RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Biodiesel Dilemma

"It's a great idea," says a resident of Carthage, Mo., "I just wish it was somewhere else."

He's talking about the Carthage biodiesel plant, a facility that produces biodiesel -- a great idea. If we can start producing our own fuel, the reasoning goes, we can continue driving SUVs and going to NASCAR races, all without importing a drop from those bad boys in the Mideast.

But for raw ingredients, the Carthage biodiesel uses turkey carcasses harvested from nearby poultry Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. These CAFOs are creating their own problems in the odor department, and other problems by creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria that have rendered most common antibiotics useless in our human hospitals.

So, the end products include biodiesel, yes, and clouds of nauseating, unhealthy fumes that hang over Carthage. If you want to know how bad it is, consider that the governor -- our governor, who hasn't an environmental bone in his body, who has gutted budgets for the Departments of Health and Natural Resources, has ordered the biodiesel plant shut down three times.

And that's the dilemma. We want to find ways to make alternative fuels, and Generalissimo Bush has finagled lots of incentives in the form of subsidies to build plants, but, in doing so, the policies promote the worst agriculture on the planet.

Biodiesel has been touted as the fuel that can be made from waste -- soybean, peanut and canola oils. Biodiesel pioneers talked about stopping at hamburger places, talking them out of their old grease, staying long enough to run the grease through a filter, and pouring it into the gas tank. On the road again, their vehicles left a scent vaguely like French fries.

That was Generation One, and now we're seeing Son of Generation One.

Touting Generation Two, promoters say they can convert a variety of "feed stocks" -- including soybean, peanut and canola oils -- into biodiesel, or use animal fats such as cooking grease, which can be obtained as waste for little or no cost.

Please note: These new factories produce millions of gallons of biodiesel per year. Now think hard -- how much used French-fry oil is produced in an average hamburger joint? A million gallons. Not.

So, looking for a new "feed stock," the wizards figured out that dead critters can also be squeezed for oil. And, since dead critters are a by-product of CAFOs, where thousands of animals live like people packed on an elevator, the raw ingredients are plentiful.

You can almost hear the glee in the Board Room: "Hey, Boys! We don't even have to keep the turkeys alive to make a profit!"

Never mind the farmers that sign a contract and find out that they've lost all their independence, turned themselves into CAFO janitors. Never mind the polluted aquifers, the bad air, the hopeless migrant workers on the killing floors of America.

Biodiesel, it turns out, is driving more than busses. It's driving really bad agricultural policy.

Here, we've managed to combine two water-polluting and air-polluting factories into one giant system. Wreck the environment with CAFOs, then wreck it some more with biodiesel factories. In fact, this may be seen as animal agriculture's revenge on vegetarians -- you don't have to eat to participate in a terrible system, just drive or ride a biodiesel bus.

But wait! There's more!

Don't want to leave out ethanol, which provides another industrial push for CAFOs. Ethanol is made by fermenting corn. In fact, it has driven up the price of corn so that the countryside is now planted fence row to fence row with the stuff and there's still not enough. Folks are worried that food prices will go sky high in the effort to raise fuel rather than food. And nobody knows if there's really a net gain in energy after running the tractors to plant the corn, fertilize the corn, harvest the corn and ship it to the ethanol factory.

And, what to do with the hulls and waste left after fermentation? Good news, children. The waste can be made into -- guess what! -- animal feed for CAFOs. So now we have a closed loop. Corn to ethanol, corn hulls to CAFOs, CAFOs to biodiesel.

Except that new studies have shown that the new feed isn't very healthy for the animals, and it's recommended that feeders only use it as about a fourth of the feed. So now we need to find a corn to make up the other three-quarters.

Luckily, our Prez has been in Brazil, chatting up their government for some special deals on their corn, their ethanol and probably their oil.

When are these lame-brains going to figure it out? We need to conserve. Ride bikes. Support local economies rather than imports. Go for higher fuel efficiency. Cut down your commute to work -- some how!

But you, dear reader, have figured it out. And you can cut loose from this terrible system.

Starting now.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2007

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2007 The Progressive Populist.