CHAPTER 18 Biomass Can Do It THE ROCK DUST is there， by the billions of tons; the organic material is there in billions of tons of garbage and sludge; the U.S. population alone produces twelve thousand pounds of excrement per second， while， in that same second， U.S. livestock are producing another quarter million pounds; and there are 2 billion acres of unused or marginal land in the world， 62.5 million in the United States alone. What would it take to stop using poisonous chemicals， stop burn-ing fossil fuels， and instead create biomass with all this dust， sludge， and acreage， to thus reduce the danger of CO2， and feed a world population increasing by the billion? The answer is not the fantasy of some crackpot dreamer， but hard data spelled out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's vast Beltsville Research Facility， a multi-million-dollar outfit spread across miles of the Maryland landscape just north of Washington， D.C.， designed， at tax-payer's expense， to improve the conditions of agriculture for the farmer. Not that this particular approach hasn't been put forward before， time and again， over the past quarter century， by a series of experts writing in Charles Walters's Acres U .S.A. It is only that now the proposal comes from an official government agency， in serious form， through the lucid writing of one of its professionals， a tall， jovial Doctor of Botany and Taxonomy， James A. Duke， expert in the study of hallucinogenic plants， whose office looks out across the greensward at the enormous USDA library—an institution that fails to carry a single book by either Steiner or Kolisko! With just the acreage that now lies fallow， says Dr. Duke， we could be self-sufficient in energy and not have to burn another pound of fossil fuel.
At the same time we could have a large surplus of proteins from legumes and grains; and we could remedy the nation's appalling balance of payments by $60 billion. All of this simply by planting our marginal soil， all 62.5 million acres of it， and imitating the American Indian method of intercropping—legumes such as alfalfa with cereals such as corn—to create "energy farms" on soil not presently exploited. Such farms could not only feed the nation， with a surplus， but produce abun-dant fuel from crops， eliminating the need to import crude oil from abroad. And all this without taking into account the 125 million acres presently devoted to hay and corn， 90 percent of which is grown for livestock.
James A. Duke， Phi Beta Kappa， Ph.D. in Botany， has been for many years with the USDA at Beltsville， Maryland， and is responsible for over a hundred scientific publi-cations and several books， including his recent Handbook of Medicinal Herbs， and a videotape Edible Wild Plants， a guide to a hundred useful wild herbs. He is holding an Australian chestnut that is being tested by the National Cancer Institute for its chemical—castanospermine—as a therapeutic hope for AIDS. (Credit: USDA)
SECRETS OF THE SOIL To make auto fuel from fresh plant tissue is just as easy as making it from the fossilized remains of plants and microorganisms. But plants have an enormous advantage: they are renewable， yearly and indefi-nitely. From fresh plants low-pollution fuel is economically available to replace both gasoline and diesel fuel. This would greatly reduce the greenhouse effect by cutting down on the industrial proliferation of CO2. At the same time it would create a great mass of vegetation to absorb the present surplus， further offsetting the greenhouse effect. Organic wastes from all this bonanza would help rebuild a degraded soil. Alfalfa， says Duke， grows well in the cool months， producing enough vegetation per acre to yield the energy equivalent of two to seven barrels of oil. Basing estimates on average alfalfa yields， Duke concludes that we could get nearly a ton of edible leaf protein per acre of alfalfa (and that's only one-seventh of what Harold Aungst was able to get using Sonic Bloom). "The trick，" said Duke， "is to intercrop a legume with a cereal. True， if you grow grain alone， you'll get more grain; and if you grow legume alone you'll get more legume. But if you grow the two together you'll get a greater biomass， and that is what you're after." Corn is one of the more productive plants， in a category known as C-4， which photosynthesize best in the heat of summer. With the aid of sunshine， its stalks and leaves alone produce the energy equivalent of twenty barrels of oil per acre， plus another six barrels from the grains if these are used for energy. To achieve this output requires only two barrels of oil per acre， nearly one barrel of which goes for nitrogen fertilizer. But alfalfa， like most legumes， takes nitrogen from the atmo-sphere and puts it into the soil at the rate of about two