Tell More Ag Truths

I was pleased to see a cover story dealing with agriculture in your 9/1/05 issue ("Big Agriculture's Big Lie"). The current administration will be with us for a little while yet; what it has wrought (especially in Iraq) for longer, but agriculture will be part of our lives far into the future. Therefore, its condition needs constant assessment. As Ira Boudway and George Pyle make clear, agriculture is unwell. I would like to add a few points that did not get covered in the story:

(1) much of the agriculture in the "developing world" (that term needs reassessment, too) is already pursued on the industrial model, from bananas in Ecuador to coffee in Vietnam or oil palms in Costa Rica;

(2) the majority of the new organic agriculture (as opposed to the old traditional kind) today is in the hands of large corporations rather than small producers and often deserves only a qualified endorsement;

(3) local food is not necessarily more expensive than food produced on the industrial model; for the last two years we have done careful price comparisons between the produce from our local CSA and the equivalent produce (if it's even available) from the three grocery stores in town, and the CSA costs about the same as the least expensive store;

(4) Pyle's solutions -- enforcing antitrust laws and changing or eliminating crop subsidies -- represent macro-scale thinking; let's emphasize in addition getting new information to farmers and consumers. Along those lines, I recommend Michael M. Bell's Farming For Us All [Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004], a study of the sustainable agricultural methods being researched and promoted by Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Jonathan Andelson
Grinnell, Iowa


Ill Effects

As to the letter ["Deadly Misinformation," 8/1-15/05 TPP] from [Becky Ann] Bartlett [criticizing Robert Kennedy Jr.'s 7/15/05 TPP article on the government coverup of health risks from mercury-based thimerosal formerly used in childhood vaccines]: The point about the test of thimerosal on the terminal patients is that it was a test of acute toxicity, not of long-term effects. As to Botox [which is based on the deadly botulism toxin], who knows what might emerge after its users age? The MDs understand to avoid the acute effect, but have, I bet, no clue as to possible long-term effects.

Yadviga D. Halsey, Ph.D.
Seattle, Wash.


Ethanol Skeptic

I was very, very disappointed when I read the Editor's response to the letter from Tom Sedor, "Ethanol Despair" [08/01/05 TPP]. The response makes no contribution to a rational discussion of what to do about the looming catastrophe facing our economy and, indeed, our society by the impending deficit in the supply of both petroleum and natural gas. The Editor dismisses Dr. Pimentel's assessment of the cost of ethanol production by stating "Dr. Pimentel has made a career of criticizing ethanol production" ... Nothing was said about what is wrong with Dr. Pimentel's analysis. Dr. Pimentel is Professor of Ecology and Agricultural Sciences at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. It is his duty there to analyze in an impartial manner the factors affecting ecology and agricultural production.

Dr. Pimentel measures the energy inputs required to produce ethanol from corn. These include the energy used to produce the fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and seed that are applied, fuel used to plant, cultivate and harvest the crop and to transport it to the ethanol plant, as well as the energy used to operate the plant and to distill the ethanol after fermentation. He also includes the energy required to make the machinery used to produce and transport the corn. The result is that for each unit, say one barrel of petroleum (gasoline or diesel), of energy input about 0.78 barrel's worth of energy (in terms of petroleum) is available from the ethanol produced (one barrel of ethanol has about 65% of the energy content of one barrel of petroleum). If the Editor has a problem with this analysis it should be stated clearly what the problem is.

Dr. Pimentel's results should be made widely available to the taxpayers of this nation.

A very recent study has compared the energy return of producing ethanol from corn in the USA with that from sugar cane in Brazil (Bioscience, Vol. 55 p. 593 [2005]). This study found that 1.1 units of energy were formed from ethanol from corn for each unit of energy input. Energy required to make the machinery used in production and transportation was neglected. However, it really should not be neglected, so this study also shows that producing ethanol from corn is a losing proposition. For ethanol from sugar cane the ratio of energy output to input is 3.7 to 1

Neither of the above studies takes into account the value of the millions of tons of precious, irreplaceable, top soil that are washed into the Mississippi River each year from the land used to grow the corn for ethanol.

