Coco Jambo, or The Biofuel Conundrum

This video is another gem from, a site that contains a growing collection of short Baha’i-inspired documentaries. Watch how an innovative “white bloke” living on the island of Vanuatu rolls up his sleeves and gets down to finding a homegrown solution to the problem of rising fuel prices.

Finished watching?

Let’s reflect for a moment on the video and then turn our thoughts towards the bigger picture..

The Biofuel Conundrum

Biofuel production is without doubt one hot topic these days. It provokes an entire spectrum of opinions from advocates and critics alike. Having initially been devised as a mechanism to reduce the world’s dependence on crude oil, the mass production of biofuel using food crops has precipitated another crisis — in the form of rocketing food prices and increased global famine. What are the possible reasons for this wretched situation? Was this outcome inevitable, or was it somehow avoidable?

Being a regular user of public transport, I’ve had to endure yet another rise in the base taxi fare, as well as a significant price rise for bus tickets, all in the past month. Clearly, biofuels haven’t lowered fuel prices — not for me anyway — and the trip over to the local grocery store is becoming more and more of a nervous window-shopping experience. So what exactly has gone wrong?

As usual, I dive into the World Wide Web to try and figure things out. A Time magazine article, Solving the Biofuels vs. Food Problem, points out that in 2006 alone the U.S. produced 4.86 billion gallons of corn ethanol. That sounds like a lot, but what does it really mean? Well, United Nations expert Jean Ziegler, explains that it takes the same amount of corn to produce 13 gallons of ethanol as it does to feed a child for one year. Divide 4.86 billion by 13 and we have 374 million starving children who could have been fed, all by a single country!! And this was back in 2006 — I can only imagine the numbers would have shot up by now. Ziegler, clearly exasperated by this situation, goes on to comment:

..the effect of transforming hundreds and hundreds of thousands of tons of maize, of wheat, of beans, of palm oil, into agricultural fuel is absolutely catastrophic for the hungry people.. So it’s a crime against humanity.. What has to be stopped is.. the growing catastrophe of the massacre (by) hunger in the world.

Based on this statistic alone, it would take a foolhardy person to reject Ziegler’s statement outright.

When Baha’u'llah, Prophet Founder of the Baha’i Faith, pronounced that the prevailing world order is “lamentably defective”, need we look any further for proof?

Couldn’t They Have Waited?

Both Ziegler and the author of the Time article state that non-food alternatives for biofuel, such as switchgrass (which is energy-efficient) and Jatropha shrubs (which grow well on poor land), are only a few years away from becoming viable for mass production. The Science Blog reports on an even more promising alternative, a grass called Miscanthus. Why then, do the economically advantaged countries not wait a little while longer? Surely it should be obvious that all this excess corn can quite easily feed the world’s hungry population. Why do these countries ruthlessly trade human lives in order for their citizens to drive a few extra miles on the highway?

In the masterpiece entitled Century of Light, which examines the successes and failures of the 20th century, the The Universal House of Justice explains:

Tragically, what Bahá’ís see in present-day society is unbridled exploitation of the masses of humanity by greed that excuses itself as the operation of “impersonal market forces”.. What they find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science”, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

(Commissioned by The Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, p. 137)

This captures, in essence, what Baha’is believe to be the root cause of humanity’s ills. What is completely disregarded by our present economic and political systems are those universal spiritual qualities spoken of in the Holy Books of the world’s religions — justice, honesty, trustworthiness, generosity, love of one’s neighbour and so on. Indeed, it is puzzling to observe how these guiding principles, which govern the behaviour of righteous individuals across just about every society, are conveniently swept under the rug in debates on international policy.

Having said this, individual transformation, although vital, is alone not enough. It is becoming increasingly urgent for nations to acknowledge that they belong to a single common homeland known as planet Earth, and that the good of the whole can never be achieved without sincerely seeking the best for each and every part. This implies moving from a culture of competition for natural resources towards one of collaboration. The implications of this change of thinking would be nothing short of revolutionary, and revolution, it seems, is precisely what is needed.

Sure, it is easy to pass this off as some fanciful notion and continue seeking the latest popular explanation as to why our world systems are just so volatile. Commonly-heard phrases like “economic downturn”, “instability in the Middle East”, “rising interest rates”, “loss of investor confidence”, “farm subsidies” are forever making the rounds in the media, and people blindly accept these for the very reason that they are impersonal. These phrases, in my opinion, are comfortable to accept because they do not challenge the status quo. They do not challenge ingrained patterns of human and societal behaviour. Instead, all they do is mask the reality that we are governed by a system that has long passed it’s sell-by date; one which is described as “morally and intellectually bankrupt” by The Universal House of Justice. The only solution that will ensure a long-term future of peace and prosperity is spiritual — it can only be spiritual.

