Jason Barton

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Biodiversity’s Value to Humans and the Energy Matrix

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I’ve written before on the relationship between biodiversity and energy, mainly pointing out that if more land is converted to monoculture for biofuels feedstocks–be they corn, sugarcane, or grasses such as switchgrass or miscanthus–we threaten the long term viability of biofuels as a clean, renewable energy resource.

As the article below points out, biodiversity is essential for basic processes such as soil renewal and health, as well as water quality. Regardless of climate change or esoteric claims on the intrinsic value of nature, soil and water health have very tangible impacts on humans. It’s not to say that the former factors are irrelevant, but for most people there need to be more practical and immediate motivations to preserve biodiversity.

We find an excellent example of this in the surprising recent success of Brazil’s Green Party in last month’s presidential elections. In a country that, despite its meteoric economic growth of the last several years, continues to face serious poverty, nearly 20% of the votes in the national election went to the Green Party’s Marina Silva. As I have found in my own doctoral research on stakeholders’ priorities regarding sugarcane and ethanol production, the Brazilian people are finding that while continued economic prosperity is a necessity, so is the environmental health required to keep its population thriving, and this environmental health is not mutually exclusive to the health of an economy largely based on natural resources.

Convention on Biological Diversity

The least of God’s creatures has value

Global discussions on biodiversity are all very well, but most good conservation is done locally

Oct 21st 2010 | From The Economist print edition

SINCE the birth of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, there has been a welcome transformation in the language of global conservation. Policymakers and even some businesses have started to express a view of nature as a store of wealth—or “natural capital”. Talk of “ecosystem services” now draws attention to the helpful things that nature does unbidden, such as providing fresh soil and clean water.

This approach not only has the advantage of moving conservation from the domain of lofty morality down to earth, reflecting a pragmatism more likely to support and sustain action. It also serves to highlight the interests of the people who have most to gain from the recognition of natural capital’s value, and the most to lose by its squandering: poor people living close to nature in the developing world.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

October 22nd, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Biodiversity is an essential and overlooked factor in human and environmental health

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It may not seem to be related to energy, but especially in my work with plant-based biofuels, biodiversity is highly impacted in the agricultural processes, often harmed by monoculture from feedstocks such as corn and sugarcane. Biodiversity contributes to ecosystems’ ability to respond to shocks, be they natural or induced by humans; it is essential to human and environmental health; and it is necessary to ensure productive ecosystems if for no other reason than a strong economy, but it is almost completely overlooked in media and public discussions.

Trying to Lace Together a Consensus on Biodiversity Across a Global Landscape

Published: September 29, 2010

UNITED NATIONS — Amid the howling motorcades, the scrums of burly security guards and the buzz of countless meetings around the United Nations in recent days, the Venerable Bun Saluth, a Cambodian Buddhist monk with a shaved head, stood out with his vivid saffron robes, his unassuming manner — and for taking what some might call tree


As global issues go, biodiversity exists in the shadow of climate change, facing similar problems but attracting a fraction of the attention despite concerted efforts. (In case you had not noticed, the United Nations declared 2010 the Year of Biodiversity.)

Almost every United Nations member state is party to the 1992 Convention on Biodiversity, the holdouts being the United States, Andorra and the Vatican, United Nations officials said.


The debate is so entrenched that a group of 17 nations, including heavyweights like Brazil, India and China, have formed an alliance with an unwieldy name, the Group of Like-Minded Megadiverse Countries, to combat what they call “biopiracy.”

“Countries like Brazil and India are victims of biopiracy over many decades, and we have to protect our bioresources, we have to protect our traditional knowledge,” said Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment minister.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

September 30th, 2010 at 8:33 am

More Advancements in Cellulosic Biofuels

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Government investments in cellulosic biofuels may be paying off.

Not only do these advances move us closer to using grasses and other crops that require less water and fertilizer and compete less with food, it also moves us closer to the advanced biofuels that, unlike ethanol, can be used as drop in replacements for gasoline (read more here).

We need to combine these advancements with further efforts in conservation and efficiency, or we risk converting so much of the Earth’s biomass to serving human uses that we will decrease biodiversity to the extent that we risk further ecological collapse.

This doesn’t just diminish our ability to go camping in pretty places, it also threatens our supply of essential resources such as clean, healthy water and soil.  I like to go camping, but I like eating and drinking healthy food and water even more. They’re really important, and clearing diverse forests and prairies so we can plant crops such as grasses, whether for fuel, food, fiber, or feed, poses risks to water and soil.

