"Soaring fuel, food prices monumental trail wreck."

September 17, 2008

By Asterio Takesy
The director of SPREP & is based in Apia

As I write this , oil prices have just soared to over US$145 a barrel and a gallon of gasoline has risen to more than US$4 a gallon in the US and over US$9 a gallon in French Polynesia. Record price levels have become an almost weekly occurrence throughout the world and the Pacific is no exception.

At the same time, food prices also are soaring and shortages are becoming common in some regions. Signs point to these trends converging to form a monumental train wreck for the world's people and environment in the coming months.

For years countries with large agricultural sectors have touted bio fuels as a means to reduce reliance on petroleum.

For years crops grown for these purposes represented only a small portion of total output. However, growing price and environmental pressures have resulted in greater reliance on bio fuels as a lower-cost and, some argue, cleaner alternative.

Unfortunately, shifting agricultural production to biofuels has adversely impacted world food supplies and prices. At the same time energy costs have reached record levels, global food prices have also soared and shortages of some key commodities have become common.

Not surprisingly, it is the poorest who bear the brunt of this "doublewhammy."

The food crisis has led to increasingly vocal protests in many nations and prompted the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation) to meet in an emergency session last June in Rome.

Many place much of the blame for the crisis on the shift to bio fuels.

Touted by some as an environmentally- friendly way to reduce the use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions, bio fuels have recently lost much of their lustre.

Indeed, the degree of environmental benefit of these technologies, if any, has become the subject of considerable worldwide debate.

But with a powerful agricultural lobby group pushing for wider use, the issue is not likely to go away any time soon.

The rising demand from rapidly expanding economies, mainly in Asia, continued political instability in many countries, and other factors are responsible for the unprecedented fuel price rise. Many of the causes involve fundamental issues that are not likely to lessen anytime in the near future. Most experts concede that the high petroleum prices are here to stay, with many predicting prices may reach US$200 a barrel by the end of the year.

This, of course, is a mixed blessing for the environment. On one hand, higher petroleum prices more than anything else will prompt the adoption of more efficient technologies and practices, and renew interest in renewable sources of energy.

For example, the trend toward ever larger, gas-guzzling light trucks and sport utility vehicles as a primary mode of personal transportation in developed countries is coming to an abrupt end, and not a moment too soon.

Consumers in all countries now demand more fuel-efficient cars, including hybrids. Public transportation, carpooling and work-from home have taken off as never before. These are all positive steps toward reducing our global carbon footprint.

On the other hand, it's difficult to see how the global food crisis can lead to any positive environmental outcome. More land will be converted to agriculture-accelerating deforestation and land degradation issues worldwide.

Fish stocks, already a subject of great concern in the Pacific and elsewhere, will likely be depleted at a faster rate. Many of the most harmful pesticides and herbicides used in agriculture have gradually been phased out in the past 20 to 30 years.

With starvation threatening millions of people, there are new compelling pressures to increase yield at any cost. Clearly, the world risks a return to the "silent spring" we thought was relegated to history.

Unfortunately, the world is now paying the price for most governments' slow acceptance of alternative energy sources.

The scramble is on for cheaper alternatives to petroleum, but many of these technologies require years of research and development to become viable. It's not surprising, therefore, that biofuels have become so popular so quickly for those looking for a "quick fix".

The technology is available now and already in widespread use in even the poorest countries. In many cases, the Pacific islands have been leaders in adoption of these technologies, such as the use of coconut oil as a diesel substitute by Vanuatu for all its government vehicles or for buses and utility vehicles in Micronesia.

In 2007 alone, the power utility in Vanuatu (UNELCO) used more than a million litres of copra oil for power generation.

In Fiji, sugar processing continues apace with ethanol derived from the bagasse now helping to supplement petrol imports, while its energy experts are studying technologies used by other countries to produce ethanol from cassava.

These are some positive examples of how biofuels can be a viable and environmentally sound alternative to fossil fuels. In these cases, languishing agricultural industries were given new life, emissions-spewing diesel engines were taken off the roads and less fossil fuels burnt for generating electricity.

Yet not all is bright. The greenhouse gas contribution of biofuels versus fossil fuels has been hotly debated with many arguing it's a draw. Some, however, have argued that some types of biofuels are actually even worse for the environment than petroleum.

Biofuels are particularly problematic for those parts of the world already vulnerable to fluctuations in food supply.

In some areas, plots of land traditionally used for food crops have been replaced with huge farming operations exclusively for biofuels.

This, along with the ever-present and growing population pressures and growing prosperity, has resulted in a greater demand for more food than can be met.

Controversy aside, biofuel production -if locally produced and consumed -could be quite sustainable in the Pacific. Recent studies in Fiji, Vanuatu and Marshall Islands suggest it is possible.

However, each biofuel project needs to be carefully analysed for its impact on food security as well as employment, and biofuels for export raises a whole other set of issues.

But for local production and use there are a lot of benefits that could be attained such as fuel security, employment creation and reclamation of fallow agricultural land.

Obviously, great caution is needed in the push towards biofuels as a petroleum replacement.

However, we must be careful to not dismiss their value entirely. Second generation biofuels (and beyond), while in the very early stages of development, offer great hope for real and sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel use, in particular recent research on algae.