Food Or Fuel? An Unique Global Challenge


You’d be forgiven for thinking that biofuel (energy-rich oils and alcohols from certain crops such as corn and switchgrass) is the answer to all our energy worries, with motorized vehicle manufacturers in particular breathing a sigh of relief and getting back to their profit-making?

Not even close. In fact biofuel is the catalyst for a world economy crisis, as reported by Keith Bradsher in the New York Times.

Here in the UK, Europe and the US, cooking oil is generally cheap and widely available, so we find it an invisible necessity in the kitchen – in fact, as a “Ëœfat’, cooking oil can even suffer the media-led reputation of being “Ëœbad’ for us. Thanks to the growing interest in healthier living, Western shoppers are avoiding the hydrogenated trans-fats so popular 30 years ago and opting for unprocessed fats once more.

In some developing countries, it’s less about consumer choice and more a question of survival. Saturated-fat cooking oil is rich in calories, and while that’s causing health problems for Americans and Europeans, in places like West Africa it’s the most efficient way of feeding people. Cooking oil can also be used as a vitamin delivery system to supplement inadequate supplies of nutrition.

Worldwide cooking oil production is already in a precarious state. Now demand for biofuel is changing cash-crop production – so now there’s less food being grown. And that demand for biofuel is urgent enough to encourage some very eco-toxic activities, such as the razing of rainforests in favour of oil palm plantations

On a global scale, the demand for fuel causes all sorts of problems when it impacts on, or even takes priority over, the demand for food. That’s the bottom line. And the inescapable conclusion is that while technology helps us glean all the energy we can out of our stretched resources, the course of action that will have the most profound effect is to reduce our energy consumption by reducing the amount of fuel we burn.

That’s the sociological sea-change facing the next generations of our societies. It’s a constraint and it’s an opportunity, all rolled into one, and it’s a challenge that must be met.

And so meet it we shall.

Image: eworm

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.