Beyond food/fuel: let the chemical sector be a partner in the fight against hunger

Old cereal warehouses
In the Middle Ages, merchants already formed food supplies. Old cereal warehouses in Gdansk (Poland)

World food reserves are very low. Reserves now amount to two months; strategic oil reserves amount to at least three months. Such low reserves are made possible by major achievements in JIT and logistics; they tend to decline ever further, while they revolve faster. But this causes the world food system to have a very low buffer. Many people are rightly concerned about a further reduction of that buffer.

The world food system tends to reduce rather than increase world food buffers. In order to save costs. In order to guarantee quality and freshness. That renders the system very vulnerable. If there is a major disaster upcoming, and the buffer gets exhausted, what can we do? Each year, we waste about 50% of the agricultural yield, by bad storage and even worse distribution; we would be able to overcome any food shortages with the amount of food lost, but it will not be easy to resolve that problem. The only other option is to develop new land. But the cycle of reclamation and taking into production is three to five years. Much too long to prevent an acute disaster.

PUR foam
Many producers try to increase the biobased amount in products like polyurethane (PUR) foam

Let the chemical sector be a part of the solution
There is an alternative. We could increase world food production, while not storing the extra supply; we could use it as a feedstock for the chemical sector. With the legal provision that this feedstock will have to return to the food chain if necessary. A flexible use of feedstock. If and when there is a threat of famine, suddenly a large amount of food might re-enter into the food chain.

As the biobased economy develops, the agro sector and the chemistry, materials and energy sectors grow closer. Industry uses an increasing amount of agricultural feedstock for production of personal care products, biopolymers, construction materials, resins etc. The demand for biofuels is still rising. There is a huge pressure on industry and agriculture to shift from first generation feedstock (edible products) to second generation feedstock (waste and woody materials) as fast as possible. But this might not be necessary. If industry and agro agree to the flexible use of (first generation) feedstock, we create a lot of security in the world food supply. In that case, feedstock will flow back to the food chain if need may be.

Let the agricultural sector be involved
Two questions are decisive for this plan’s success. Firstly: can we legally secure that the chemical sector will transfer its new feedstock, if need may be, to the food authorities, or force the agro sector not to supply its product to the chemical or energy sectors? We will have to set strict conditions for this to happen. Nationally, this will be easier to enforce than at a world scale, but it could be feasible. A discussion on this runs in the USA already. Could it be an element in the new European agricultural policy? The USA could reclaim its traditional position as food stockpile by using shale gas to the maximum for energy and chemicals (well under way), and a flexible use of cereals for ‘food, feed and fuel’. Cereals can be stored easily for a long period of time. In principle, there are no objections to a similar cereals policy in the EU. For sugar, the same policies could be applied. As energy production will become less dependent on biomass (due to shale gas, solar and wind power), the management of strategic supplies of cereals and sugar will become easier.

Use of biomass for energy purposes is no longer a goal in itself.

Food, feed and functionals
The second question is: will the chemical industry want to cooperate? At first sight, it does not seem to profit much from this proposal. It will do it no harm either, on the other hand. But what if the chemical and agrofood sectors, and the agricultural cooperatives would join forces? Then the acreage could be enlarged if necessary, whereas there would be more security in the agricultural system. As the chemical and the agro sectors would come closer – something we regard as a necessity for a successful biobased economy – this option will become a matter of course. It could develop into an exceptional opportunity for the agricultural sector to develop into the primary supplier of ‘food, feed and functionals’. Use of biomass for energy purposes is no longer a goal in itself.

Let this proposal simmer a bit – to use an appropriate terminology. Let us investigate how the chemical and agricultural sectors look upon these ideas. Let us not forget the European food authorities, who will have to establish a new common agricultural policy in two years’ time. These ideas might become part of it.

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1 thought on “Beyond food/fuel: let the chemical sector be a partner in the fight against hunger”

  1. Flexible resource deployment (food, fuel, biobased) would seem to be an attractive idea, but in my mind it has major consequences for industry (planning, operational management). In fact we already have this situation; in the US and the EU biofuel factories often stop operations if feedstock prices (in particular maize and rapeseed) are too high. If prices fall, they resume operations.
    I would like to make a plea for increased flexibility in growing feedstock for food and other applications. Major price fluctuations mainly occur if the balance between production and demand is broken. This is because either demand rises sharply (e.g. by biofuel production), or production fails (e.g. because of crop failure caused by draught). Many cropping decisions are taken just once a year. We could stimulate fast growing crops in order to even out major fluctuations. If production falls short (or demand rises sharply) we could deploy extra crops at a relatively short notice (e.g. soy or rapeseed after winter wheat in temperate climates, maize as a second crop in Brazil). A program for both research and crop management might be a good idea. To be financed by a small levy on forward contracts of major food crops.


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