Energy Department Announces New Advance in Biofuel Technology

Highlights Opportunity to Reduce America’s Oil Dependence and Create Jobs in Rural America

March 07, 2011

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu today congratulated a team of researchers at the Department’s BioEnergy Science Center who have achieved yet another advance in the drive toward next generation biofuels: using bacteria to convert plant matter directly into isobutanol, which can be burned in regular car engines with a heat value higher than ethanol and similar to gasoline. This research is part of a broad portfolio of work the Department is doing to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and create new economic opportunities for rural America.


Secretary Chu added that: “America’s oil dependence—which leaves hardworking families at the mercy of global oil markets—won’t be solved overnight. But the remarkable advance of science and biotechnology in the past decade puts us on the precipice of a revolution in biofuels. In fact, biotechnologies, and the biological sciences that provide the underlying foundation, are some of the most rapidly developing areas in science and technology today – and the United States is leading the way. In the coming years, we can expect dramatic breakthroughs that will allow us to produce the clean energy we need right here at home. We need to act aggressively to seize this opportunity and win the future.”

Read the entire article here.

Biomass Markets and Technologies

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It’s an exciting time to be working with biofuels and bioproducts. When American’s today think of biofuels, corn ethanol is the example that immediately jumps to mind (for those nerds who actually think about these issues), which is somewhat warranted in that it is the dominant bio-transportation fuel in the U.S. and the world (surpassing Brazilian sugarcane ethanol in 2005). But as we look to the future of bioenergy and bioproducts, there is almost limitless potential, including distributed electricity generation and products from biomass possibly replacing the vast and diverse products currently coming out of today’s petroleum refineries.

As we pursue this potential, it is important to realize that humans have been controlling more and more of the Earth’s biomass to serve our purposes. Monoculture certainly has its advantages, but biodiversity is key to ensure the healthy functioning of ecosystems, not just for camping and admiring, but for providing clean air, water, and soil that are essential to our survival, and essential to the feasibility, and profitability, of bioenergy. Many of the biomass feedstocks discussed today, such as corn stover (stalks and leaves), are described as “waste products,” though corn stover has  traditionally been left in the field to maintain soil structure and health. The same goes for many materials described as “timber residues,” which are important to forests and cannot be completely removed for use in bioproducts without potentially damaging the health of forests.

While the report below does not appear to be focusing on these issues, it definitely has some important and provocative insights towards this discussion.

Biomass Energy Generation, Biofuels, and Bioproducts:
Market Analysis and Forecasts

WoodpelletsBiomass, already a large percentage of total renewable energy sources, is poised for strong growth in the years to come within three key sectors: biopower, biofuels, and bioproducts. Significant investments continue to be made in biomass research and development, and the pace of commercializing new technologies will increase during the next decade.

Many different feedstocks can be classified as “biomass” including corn and grains, plants and forest resources, construction/industry waste, agricultural and food industry wastes, terrestrial and aquatic energy crops, municipal waste and manure. Applications for biomass range widely, from power generation to heating, transportation fuels, chemicals, and plastics. The development of the biomass industry is in large part driven by government policies and mandates and, while world governments are likely to back away from some of the aggressive targets set a few years ago, Pike Research anticipates that biomass will continue to be a significant focus for energy policymakers.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

September 5th, 2010 at 6:36 pm

Brazil’s Agricultural Miracle?

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There’s no doubt that Brazil has flourished in the agricultural realm in the last several decades, and that its abundance of natural resources are only going to amplify its global importance in the years to come, as the world becomes increasingly resource constrained. The two articles below are typical of The Economist: well researched, well written, and optimistic about the abilities of technology and trade liberalization to continue aiding in Brazil’s, and the world’s, prosperity.

There is much truth to these assertions. Brazil is the world’s largest producer or exporter of beef, coffee, sugar, and oranges, and second only to the U.S. in soy. These are important staple products. Sugarcane ethanol seems to becoming only more attractive to foreign importers such as the U.S. and Europe. If either of these further opens its markets to importation of ethanol, it will have profound impacts on Brazil’s agricultural sector and economy as a whole.

With all of this in mind, there are two downsides that are not discussed in these articles, though they must be considered, both for Brazil’s sake and for others if, as the second article suggests, Brazil’s agricultural model is to be exported to places like Africa.

