is over” and the only way the world can count on a cheap and abundant supply of food is to guarantee that it also has a cheap and abundant supply of liquid fuels. You see, in Dale’s future more of one thing doesn’t necessarily mean less of something else. “It isn’t hard to imagine a configuration for agriculture that would provide more food, more fuel and more environmental benefits,” he says. “It’s actually quite easy to image win-win-win scenarios once you start thinking that way.”


Tom Bryan, President & Editor in Chief