Food, Fuel or Fools

By Peter Brown | August 15, 2011

The argument that the world is facing a food shortage, and that biofuels are contributing to that shortage, is bogus. There is enough food in the world to give every man, woman and child 4.3 pounds of food a day.

A study undertaken by the Stockholm International Water Institute highlights the absolutely staggering amounts of food that are wasted every day. In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that 30 to 40 percent of our food crops never reach the table.

The price of food is going up, and in some cases quite dramatically. It is also very clear that other staples have risen just as dramatically, none more so than petroleum products. Another study done by the World Bank in July 2010 places the blame for the increase of food prices on commodity traders who  use food as just another commodity to be manipulated for profit and excludes any thought of food being just food.

Wars are being fought for petroleum, not for food, because starving nations do not have the clout to get fed, they only have the right to die off while often sitting on simple solutions to their energy problems. It is fascinating to read which countries are the hungriest and least able to feed their own people. The worst off are clustered in a combination of climactic disaster, low irrigation, political insanity and religious sectarianism. What is never brought up is that those same areas are energy poor. They lack local supplies of the most basic energy sources. They have no roads, no power and no water to face their overwhelming poverty. Interestingly enough, most of them have access to some form of bioenergy; more often than not palm oil and possibly jatropha. In some of those countries, diesel sells for $4 a gallon and a small place like Liberia could be energy independent if it harvested its palm plantations.

The basic premise that the world is gasping for food is only true insofar that there are pockets or areas, in the developing nations, that are unable to produce enough food locally to survive. A really simplistic example would include the farmer in Sierra Leone who raises tomatoes and cannot afford to move his 20 pounds a week to the local market because of the high cost of transportation (diesel fuel). The multinational food companies that fill the shelves in remote areas of the world can afford those prices because they transport in bulk over vast distances in sophisticated refrigeration units. Their fuel per pound is minimal compared to the local farmer, although you will not see them rushing into Somalia any time soon.

We are dealing with a complex and very delicate equation that can only be solved by making assumptions on the X, Y and Z axis. X is the high cost of transportation due to the increased fuel prices; this unknown variable shifts on a daily basis for many reasons and is entirely unpredictable except that it trends up. Y is the untold damage we are doing to our planet because of X, which actively modifies Y, and is in turn modified by a horde of other factors some call the SUV (sport utility vehicle) syndrome. Then there is the Z factor, the zany factor that dictates against both reason and logic under the guise of political, ecological and ethical stances that some food staples may not be fuel, and certain forms of energy are “unacceptable” or unethical.

The role of the multinational food corporations is almost as troubling as the role being played out by the large petroleum companies. They abhor biofuels because the transition from food to fuel is immediate. There are fewer intermediaries between the corn farmer and the gas tank than between the farmer and the Doritos chip. So no wonder the food companies have an altruistic attitude.

On the other hand, changing one element of the equation changes the whole aspect of the solution. The most obvious element has to be the ability to generate energy in one way or another. Often overlooked is the fact that petroleum products have become increasingly expensive, distribution is erratic and supplies are controlled by outside sources that may not have anyone’s best interest at heart. Making biodiesel from available feedstock to operate generators, trucks and other trappings of civilization can only be a good thing in areas where civilization comes at the point of a gun. Being part of a movement that will allow the world to maintain its standard of energy and replace those energy sources with renewables is certainly a step in the right direction.

Author: Peter Brown
Co-founder, International Procurement Tools Inc.
(408) 426-5585

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