But what to do about the biofuel problem?

Ahh, the million dollar question. Obviously there is no such thing as a quick fix. Nevertheless, Baha’is believe that even the most complex economic problems can be solved through the application of spiritual principles. Now, supposing for a moment that Tony Deamer’s coconut fuel initiative in Vanuatu became a candidate for large-scale production. What are some questions that we would hope the Government would ask? What are some suggested potential international guidelines on this matter? Here is a quick list that came to my mind:

  • What is the nutritional value of the crop in question? Is it a viable source of food for the world’s population?
  • What is the current economic state of the country in question? In what ways can the money saved on importing fuel be channeled towards improving education, health care etc?
  • Will the by-products of the fuel extraction process have any worth or be discarded as waste?
  • What is the potential environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions etc?
  • How do we “give back” to the land what has been taken from it?

In terms of coconut fuel in Vanuatu, you may find it interesting to read this article, in which Tony Deamer addresses some of the above questions.

Do you have any personal thoughts on this issue?

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  1. I really enjoyed the video. Thanks so much for sharing that!
    Like the other important issues that are creating in us the need to see the world as a global neighborhood where cooperation must balance competition as a means to the next step, the food/fuel questions that arise can be looked at on an individual case basis.

    When I look at this video, it appears that biofuel produced this way is also edible so the products can serve multiple purposes as needed. The products also fit the culture and utilize plants that are well-established in the area and non-invasive. So, simply viewed, this projects suits this area.

    It might not suit another area with a different culture or climate. In other words- one size does not fit all and each circumstance should be examined for its unique needs and opportunities, especially by the people who are the stakeholders – the people who live in the area.

    The framework for a world civilization outlined by Baha’u'llah is truly a gift from God and is beginning to permeate the minds and hearts of humans everywhere.

    One little tool that I have found useful in dealing with the application of world-community consciousness on a personal, pragmatic level is what Rotarians call the 4-way test.

    Of the things we think, say and do,

    Is it the Truth?
    Is it fair to all concerned?
    Will it build good will and better friendships?
    Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

  2. Great comments Liz, thank you! I especially like the one-size-doesn’t-fit-all idea, and agree that the project felt right for the area and the specific context.
    It’s the first time I’ve come across the Rotarians test.. I suppose on the last point “Will it be beneficial to all concerned”, it’s important to extend our definition of “all concerned” beyond our immediate environment. Had this happened with respect to biofuel, and decision-makers had looked beyond their own borders, we wouldn’t be witnessing all this precious corn going up in smoke.

  3. Wow, what a post. I think I may have to re-read it four or five times before I can even begin to unravel and make sense of what you’re actually saying. It’s mind blowing to think about how one people can live their lives (in my case, our lives) to such excess while others can barely live.

  4. The use of food crops to make biofuels needs to be carefully examined. If societies decide to go down that path, then all the people involved should be treated fairly. No one should be forced from their land. All should be traeated with humanity and trade between the richer nations and the developing nations should be fair.

  5. Thanks for the post. This question has been bugging me for quite a while. Especially since I ventured in buing a new car a few months ago because my old one wouldn’t have made it through vi one more time. The options were to go either for a biofuel engine, a (bio-)gas, a low consumption diesel or a hybrid. Here’s my two cents on the story.

    Biofuel engines have one great advantage: They produce only 20% of CO2 of normal gasoline engines of comparable size with 30% increase in power and 20% decrease in cost (meaning the cost on my wallet). The cost factor would even improve, once this kind of fuel were produced on a larger scale. As we all know, CO2 is the main cause for global warming. Another advantage of the so called bioflex engines is, that you can mix biofuel with any percentage of normal fuel without damaging your engine. This makes you independent of the currently not very widespread supply in biofuel access points. Which gives these engines a very practical advantage over (bio-)gas engines, at least in most countries. As I live in Switzerland, where up until now 100% of biofuel is being produced from cellulose left-overs from the timber-to-paper-production, there is also no bad concience for starving children anywhere involved. At least not now. But it is clear that given the current increase in bioflex car sales, this source will be exploited within the next two years..

