Much romanticism in the food/fuel discussion

There is a lot of emotion in the food/fuel discussion. Of course in the disguise of academic arguments, and supplied with discourses on LCA and ILUC, but nevertheless firmly rooted in the necessity of a daily bowl of rice for the poor fellow citizen, and in conservation of the earth. Fine starting points. One can only guess the amount of emotion in the arguments: but I would estimate it at seventy-five per cent – in the end the discussion is about romanticism versus rationality.

Many interests around food/fuel
Romanticism from social activists who take as their reference point the ‘hungry African’ and the wickedness of (Western) buyers of land; and rationality from people, often no less engaged, who stress the need for careful and balanced action and a keen eye on all interests involved, who judge that Europe should be able to use the technology it has developed, and earn money in doing so. And just keep in mind that many stakeholders would like to see less, or at least a slower development of the biobased economy – think of ‘Big Oil’ that put a brake on PV development as well. The interests of those opposing biobased from their economic interests, and those opposing biobased from their moral conviction, sometimes miraculously coincide.

This is a long introduction to the food/fuel meeting in The Hague, last 23 April. There, the divide between romantics and rationalists became apparent. Maybe, in the future we do not need to have such meetings any more. Then, I hope, everyone has been convinced that the food/fuel discussion does not exist in reality. Or, does not exist anymore, for we have been engaged in it for a long time. Convinced that in the end, it is all about making decisions having taken all interests into account, and having done so very securely making sure that each person gets his or her share.

Conventional versus advanced
As we are smoothing out differences of opinion here, we could also get rid of that other useless discussion. The one differentiating among first and second generation biofuels. People at the forefront have been using the terms ‘conventional versus advanced’ biofuels instead for some time. Advanced biofuels are fuels produced by incrementally better technologies. Moreover, the time might come when it would be be beneficial to produce biofuels directly from food, if that would carry the best outcome for farmers, citizens, industrialists and the market (where the latter need not be leading). And to make another point along the same line of reasoning: the first generation has paved the way for the second generation. Moreover, often first generation biofuels were quite beneficial to food and feed production, because their production made use of biorefinery, in which valuable products could be produced separately.

And as we are on the track of removing combat posts between romantics and rationalists, and dividing lines between first and second generation biofuels, we should not forget one more important divide: the one between biofuels and biobased chemicals. We consider the problem of energy supply to have been solved (with the possible exception of fuels for heavy lorries and aviation, for which biofuels are very suitable): the future is to solar energy, with the initial addition of (shale) gas. But supply of feedstock to chemical industry is quite another matter. There are no alternatives to biobased resources as a feedstock, if we run out of oil as the feedstock for petrochemical industries. The same holds true for biobased materials, i.e. polymers. An additional advantage: we need much less chemicals than biofuels; a food/chemicals discussion is just not relevant, in view of the quantities involved.

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