About eight barrels of ethanol can be produced from an acre of corn. In 2002 about 40 million barrels of ethanol were produced in the USA, requiring about five million acres of corn. This amount of ethanol corresponds to 80,000 barrels per day, less than 0.5% of the nation's current import requirements of petroleum, on an energy equivalent basis. Even if ethanol production were energy efficient, this amount poses no threat to the oil companies. In fact, they are very happy to supply more than one barrel of petroleum for each barrel of energy equivalent from ethanol produced. They are laughing all the way to the bank while patting the farmer on the back and telling him what a patriotic guy he is "for helping to reduce the nation's dependency on foreign oil".

The new energy bill just signed into law mandates that refiners blend 95 million barrels of ethanol into gasoline in 2006, rising to 168 million barrels in 2012. About 21 million acres of land will be required to grow the corn needed to produce this amount of ethanol. This represents more than a quarter of the land planted to corn in 2005! What will happen in the years that there is a drought? There is no law mandating that cattle, pigs and chickens be fed corn. Will they have to do without?

Karl R. Kopecky
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
email karl.kopecky@ualberta.ca

Editor's Reply: Dr. Pimentel's findings that corn ethanol is an inefficient source of energy are often cited by ethanol skeptics and oil industry lobbyists. But the Renewable Fuels Association has noted that Dr. Pimentel's work has been refuted by experts from the US Department of Energy, the Department of Energy, Argonne National Laboratory, Michigan State University and the Colorado School of Mines. The USDA's Agricultural Economic Report No. 721, July 1995, concluded that "corn ethanol is energy efficient as indicated by an energy ratio of 1.24." An update in the USDA's Agricultural Economic Report No. 813, in August 2002, concluded that not only was ethanol energy-efficient, but it's efficiency was steadily improving. "Corn ethanol is energy efficient ... For every BTU dedicated to producing ethanol there is a 34% energy gain." In "How Much Energy Does It Take to Make a Gallon of Ethanol?" David Lorenz and David Morris of the Institute for Local-Self Reliance (ILSR) in 1995 stated: "Using the best farming and production methods, the amount of energy contained in a gallon of ethanol is more than twice the energy used to grow the corn and convert it to ethanol." See also http://journeytoforever.org/ethanol_energy.html


Clean Up Your Life

Each issue I read your columnists urge us progressives to organize, petition, vote and march to change this nation. I agree that under the Bushes we are on the wrong path and need to work to stop the war, change the economy, protect the enviornment and bring social justice. But desperate times call for desperate measures and I believe that personal responsibility is the first thing we all need. So I call on Ivins, Hightower and the rest to tell us readers: How many children do you have? What kind of vehicle do you drive? Do you eat meat? Do you buy or grow organic food? How big is your house? Where do you shop? And, do you invest in the stock market? Their answers will tell us that it is not just words on paper, but real actions that give their opinions the weight they deserve.

Bill Matturro
Cairo, Ga.

Editor Replies: I don't know about our other plutocrat pluckers, but in the interest of disclosure, this editor drives a Toyota Prius, which gets 45-50 mpg, and a Honda Accord, which gets a comparitively gas-guzzling 24 mpg. (And I would consider driving a domestic brand if US carmakers would start producing the 80 mpg models they developed under pressure from the Clinton administration in the 1990s. They shelved those plans when Bush took office.) I have no children but four dogs; I eat meat; I prefer organic food. Our house has five rooms; I shop at independent stores where possible and I have a couple thousand dollars in mutual funds (socially conscious). Otherwise, my assets are pretty much tied up in The Progressive Populist and The Storm Lake Times in Iowa. (My wife has some stock in the Disney Co. and there is simply nothing I can do about that -- she loves Disney.) We both have retirement mutual funds. However, if you're grading your potential allies and excluding those who don't meet your criteria you're going to continue to get run over.