    Farmers in Switzerland and the world over are thinking of changing from their current crop – whatever they grow – to switch to biofuel crops. Why? Because the price of those crops is rising steeply which in turn promises them a higher income and therefore a better outcome. In fact, they would grow anything to make a better living, be it tobacco, hops, vine, marihuana, as long it’s not prohibited. Let’s face it: No small farmer can survive on food-crops here anyway with the cheap competition from EU-countries and US large producers.

    Ziegler is a well known environmentalist, Swiss by the way. And I have always admired his courage to speak up and fight for the environment, the species and the underpriveledged. His idea to halt this process for a few years in order to think properly about its consequences and to come up with specialised crops which don’t compete with food-crops is certainly reasonable.

    As a Bahá’í, I also agree with all the statements brought forward in this post in terms of applying spiritual principles to economic problems and to respect the rights of anyone concerned. In order to do that, let me therefore shed a light on some more facettes to this global and complicated issue, knowing that my grasp is far from complete.

    Let’s take the symptom of rising food prices. Why are they rising? Because the US produced some 19 million tons of corn for ethanol? Unlikely. Although US Foreign Affairs Reps. estimate that by 2008, some 30% of corn production in the US will be dedicated to biofuel production, which is surely significant, the main reason for the huge price increase I suspect to be mere speculation and maybe also some transport cost. Speculation on the basis not only of depleting corn ressources but also and mainly on the basis of the oil price hype. Transport cost induced likewise. Since the oil bubble burst with the financial crisis we will also see those crop prices tumble.

    As I said, farmers will always go for the crop that pays the most for the input. It’s as easy as that. The question is: Will this be a threat or a chance for developing countries? Having served myself in Southern Africa for more than three years in social development projects, among them sustainable agriculture ones, I can think of ways in which this new situation could infact be a blessing in disguise for poor countries.

    Some food for thought:
    - What if the US and other large producers were’nt interested in producing food crop anymore?
    - What if the US, EU and China would not dump their surplus in corn every year into third world markets (tarnished as aid) while destroing the very livelihood of any local farming initiative?
    - What if the worlds fuel consumption depended on plants instead of crude oil?
    - What would this do to the forces and values governing today’s economic systems?
    - What would in such a scenario be the economic significance of agricultural states with no or little mineral resources?
    - Could this finally help them to get a better status in WTO negotiations?
    - Will this be a new source of much needed foreign currency income which could be used for much needed food and medicine?
    - Will local availability of fuel make poor countries less vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices?
    - Will this help third world governments to become more independent? (Mugabe is a dictator, yes, and a bad one, too. But the worse criminals and the true responsibles for the current disaster in Zimbabwe are the World Bank, the IMF, the G8 and the Financial Sector in South Africa and Great Britan, to mention just a few, who weren’t men enough to help Mugabe solve the Land Question in this beautiful country ten years ago, which they could have with a lumpy quarter billion USD – but that’s another story).

    Well, before I get taken too far away ;-) , what would the spiritual principals be now, supporting those processes? It would maybe mean that this time, we should not allow patents on fuel-efficient crops be held for more than a couple of years by those who found them. We should stop financial gambling with – anything for that matter, but especially with – food. We should initiate and support projects which help rebuild and sustain local agriculture and its access to local and global markets. We should regulate the ratio between food-crops and fuel-crops with – yes – duties and taxes, but this time in favour of the poor and not necessarily in favour of our own country.

    I’m sure, you can come up with many more ideas on how to use this opportunity to build a more just economic environment instead of merely fighting it. We will not, however, be able to stop the process. Well, that’s why I finally bought a hybrid! And I won’t even tell you that I owned a ’68 Oldsmobile until recently (sniff!).

  6. Tom,

    I had been travelling for several days so hadn’t managed to reading your comment, and now that I have, wow..blown away! Thanks for sharing your expertise, no doubt borne out of experiences from the SED projects you were involved in. I actually feel like it belongs in a post of it’s own, rather than a comment on this article.

    The thoughts you have offered are eminently reasonable and, with a little unified effort, completely capable of implementation. There is a common undercurrent behind your suggestions, and that is: how can we ensure that certain countries aren’t harmed by the actions of others (or by institutions that are heavily influenced by them), and even taking it a step further, how do we achieve win-win situations for all concerned (like you mention – converting challenges to opportunities).

    The minimal prerequisite towards a lasting solution – and numerous Baha’i-inspired texts bear testament to this – is humble recognition that we are all citizens of one planet, that we’re all in this together, and that even if we think we can derive short-term benefits from ignoring this fact, sooner or later it will hit us hard. The present financial crisis is just a mild example – numerous other catastrophes lie in wait.

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