Thursday, March 29, 2007

Biofuels from food

I rarely write about politics here. And being of a centrist political persuasion, it is even rarer that I have to write that I agree with Fidel Castro, of all people. I mean, communism is dead, and the man is an artifact of a bygone era. But just when you think the next news about him will be his obituary, he makes a statement on biofuels I couldn't agree with more.

Turning food crops into fuel is a bad idea. In spite of globalisation there are still huge income disparities in the world. That means that an average American can easily pay more just to fill up his gaz-guzzling SUV than a Mexican peasant can pay for his tortillas. If the fuel and the tortilla are made from the same material, maize in this case, the Mexican goes hungry, and the American keeps driving. The current American drive to use ethanol from maize as fuel has more to do with the American farmer lobby than with any aspects of sustainable development and greenery.

That isn't to say that I am against biofuels. But the way to go is cellulosic ethanol, which is made out of the non-edible parts of plants. If you have ever seen a maize plant (what the Americans call "corn"), you know that the edible part is just a fraction of the total plant. So lets grow corn, make food for the world out of the edible part, and transform the inedible bits into fuel. While transforming cellulose into ethanol is harder than doing it with the edible parts, the technology is under development. Growing enough corn to fill America's cars, while only using the inedible part for fuel production, would probably even drive global food prices down. Which doesn't hurt the farmer, who makes up for it by selling the rest of the plant to a biorefinery, and makes life for the Mexican peasant cheaper. Everybody wins!

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