hundred pounds per acre， comfortably compensating for the one required barrel of oil. Other highly fuel-productive C-4 plants include rice， sorghum， and the taller grasses， such as those that Wes Jackson is improving at "the Land." The 55 million tons of protein derivable from the 62.5 million acres now lying fallow would be about ten times what Americans need for their diet. The residues remaining after protein extraction would yield the yearly equivalent of 250 million barrels of oil in the form of alcohol from the cellulose broken down to sugar. This alone could significantly cut oil imports from Persian Gulf countries， and eliminate the need foi'patrol-ling dangerous waters. Revitalizing Pfeiffer's dream， Duke suggests that， if we were to fertil-ize with sewage sludge， our 62.5 million acres of corn and alfalfa could probably reduce imports by one million barrels of oil a day， from our present daily import of nearly seven million barrels. Already in 1979 Dan Carlson had submitted a proposal to the Depart-
ment of Energy offering with his Sonic Bloom to increase the annual production of fuel derivable from an acre of corn grain alone (without the leaves or stalks) from a normal 250 gallons to a bumper 650， and possibly achieve two crops in a year， which would comfortably raise the flow to over 1，000 gallons， renewable annually. But DOE， in the throes of nearly being aborted by the newly elected Ronald Reagan， never made an official assessment of this sanguine proposal. Yet there still remains the patrimony of 125 million acres to work with， presently used， or misused， to grow hay and corn for livestock. Were these green acres to be made into `，energy farms" of appropriate combinations of legumes and cereals， we could， according to Duke， after harvesting for local consumption and for export of 100 million tons of legume protein， produce more corn cereal than we have ever harvested before， and generate 3.5 billion barrels of oil from the residue. This would take care of the country's entire energy requirements. And just as appealing are all the other benefits accrued. In becoming self-sufficient via organic energy farms， we could， says Duke， generate employment for the depressed farming， housing， and automotive indus-tries. More hands would be needed to plant， cultivate， harvest， and pro-cess energy crops. Small factories would be needed near the energy farms to convert energy crops into renewable fuels like ethanol (grain alcohol)， methanol (wood alcohol)， and methane gas， all of which generate less pollution than gasoline. Detroit， says Duke， could reverse its slump by manufacturing con-verters needed to run our cars on renewable fuels. Decentralizing the fuel-production process， eliminating the transport of fuel halfway around the world， would stimulate depressed local economies while conserving energy in fuel transport， to say nothing， adds Duke with a smile， of removing the oil producers' fingers from our economic throats. By converting to organic renewable fuels， we would generate research and jobs for America rather than for OPEC. Price shifts following such a conversion might make it possible to fulfill the long-held dream of U.S. farmers of trading a bushel of corn for a barrel of oil. Air in Los Angeles and Denver might once more be fit to breathe. And then there is the problem of water， becoming increasingly scarce in such states as Arizona. Current efforts to deal with our energy problems call for massive use of western waters—water that will be needed by farmers to grow their crops. More than half the water used in the United States now goes to uneconomic livestock production， 2，500 gallons being needed to produce one pound of meat. This， says John Robbins in his eye-opening Diet for a New America， would make the cost of common
hamburger meat $35 per pound were the water used by the meat industry not subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer. The organic energy farm， says Duke， will alleviate both water and energy problems. Water removed during processing of crops for energy and protein can be piped back to the fields. In addition， the buildup of humus in dry western fields would help to hold the scanty rain. Another creative way of turning a disaster area to advantage is Duke's suggestion that strip miners convert the torn-up land into energy farms， intercon-nected by canals dug with their earth-gouging machinery. Stripped coal could then be barged out， and sewage sludge barged in to fertilize and rehabilitate the land. Before long， says Duke， barges would be hauling renewable fuels to urban centers and sludge back to the energy farms， bringing a knowing smile to Pfeiffer's ghost. As early as the 1960s， Donald Despain， a maverick economist and industrial-relations counsel， had proposed a fundamentally