For a start I always worry when someone tells me that something is "common knowledge". Lifelong experience tells me that when someone tells me that they are usually just about to tell me a very dubious fact and that I'm a bit thick if I don't believe it. However, after second thoughts, I wondered if I might be being unfair. Maybe there was some actual merit in the argument.
I do happen to believe that the (unspoken) cause of at least one war was oil and there is an argument that other recent wars may have had this as a part of their hidden agenda. For example, it is known that there are huge quantities of oil around the Falkland Islands. So, would growing hemp prevent wars?
Methanol is already being produced from corn and is added to diesel to produce bio-diesel. As such it allows for more mpg to be gained from the same amount of diesel, therefore making a fossil fuel go further. However, it doesn’t make the fuel cheaper because of the refining costs involved in producing methanol from corn (or hemp) and it doesn’t eliminate demand for oil, it just reduces the demand in the short term, making existing stocks last longer.
However, the same process can't be used to create bio-petrol, because the chemical mix is wrong. it is possible to create such a fuel, but the source crop is sugar cane, not corn (or hemp). Therefore the common knowledge referred to above is a dubious fact, as I suspected, because you can't use hemp to create petrol! In addition neither crop can be used to create a bio version of aviation fuel, and the corrosive effect of existing bio products would make them dangerous for aviation use. Common knowledge my Aunt Fanny!
For methanol to completely replace oil it would require a major re-think in the motor manufacturing and related industries to produce engines that run on pure methanol and it would require a re-think in many related industries. We produce some electricity from oil fired power stations and many houses use fuel oil for heating and/or cooking. However, those are practical problems that could, with political will, be solved. We also produce electricity from gas and gas reserves are also finite, so we may still go to war over gas supplies, which means replacing gas powered electricity generation and domestic and industrial usage of gas with methanol fuel as well. However I won’t include that in my argument for the moment as it over complicates it.
So, what about the concept of replacing oil with hemp?
Well, hemp produces about 25% more methanol than corn, making it more efficient. That’s about 7.5 thousand litres of methanol per acre for corn and about 10,000 litres per acre for hemp. Sorry folks, but this is where I have to start in on the maths to work out the total hemp requirement if we want to do away with oil.
The world uses 85 million barrels of oil a day. Each barrel of oil produces 42 gallons of fuel, or 190 litres. So, to replace one day’s oil supply with hemp requires 190 litres times 85 million barrels divided by 10,000 to give approximately 1.62 million acres of hemp for just one day’s supply of fuel. For one years’ supply multiply by 365 to get 592 million acres of hemp (all figures are rounded for convenience).
For those of you that can’t visualise 592 million acres (I couldn’t, so I looked it up), the USA, including Alaska, has an area of about 2.5 billion acres. So to replace oil with methanol you would require an area about one fifth of the size of the USA in which to grow the hemp.
Now, you can’t just grow hemp any old place. It requires good soil, lots of sunlight and plenty of water. In other words it needs prime quality farmland. So, if you put that farmland to growing hemp you then have to replace that farmland for growing food. If you don’t replace the farmland then you reduce the food supply which means you either go hungry or instead of going to war over oil we will instead start to go to war over food.
It also means that the supply of fuel and food will be controlled by those countries that have the best farmland and these are, now let me guess, the EU, USA and Russia. Do you think that either Russia or the USA will be inclined to share their food or their fuel with the hungry of the world?
I can actually answer that one. Two thirds of the people in the world currently live on a diet that is less than subsistence level. That is your answer. We don’t share the food we currently grow, so it is safe to assume that if food supplies are reduced we won’t share more in the future, we will share less.
Famine, of course, is a close companion of War and they make up two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Then there’s the third horseman, Pestilence. What happens if hemp supplies are hit by disease, or maybe drought? Death is the fourth horseman and he can use any of the other three to achieve his ends. Hemp plants are easy to destroy, you just need a good defoliant or a suitable parasite, which makes prices easy to manipulate, which the greedy can and probably would do.
I deliberately left the issue of gas supplies out of my argument, but if I now add it back in you can see the scale of the problem. We would need more land to be farmed for hemp, not less, perhaps double or even treble that 592 million acres.