1. Disparity in wealth and lack of jobs, education, and training for lower-skilled workers. During this agricultural boom, Brazil has continued to suffer from vast disparities in wealth. Mechanization has driven millions of rural poor into the cities as jobs are replaced with tractors.

It is inefficient and simply infeasible to consider reversing this technological progression, but measures must be taken, not necessarily for reasons of altruism, but basic economic realities. Those farm laborers who move to cities like Sao Paulo and Salvador put a strain on public services, crime rates rise, and money spent on police and corrections in the cities can sop up the gains from agricultural exports as that sector innovates. Measures are being taken in Brazil to create more jobs in cities and the countryside, as well as education and training for people who have had far too little of these or the jobs that require them.

2. Biodiversity needs to be protected, and not just in the Amazon. Only about 8% of the Atlantic Rainforest remains, much of its destruction due to expansion of monoculture in states like Sao Paulo, which produces 60% of Brazil’s cane and ethanol. Protection of biodiversity in the cerrado in central Brazil, as well as closer to the coasts, is not a matter of liking flowers and birds, it is essential to the land’s continued productive ability.

Health of soil and water depends on functioning ecosystems, which are difficult to maintain in monocultural systems. Some of the larger cane and ethanol firms, such as Cosan, have done much to re-vegetate stream banks, providing much-needed buffer zones between water resources and agricultural activities. This must continue on all agricultural land as these areas provide continuous threads rather than isolated forests that do not provide the expanse needed for migrating animals essential to healthy soil and water.

It may sound like a stretch, but my doctoral research has shown the interdependency of ecology and economies. The health of each is indeed necessary to continue Brazil’s ability to feed itself and much of the rest of the world.

Please feel free to let me know what you think.

How to feed the world

The emerging conventional wisdom about world farming is gloomy. There is an alternative

Aug 26th 2010

THE world is planting a vigorous new crop: “agro-pessimism”, or fear that mankind will not be able to feed itself except by wrecking the environment. The current harvest of this variety of whine will be a bumper one. Natural disasters—fire in Russia and flood in Pakistan, which are the world’s fifth- and eighth-largest wheat producers respectively—have added a Biblical colouring to an unfolding fear of famine. By 2050 world grain output will have to rise by half and meat production must double to meet demand. And that cannot easily happen because growth in grain yields is flattening out, there is little extra farmland and renewable water is running short.

Read the entire article here.

Brazilian agriculture

The miracle of the cerrado

Brazil has revolutionised its own farms. Can it do the same for others?

Aug 26th 2010 | CREMAQ, PIAUÍ

IN A remote corner of Bahia state, in north-eastern Brazil, a vast new farm is springing out of the dry bush. Thirty years ago eucalyptus and pine were planted in this part of the cerrado (Brazil’s savannah). Native shrubs later reclaimed some of it. Now every field tells the story of a transformation. Some have been cut to a litter of tree stumps and scrub; on others, charcoal-makers have moved in to reduce the rootballs to fuel; next, other fields have been levelled and prepared with lime and fertiliser; and some have already been turned into white oceans of cotton. Next season this farm at Jatobá will plant and harvest cotton, soyabeans and maize on 24,000 hectares, 200 times the size of an average farm in Iowa. It will transform a poverty-stricken part of Brazil’s backlands.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

August 27th, 2010 at 10:23 am

Brazil: The Alternative Energy Powerhouse

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My hope is that the people and businesses investing in Brazil will do so in a way that is beneficial not only to them, but also, more importantly, to the Brazilian people and ecosystems.

An important point to consider is the far lower energy use per capita in Brazil. Though the proportion of people in the middle class or above has grown in the last decade, there are still many in poverty. In addition to all the other associated ills, this poverty means less energy use per person.

Brazil is indeed doing great work as one of the world’s largest, if not the largest, energy-independent economies. I have not seen them dedicating efforts toward smart grid technology, nor are they encouraging electric vehicles, though with an increasingly equitable mix between domestic oil and natural gas, sugarcane ethanol, and biomass electricity generation, such substantial water and other natural resources, all combined with a social environment that has, in my estimation, grown markedly more secure and diversely participatory, Brazil is indeed poised to be one of the most important countries of the 21st Century.

Tal vez é certo que Deus é BrasileirA.

Brazil: The Alternative Energy Powerhouse provides major business opportunities. How can you meet the challenge?

