Sunday, 13 April 2008

Biofuels

I have been prompted by an article in BBC CountryFile magazine to comment on the topic of biofuels. Of course, this doesn't directly fall under the heading of 'Eating British', but it would appear that the impact of the biofuel industry is already being felt by consumers here in the UK. It was never my intention to stray into this kind of area with this project, but I've begun to feel that it is unavoidable. It is no longer possible to have any kind of a complete discussion on the topic of British food without taking into account the wider, global picture, which includes things such as biofuels.

According to BBC CountryFile magazine, there are two types of biofuel - bioethanol which is produced by fermenting wheat or sugar cane and biodiesel which is made from oils extracted from plants such as oil seed rape.

Apparently, the European Environment Agency has calculated that in the short term, the UK has the capacity to grow enough fuel to meet 2.5% of our transport needs. Interestingly, as of April this year all fuel sold in Britain must have some biofuel mixed with it.

Of course, much of the biofuel that we'll be using will be imported, from countries such as Brazil. But, what impact will this new industry have on these countries? Will more forest be cut down to make way for biofuel production? If so, then it's hard to see how biofuel could possibly have an environmental benefit. What about the local economy in countries producing biofuel? On the face of it, one might expect that this new industry would be highly beneficial, bringing significant new income to otherwise poor areas. However, some people have apparently argued that this isn't necessarily the case. According to the article in BBC CountryFile magazine, it has been pointed out that in Swaziland, people are receiving food aid, but are also exporting their main crop, cassava, to be made into biofuel.

What impact does this have on us here in the UK? Well, according to the article, the National Farmers Union (NFU) are very much in favour of producing biofuels here. However, the link between biofuels and the rising cost of food has been pointed out by a number of people. I've certainly noticed that my weekly shop has become more expensive and these rises have been blamed on the world wide shortage of grain. This grain is often used for animal feed, so more expensive grain means more expensive meat.

In my humble opinion, I can't believe that this price rise is totally unrelated to biofuels, though I accept that there are many other factors, such as increased demand from countries such as China and India, as well as poor harvests across the world. Also, I would imagine that producers of biofuels will pay more for the raw ingredients then producers of food. Therefore, there will be an unavoidable pressure on farmers to sell their crops for biofuels rather then food.

At the end of the day, I can't help but feel that burning our food is, quite simply, stupid. Particularly when you consider how many starving people there are in the world. How much difference would it make if all of the products currently used to make biofuels were used to help feed the starving in the third world? I have no idea, but I doubt it would be an insignificant difference.

The BBC CountryFile article mentions that second generation biofuels will be made from the non-food part of the plant, such as the stalk, or perhaps from algae. This sounds like a much more sensible idea to me, but these products are not yet on the market.

1 comment:

Animal Dave said...

Food for thought:
Hi Dr Bat. I found this link and thought you might find it relevant re biofuels...An interesting point about meat eating too.

http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2008/
04/15/the-pleasures-of-the-flesh/