Liberal Thinking

Wayne O'Leary's recent piece, "Howard and Hillary," exemplifies what is wrong with too much of the thinking in the progressive movement. If progressives don't stop talking divisively they'll remain a minority indefinitely. Progressives must accept that the Democratic Party needs a broad tent that can win again in the South and West. Howard and Hillary are not the "Odd Couple," O'Leary argues. There is large agreement on most issues. Be reminded that Dr. Dean is a firearms and fiscal conservative, yet there's still plenty of room for him in the party. Also note that Dean has again toned down the clumsy rhetoric which he always seems to realize later does little for the cause.

John Kerry lost narrowly not because he tacked toward the center but because he ran a flawed, unfocused campaign that allowed him to be effectively framed as "a flip-flopping liberal that you can't trust in dangerous times" and won only 19 states while Bush took 31 including, again, the entire South and most of the West and Midwest. (John Edwards, a Southern moderate, was not "banished." He worked the rural areas hard. I met him personally on one of his three visits to Maine and shook his hand quickly on the other two.)

The "long-awaited liberal revival" Mr. O'Leary wants won't be arriving in the South and West anytime soon, and, if we are to win there, which we must, then we need to accept moderate candidates and approaches that succeed in those areas. Think what you want of Bill Clinton, but he WON twice while the "liberal" McGoverns, Carters, Mondales, and Dukakises of the world lost soundly. And he was much more palatable than the people he beat.

Progressives and moderates need to finally wake up, start talking to each other about the 80% of issues they agree upon, and get united in message and purpose once and for all. There is plenty of room in the Democratic Party for all of us, and only a firmly united front has a chance to take the country back from a right wing that understands this and has taken over. Think about it.

Ron Bilancia
Brewer, Maine


Support USO

You've all likely seen the ribbons affixed to vehicles in either gold, or with the red, white and blue colors. They all have the words "Support our troops" on them. It is good that our citizens publicize their support for our men and women who are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. ...

But there's a much better way to make a significant difference in the daily lives of these courageous men and women right where it helps the most. It's in a donation to the USO. This organization was created in WW2 and brought cheer and relief to thousands of American serviceman during that long and terrible war -- and all the others that followed.

As it did then, it is doing again in this horrendous war -- serving our men and women and their families left at home -- so are they doing today, but in ways never imagined in the early 1940s:

• Pre-paid phone cards so they can call home fast, and for free!

• The new "USO canteens" offer more than just coffee and conversation, but also computers with Internet access.

• Help to find and fund child-care services when a GI is wounded so mom or dad can have the freedom to visit their spouse without concern for their children at home.

• Care packages: sunscreen for the desert, hard-to-get personal items, books and CDs.

• Mobile canteens for those GIs who can't get to USO: hot coffee, doughnuts and Internet access to email family.

• The USO takes American entertainment right to the Front just as they did in WW2.

• And much more!

The USO needs your financial help NOW to help it provide these services to our GIs far from home and in severe danger.

Take that $5 you might spend on a ribbon or more if you can afford it, and send it to the USO. Their address is:

USO World Headquarters, PO Box 96860, Washington, D.C. 20077.

You'll truly support our men and women now in harm's way.

Want to know more about the USO? Go to: http://www.uso.org

Percy Pascoe
Cuba, Mo.


Ducking Cindy

On Aug. 13, President Bush again refused to meet with Cindy Sheehan in Crawford, with the statement, "It's important for me to go on with my life."

What a slap in the face!

What about Cindy Sheehan? Should she just "go on with her life" as well and forget about her son, Casey? It's not like Casey can ever go on with his life; he was killed in Iraq.

All this grieving mother is asking for is a few minutes of time from Bush's "busy" vacation schedule. All she wants is some accountability, some truth and some answers.

Is it more important for the President to go biking, fishing, and nap than to take time out to speak with Cindy Sheehan? Bush also mentioned that he needs exercise to stay healthy so to make good decisions. I wonder how his health was when he led this nation to war?

Kelly Musselman
Fredericksburg, Texas



My God was bigger than his God

I knew that at the time

But still I ran into trouble

'cause his Devil was bigger than mine.

Robert Feathers
Del Rio, Texas

From The Progressive Populist, Sept. 15, 2005

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