Contributing author: Mark McHugh, Managing Partner Bauhaus CP, Brazil

As home to world’s last major tropical rainforest, one of the largest renewable reserves of fresh water, the planet’s most diverse stock of biodiversity, the best energy matrix of any of the top economies and the most successful industrial-scale production of bio-fuels, Brazil stands out in the environmental arena. And now with a booming economy and secure governement regulatory environment in Renewable Energy, how indeed can you meet this enormous chalenge?

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

July 26th, 2010 at 6:32 pm

U.S. Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds

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There’s a growing body of literature around these pesticide-resistant pests. There’s also a growing understanding of much older technologies, such as integrated pest management (IPM), where the objective is to keep the ecosystem in better balance, with a natural biodiversity creating an equally effective deterrent to pest infestations. IPM may involve something as simple as me releasing a bunch of ladybugs in my garden to eat the aphids on my tomato plants, or, on large scale farms, may be much more complex, with a number of plant, animal, fungi, or other species. The problem with IPM is that it’s much trickier than just spraying chemicals. It requires closer monitoring and, rather than treating agricultural systems like factories, with regulated inputs and outputs, each plot will behave differently according to its specific conditions.

On the upside, as an organic farmer friend of mine here in Brazil maintains, when we bring life to solve problems we tend to solve several problems at once. When we bring death, in the form of fire or chemicals, we tend to create more problems. Thanks, Joao Neto, MaLu, and Renata. I’m learning.

Jason Hamlin, a certified crop adviser and agronomist, looks for weeds resistant to glyphosate in Dyersburg, Tenn.

Published: May 3, 2010

DYERSBURG, Tenn. — For 15 years, Eddie Anderson, a farmer, has been a strict adherent of no-till agriculture, an environmentally friendly technique that all but eliminates plowing to curb erosion and the harmful runoff of fertilizers and pesticides.


Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

May 4th, 2010 at 5:53 am

Forests at center of clean-energy debates

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Similar discussions are being held in British Columbia and the western U.S. where millions of acres of forest have been destroyed by the mountain pine beetle. Burning the wood in electricity plants is one possibility. Others are arguing in favor of fermentation, converting them to ethanol and other biofuels.

The standing dead trees pose serious fire danger, and while fire is a natural and necessary part of the forest life cycle, many people argue that the pine beetle is a pest basically introduced, or at least encouraged or enabled, by humans, and thus these particular fires would not be naturally occurring, so the trees should be cleared to diminish the risk of fire.

That debate in itself is a tough issue, but it’s not the only one.

In terms of building biorefineries, my main concern would be the infrastructure necessary to process the timber. In BC, people in the school of forestry at the University of British Columbia estimate feedstocks for about five years of production. This is timber over and above the usual use of timber for construction and paper, whose industries either cannot use the beetle-killed trees or simply do not have the capacity to process the volume of timber that would still be usable for their purposes. Five years after spending the tens of millions of dollars to build the refineries, what would become of them? And what would become of the forests that had previously stood there? Many fear the expenditures would induce the continued use of this land for similar purposes, accelerating the pace and vastly increasing the surface area of land that, instead of existing on a natural ecological cycle, it will be existing on our cycle and for our purposes.

This brings us to the question in the second paragraph below regarding the use of stumps or saw dust versus fresh cut trees. Those stumps and other so-called ‘residues’ or, in agriculture, ‘waste’ products, serve important functions in maintenance of soil quality, biodiversity, and other ecological functions. Removing that biomass is not a kind act of cleaning up after ourselves in the forest; it’s robbing the land of more of the biomass that it needs in order to function.

I realize this is verging on a pretty idealistic or naive rant, so I’ll end here. The point is that we need to consider carefully some of these very un-conservative proposals.

Apr 3 – McClatchy-Tribune Regional News – Bruce Henderson The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

Environmental and green energy advocates are challenging Duke Energy’s plans to burn wood in two of its coal-fired power plants, saying efforts to meet a new clean-energy standard could hurt the state’s forests.

North Carolina’s millions of acres of woods are expected to fuel much of the renewable energy the 2007 law mandates. But should power plants be fueled by stumps, sawdust and old two-by-fours, or freshly cut trees?

Read the entire article here.

Why farms may be the new forests

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Yet another Economist article that falls right in line with my PhD dissertation. One of us might be on to something.

