Solar materials from agricultural monocultures to polycultures

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The chemical industry's argument that the 'costs are too high' is not the only objection raised to solar materials (and by extension to the replacement of fossil resources). There are a further two stock arguments drawn from the conservation debate, and these also crop up time and again in connection with the use of biomass as an energy source.

1 The first argument is that solar resources compete with food production for land, hence there are 'ethical reasons' for sticking with fossil petrochemistry, because otherwise there would not be enough arable land to produce the necessary quantities of food. This reasoning, however, is not tenable, as the data on worldwide arable land area in Chapter 2 indicate. Natural photosynthetic production is entirely capable of replacing the third of annual oil output consumed by the chemicals industry, and quite possibly more besides.

2 Secondly, critics cite the danger of over-farming the land and of agricultural monocultures. Yet it is doubtful that these tendencies would automatically be exacerbated by the use of solar resources as an energy source and as raw materials. From the earlier discussion on solar resources as an energy source, the conclusion has already been drawn that this is not the case, provided that such energy crops are harnessed in the technologically and economically optimum manner.

Studies such as the one by David O Hall and Frank Rosillo-Calle show that the danger of soil erosion and consumption of fertilizers and pesticides are considerably less for energy crops than for food crops. On a comparison between coppiced woodland (eg willow trees) and corn, wheat or soya beans, the danger of erosion is 12.5 times smaller, fertilizer consumption 2.1 times smaller, herbicide use 4.4 times smaller, insecticide use 19 times smaller and fungicide use 3 9 times smaller.22 The Swedes have found that, if harnessed in the right way, biomass does not result in significant damage to the environment.23 And that is even without looking at proposals involving short-rotation cropping or at the possibility of doing completely without artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Energy crops thus place a far lesser burden on the land than do food crops.

Harnessing plants as raw materials is by no means just a matter of quantity: it is a matter of quality as well. As previously discussed, unlike fossil resources, the quality of solar resources in their natural state is so high that increasing use of ever more products must necessarily favour or even trigger a shift from mono- to polycultures.

Monocultures occur in food production, which has concentrated on ever fewer species and varieties, principally maize, wheat, rice and potatoes, but they are by no means inevitable in the cultivation of solar resources. In order to exploit the variety of substances directly produced by plants, a great variety of specialized crops must be cultivated. Admittedly, the very low yields for many coveted substances, such as essential oils, are a

Source: Kroppenstedt oil mill, Germany, unpublished report

Figure 7-3 The range of applications of a solar raw material

Source: Kroppenstedt oil mill, Germany, unpublished report

Figure 7-3 The range of applications of a solar raw material problem, in that vast harvests are needed to obtain commercially viable quantities. For this reason, solar resources can and should not be cultivated for one specialized purpose alone. The case for organic farming practices improves once the opportunities for and economic advantages of comprehensive multipurpose applications for plant resources and residues are recognized, as depicted in Figure 7.3. Whereas the process of transforming fossil raw materials into chemical products produces toxic waste, the use of solar raw materials opens up the possibility of turning waste disposal costs into additional profit centres. All plant residues not required for the production of a particular product can always be fermented to produce biogas. Productivity considerations alone would lead a chemical industry based on solar raw materials to draw its energy from biological sources. Combining energy generation with material uses simply makes more efficient use of biomass inputs.

The choice is between an industrial focus on a small number of basic products and an agricultural focus on a small number of arable crop species on the one hand, and a multiplicity of basic products and thereby a diverse base of smaller agricultural businesses on the other. The choice is between coarse and fine, single-operator mass cultivation and pluralistic agriculture, monocultural versus polycultural resource production and use. Solar raw materials are vastly superior to a fossil resource base that does not measure up to our current level of knowledge and understanding and which thus keeps production far below the levels that can be achieved.

Chemical products from fossil hydrocarbons are the primary cause of our current waste problem. Breaking synthetic compounds back down into their component molecules is either impossible, or the procedure is complicated and costly. This drastically reduces the scope for recycling, as these substances either do not degrade naturally, or do so only slowly, and so must either be buried or burnt, with woeful environmental consequences. Chemical products produced from plants, however, are not only recycled by nature itself, but their combustion does not release harmful pollutants. This greatly reduces the scale of the waste problem. In addition, people will find waste easier and cheaper to manage. In place of the waste separation regimes in force in Germany and other countries, rubbish will be reduced to two simple categories: easily recyclable metal waste and organic refuse. Recycling of waste itself thus becomes an integral component of a renewable energy system. This stands in stark contrast above all to today's petrochemical products, which usually contain heavy metal additives. In return for marginally lower purchase prices, the consumer is burdened with considerably higher waste disposal costs — yet another example of how the fossil resource industry is hampering the development of productive business models.

In view of the scope for resource substitution, the environmental advantages and the greater productivity gains that solar raw materials offer small and medium-sized enterprises, a blanket rejection of the idea of a solar resource base on the basis of the negative experiences of 'modern' agricultural production would be counterproductive. The existence of dangers (see Chapter 2 for further discussion) cannot be denied. Industrial companies have frequently been known to sacrifice even their own long-term interests for short-term gain, and businesses certainly do not have any consideration for other companies in the industry that are consciously pursuing the non-conventional alternative — quite the opposite. However, anyone who rejects reorientation towards solar raw materials because environmental problems may result must still compare such problems with the consequences of fossil resource consumption. But above all, anyone who rejects a comprehensive transition is leaving the potential of solar resources solely to those who seek to integrate them into the existing fossil-ized structures. That way lies the monoculture — unnecessary, and incapable of tapping the full wealth of solar resources.

Most energy experts, and equally most experts from the environmental lobby who concern themselves with environmentally damaging substances, do not see energy and raw materials as two sides of the same problem. By contrast, the energy and chemical industries, because of their mutual need for fossil hydrocarbons, are well aware of their common interests, even if they do not say so in public. A breakthrough in solar energy use which brought about a fall in crude oil and natural gas consumption would quickly strip fossil petrochemical precursor substances of their current cost advantage over solar materials. The cost of fossil energy would rise if the market for the products of the chemical industry were to shrink. In sum: the more solar raw materials come to replace fossil ones, the more the replacement of fossil by renewable energy sources will be accelerated. This is precisely why the transition towards solar energy and solar raw materials should be seen as a strategic whole. A unitary strategy would make it possible to see through the opposition arguments; solar opportunities would become more clearly visible and tangible, and environmental policy could go beyond the boundaries that have obviously been constraining it hitherto.

As recognition of the wealth of solar resources builds, the economic logic of a solar resource industry will gain the ascendancy. There are two essential maxims:

1 In the manufacture of chemical products, solar raw materials must be preferred to fossil raw materials wherever an equivalent product can be produced from solar inputs.

2 Besides their role as food crops, the use of plants as raw materials has priority over their use as an energy source.

This latter principle does not recant on the goal of meeting energy needs from plant resources, nor does it reduce the potential for energy crops — there are sufficient plant resources to meet the need for nutrition, raw materials and energy. There is also no need to renounce energy crops in order to conserve plant resources for the future: solar raw materials are regenerable. As long as provision is made for future crops, it is possible to switch quickly from one use to the next: from food crops to energy crops to industrial materials, and vice versa. What is necessary — and basic economic management — is to maintain the capacity for agricultural production, from land fertility to biodiversity. Integrated schemes make the most sense, whereby agricultural crops for the different purposes of producing food, raw materials and energy complement each other. The upshot would be a far quicker transition to complete replacement of fossil resources, up to and including fertilizers and pesticides.

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