Biofuels vs Food – The Ethical Dilemma
With over 7 billion mouths to feed in this world, is it right to be redirecting farmland from growing food to supplying feedstock for biofuels?
Is the demand for biofuels driving up the price of food for all?
Do the benefit of renewable fuels outweigh the food supply side effects?
Food or Fuel?
We recently trumpeted the success of scientists who used bacteria and sugar to produce propane -- LPG Becomes a Renewable Energy Source.
However, as with other biofuels, this means that sugarcane, along with other food stuff commodities like corn and vegetable oil, are being diverted from the tables of hungry people to the fuel tanks of the world.
A significant portion of the global output of corn and sugarcane is now used in the production of ethanol, a petrol supplement/substitute.
Soybean oil is used in the production of biodiesel.
Collectively, the products made from these are known as first generation biofuels.
This situation has been accelerated by government policies.
Various countries provide incentives, include financial enticements, to promote the development and use of biofuels.
In some cases this makes uneconomical processes viable and provides farmers with inducements to produce biofuel crops instead of food.
The ethical question is obvious.
Should we be doing this when there are still people going hungry every night?
The dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that the most highly impacted are the people of poor third world countries.
Second Generation Biofuels from Non-Food Sources
To solve the problem, research continues on biofuels made from non-food feedstock.
Second generation biofuels are fuels that can be produced from various types of cellulose and other kinds of biomass.
Biomass is derived from plant materials but can also include animal waste and other materials.
Sources of biomass include unused components of current food crops, including husks, stems, and leaves, as well as fruit skins and pulp from fruit pressing.
There are also non-food crops, that will grow in marginal areas not suited to food production, and woodchips.
Biofuel from Algae
Algae derived biofuel is another alternative to fossil fuel.
Algae can be used to produce different types of fuel, depending on the process and which part of the cell is used.
The algae have the added benefit of removing CO2 from the atmosphere so that the CO2 produced, during burning, is no more than what was removed.
They can also use waste water or salt water, conserving fresh water supplies.
Cost is currently the barrier to algae biofuels.
The cost of production is higher than that of fossil or other biofuels.
Beyond Second Generation Biofuels
The same scientists that produced propane with bacteria and sugar are also working toward the goal of not using any biomass.
Their concept of developing propane producing photosynthetic bacteria is one possible answer.
This means that in the future we could be directly converting solar energy into gaseous fuel.
Renewable Energy and Climate Friendly Solutions
There is no question that we need to develop renewable energy.
Fossil fuels are a finite resource and, in many cases, are the source of high greenhouse gas emissions when used.
Many renewable electric options already exist that do not affect the food supply, including solar and wind.
The goal should be to also find renewable solutions for liquid and gaseous fuels that do not affect the food chain.
Which is the Right Path?
It would not be unusual to be torn between the two camps.
It is a difficult conundrum, as both sides are driven by the best of intentions but both currently require compromises.
We must work toward renewable and environmentally friendly solutions.
At the same time, we should be avoiding any strategy that worsens world hunger and malnutrition.
Let’s hope is that science comes up with renewable solutions that don’t require these kinds of compromises, such as economically viable second generation biofuels and photosynthetic bacteria.
Knowing that the status quo is just a transitional phase, progressing to a better solution, does make it a bit easier to accept either position.
Comments, questions or feedback?