OK, maybe hemp isn’t one hundred percent of the answer. Maybe we need to use more renewable energy sources: wind, sun and sea. I agree absolutely that we should be using more of these, but they don’t come without their own unique problems.
Let’s take solar power. Those of you who travel the M1 motorway between junctions 14 and 15 will probably have noticed the large solar farm that has appeared on the eastern side of the carriageway. That’s just one of many new solar plants, you may know of others in your area.
That solar farm is on land that was previously used for growing food (I include the raising of animals in that term). It was obviously more economical for the farmer to rent the land out to be used to produce solar power than for food growing and with lots of cheap food coming from the eastern EU I can’t argue with the economics of the farmer’s decision. However, if we were to take land out of use for growing hemp what would that do to the economics? That introduces a conflict between using land for producing solar power and using it to grow hemp and/or food. The eastern EU wouldn't be able to fill the gap so that would mean food shortages.
In the UK the wind doesn’t blow all the time (usually only when I’m playing golf) so we can’t rely on wind power, we have to have other sources of power. You can’t get solar power at night, so that rules that out as a complete solution. The best hope we have is either tidal or wave power, but both of those have practical and environmental issues associated with them.
Take tidal power, for example. There have been several proposals for a tidal scheme on the Severn estuary. With the greatest tidal range in the UK it would be an ideal location. But each proposal has been defeated by environmentalists (yes, the same people who propose the use of renewable energy supplies) because of the damage it would do to the wetlands and wildlife, particularly birds, that live there. Now, Alanis Morrisette, that’s ironic!
Planning consent has just been granted for an electricity turbine to built on the River Severn near Shrewsbury, on the site of an existing weir. It's going to cost about £3.5 million and guess how many homes it will power? Just 400. That's not even a decent sized village. That's a cost of £8,750 per house. At an electricity charge of £1,000 per house, per year, It will take 9 years to repay the investment and that's without factoring in maintenance costs. Not really free, or cheap, is it?
Well, we could grow the hemp in Africa or Asia, couldn’t we? Yes we could. Cash crops, that is crops that are grown for sale outside of the country where they are grown, are already being grown in Africa and Asia, and guess what, it is causing hunger amongst Africans and Asians. Why? Because it takes land out of use for growing food for them. Our cheap coffee (it is the origin of the brand Kenco (Kenya Coffee)) and tea come at the cost of growing food for Africans and Asians, as do our sugar snap peas, our out-of-season asparagus, avocados, mangoes etc. It also creates competition for water.
Start growing hemp in Africa or Asia and you further reduce the land available for growing food for the people that live there and also increases competition for limited water supplies. Hello Mr Famine, how are you today?
Well, we could chop down more trees to create more farmland. Yes we could. But trees produce oxygen, which we all need to breath. They also absorb carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas. Reduce the number of trees and you reduce the amount of oxygen and increase the amount of CO2, thereby contributing to climate change, with all the evils that entails. Deforestation in Bangladesh is causing increased levels of flooding at a huge human cost, and deforestation has also been a contributing factor to flooding elsewhere.
There are no easy answers here, only trade-offs between what is bad and what may be a slight improvement. In some instances we may actually make matters worse, especially for those who have the least amount of say in the world. If anyone can tell me where we can find in excess of 592 million acres of prime farmland without creating fresh problems for the world's hungriest people then I’ll sign up for it today!
One thing we do know is that stocks of fossil fuels are finite and we are consuming them at an ever increasing rate. We can start to take steps to replace them now, in a planned and managed way, providing adequate investment in new technology and methods, or we can wait until the oil is actually running out and do it in a mad scramble, at enormous financial and human cost and at the risk of starting major wars. I know which way I would prefer, but guess which way the world's politicians will probably end up taking. We simply aren't doing enough NOW!
So, in the end my conclusion is that the person who posted the photo isn’t interested in ending wars. If he or she was then they wouldn’t be making this proposal. This proposal wouldn’t end war, it would just change the reasons why we go to war in the first place. They really are only interested in legalising cannabis growing. Perhaps they were smoking the stuff when they came up with this ludicrous idea. No doubt they would claim that the half dozen plants in their greenhouse weren’t being grown for drug use, but for the manufacture of bio-diesel and perhaps I'm the Fairy Tinkerbell.
If you come across that photo on your Facebook feed, please feel free to post a link to this blog by way of reply!