Healthy ecosystems, such as forests, on or bordering agricultural land helps water and nutrient cycling, reducing the need for irrigation and chemical fertilizers. The enhanced biodiversity also acts as natural resistance to pests. The trick is paying farmers to keep forests on their land, compensating them for the loss of revenues from the crops that would have been planted on that land. These forests perform ecosystem services that greatly benefit society as a whole, economically and in terms of human and ecological health. Paying farmers helps to internalize those positive externalities.

Dec 30th 2009
From The Economist print edition

In the war against climate change, peasants are in the front line

 Into battle in the eco-war

FOR people who see stopping deforestation as the quickest climate-change win, Copenhagen seemed a success. Although there is still work to be done on the initiative known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), the deal struck in Copenhagen made it into a real thing, not just an idea. The notion of reducing net deforestation to zero was not explicitly mentioned, but it looks much more credible than it did two years ago.

As well as giving heart to the protectors of trees, this outcome is encouraging for people whose focus is not on forests but on fields. Climate and agriculture matter to each other in several ways. On the downside, farming is a cause of deforestation, and also emits greenhouse gases in its own right—perhaps 14% of the global total. On the upside, agriculture can also dispose of heat-trapping gases, by increasing the carbon content of soils.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

December 31st, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Brazil aims to prevent land grabs in Amazon

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The legislation mentioned here to protect Brazilian forests has been in place since 1965, but has rarely been enforced anywhere. The law, The Brazilian Forest Code, mandates that agricultural producers set aside 20% of their land as a Legal Reserve, which is a forest where some agricultural activity, such as fruit or timber collection, is permitted so long as the forest remains permanently in place. Another 5-10% of rural properties must be left as a forest along sensitive areas such as waterways. No agricultural activity is allowed in these parcels, called Areas of Permanent Preservation.  Enforcement of these laws is so lax that even places as developed as Sao Paulo, traditionally the financial capital of South America as well as a major agricultural producer, including the country’s leading producer of sugarcane and ethanol, only 6% of properties have registered Legal Reserves[1].

My doctoral dissertation, due to be finished this coming July, is a cost benefit analysis of this very legislation, establishing the increased production costs for sugarcane and ethanol if farmers comply with the law. It’s no surprise that preliminary results suggest that setting aside 25-30% of a farmer’s land for forest increases production costs by about 22% per gallon of ethanol. It’s also no surprise that without enforcement there’s little reason for a farmer to establish the forests and forego potential revenues. There are a number of market mechanisms, however, such as payments for environmental services, that can provide the incentive much more efficiently than simply punishing producers who don’t comply.

Farmers don’t reap the benefits from positive externalities such as protection of water quality and biodiversity, carbon sequestration, or even, taken on a realistic time horizon, protection against soil erosion. If we as a society want to ensure these benefits are reaped, now and for future generations, we need to pony up and pay producers to provide these services. Brazil can certainly bear some of the burden, but as developed nations who have benefited from cheap labor and materials from Brazil and other countries for decades, surely the bulk of responsibility lay with us in the developed North. In the case of ethanol, most of the newly established sugarcane production, where there is the greatest potential to ensure these forests are established, are created to meet the demand for export. It seems logical that consumers in importing countries, and the U.S. is the largest importer of Brazilian ethanol, should provide the incentives to ensure that future generations live in a planet at least as healthy as we do.

December 27, 2009
Brazil Aims to Prevent Land Grabs in Amazon

VILA DOS CRENTES, Brazil — Raimundo Teixeira de Souza came to this sweltering Amazon outpost 15
years ago, looking for land. He bought 20 acres, he said, but more powerful farmers, who roam this Wild
West territory with rifles strapped to their backs, forced him to sell much of it for a pittance.
Then someone shot and killed Mr. de Souza’s 23-year-old stepson in the middle of a village road two years
ago, residents said. No one has been arrested. In fact, the new police chief has no record that the crime was
even investigated by his predecessor. It is hardly surprising, the chief said, considering that he has only four
investigators to cover an area of rampant land-grabbing and deforestation the size of Austria.
“We are being massacred,” said Mr. de Souza, 44, who leads the local residents’ association. “We just want
to work and raise our children.”

Read the entire article here.

[1] Bacha, 2006. “Eficácia Da Política De Reserva Legal No Brasil” (Effectiveness of Legal Reserve Policies in Brazil). Teoria e Evidência Econômica (Economic Theory and Evidence).

Written by Jason

December 27th, 2009 at 6:00 am