new industry to transform agriculture from only a source of food supply to a supplier of industrial products， which would create a degree of agrarian prosperity never before experienced in America. "With agriculture entering a long depression，" he told audiences in 1972， "and farmers getting the same prices they got nearly twenty years ago—while paying prices three times higher—their growing crops for power alcohol could pull them out of a slump and into prosperity." Despain quoted a Dow Chemical Company executive， William S. Hale， as telling the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Agriculture: "Alco-hol， which can be manufactured from any farm product containing sugar crystals， is the only outlet in mass form we have for excess agricul-tural products." So， why is it， if the fact has been known and proved for over half a century that internal-combustion engines can run on alcohol as a sole fuel or on gasoline with an alcohol additive， either substituting for gaso-line or stretching it by 100 percent， that this bonanza is not available to one and all? In the 1930s Dr. Leo M. Christensen in a pamphlet， Power Alcohol and Farm Relief， dug deeply into the extensive scientific literature on the use of ethyl alcohol as a cheap fuel for all combustion engines. All the investigators agreed that from the standpoint of national economic wel-fare alcohol was the best fuel because of its many established advantages， plus the fact that it could be produced within each country， whereas petroleum usually has to be imported. Most attractive to farmers was the chance to distill their own fuel on their own farms， or make larger amounts—as much as ten thousand gallons a day—in a community distiller， which could process any crop containing sugar or starch.
Opposition of the oil companies， says Christensen， was organized and brutal: they went about distributing to filling-station operators across the nation cost-free mimeographed material to scare the public into believ-ing that alcohol was inefficient or dangerous. The Petroleum Institute， with branches in every state， went into action， and in the nation's capital money gushed like oil to lobby senators and congressmen. Intrepidly fighting for the "Farmer's Alcohol，" Charles Walters， Jr.， carefully documented in a series of articles in Acres U.S.A. the cynical attitude of the "Big Oil" cartel members before， during， and since World War II， as they fought bitterly against the distillation of grain， even grain so spoiled as to prevent its consumption by humans， and even when survival of America and its Allies was at stake in World War II. Only on orders from FDR's "no red tape" Baruch Committee， did B-29 bombers eventually fly on a mixture of high-octane 100-proof alcohol. But right after the war the government closed down its alcohol refineries， even though Dr. G. E. Hilbert， Chief of the USDA's Bureau of Agricultural and Industrial Chemistry， reported， on the basis of extensive testing， that "farm alcohol makes low-octane fuel equal to regular gasoline，" empha-sizing that it could economically provide a vast market for surplus grains. To distill a billion bushels of surplus grain， he said， cost only $30 million —a small amount compared to the $200 million required to build in-creased grain storage facilities， "which in no way solve the problem." While grain was being stored in bins， elevators， vacant lots， tents， ships， and even on the main streets of towns， each bushel of grain con-taining better than 21/2 gallons of ethyl alcohol， superior to premium gasoline， the farmer was being subsidized to retire land. The move to alcohol was even supported by Truman's Secretary of Agriculture， Charles F. Brannan; and a USDA expert told one U.S. Senator there was no reason why all damaged grain could not be used for producing industrial alcohol. But， when Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected in 1952—as .doyen of the military-industrial establishment， the machinations of which he warned against just before leaving office—a special commission was formed to look at American postwar agriculture. Blatantly ignoring seventy-five years of alcohol experience in Russia， Poland， Italy， France， and England， the commission concluded that it had found "no encouragement for believing that， in the present state of knowledge and under present economic conditions， the use of industrial alcohol for motor fuel can be justified." It was a specious statement predicated on oil's being available at 4.6 cents a barrel at Ras Tanura， and other Saudi Arabian oil refineries， ad infinitum. Whereas the commission used the excuse that alcohol was not effi-cient as a fuel， Walters pointed out that it is equivalent to gasoline in power， burns cleaner， produces lower emissions， and causes no unusual