Oct 29, 2014

The Future of Food: looking through the Crystal Ball

"The best way to predict the future is to create it"

Peter Drucker

In this week’s post, I shall be critiquing another academic article. This article caught my attention with its interesting title, and felt apt for the blog as well due to its relation to food. It’s eye-catching title? 

“The Future of Food” 
(see full title and article here

Article Content
The article discusses the design of 4 scenarios of the future world on basis of its priorities in 2 aspects towards 2050. These were 1) economy or environment and 2) globalization or regionalization. The scenario was then tested by simulating it through a hypothetical food system model to assess the extent of natural resource use in agricultural practices.

The results show that the business-as-usual model (described as “The Affluent World”) would be the most resource depleting (see images below) because developing nations aspire to the practice of developed nations, as well as population increases. Recommendations made then include demand-side solutions, such as to reduce animal product consumption and wastage, and supply-side solutions, which include better feed efficiency.

Based on the results, “The Affluent World” scenario would require us to produce 2 times more calories of food and consume twice the amount of water than present day agriculture

(Source: Odegard and van der Voet, 2014)

As anticipating changes become more critical in future planning, I feel that this article was a strong attempt to bring mathematics, science and modelling concepts to better predict the future of food agriculture. Much of the report explained how their simulation was run and justified why “The Affluent World” scenario would be more environmentally damaging, using more water, land and fertilizer (Odegard and van der Voet, 2014). However, while being thorough with their explanation, the truth is that the food system model that they conceived is ultimately static in nature, and could not ever factor in the possibility of sudden short-term or long-term changes to the food system, which are of a random nature.

The other assumption the model makes is that the world will consistently make a single, uniform decision accepted as a universal course of action. This however is not true; even now there are conflicts in beliefs concerning how food should be managed. TIME Magazine recently released an article, where multiple stakeholders in the food industry, such as scientists to food aid agencies and chefs, shared on their vision of food in the future, and while some desired outcomes were common, many of them gave unique perspectives on what they would wish to see. As some of these ideas were contradictory, we will unlikely see both materialize, and we will see winners and losers based on future events.

The report further suggests steps the world can take to prevent us from ending up as ‘The Affluent World’. These points can be taken at all points of the journey from the field to the plate, from the production, to transport and even consumption and post-consumption. While the use of Science has pointed to the fact that there are ways to improve the system, and reduce the amount of resources consumed, the biggest problem I foresee is whether our values and priorities will drive us in this same direction, and that people today will find more comfort in what is convenient and appealing, rather than what is effective and impactful.

We buy stuff that we think is important, what happens when we realize that not only does it kills ourselves, but that it isn’t that important after all?(Source: http://hollylegare.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Organics-cartoon-2.jpg)

I feel it’s becoming easier to say the world will not be affected by how we as a community think, believe or choose, and that we should focus on those with significant power to make that difference. What we need to realize is that the success of these big institutions, from the corporate MNCs who are responsible for producing the products we see in supermarkets, to the governments of the world who manage food policy,  are the result of the support from the masses, and that we are individual contributors to something bigger than ourselves.

The options now might be bleak, but we can endorse the best of what is available(Source: http://naturalnews.com/Cartoons/apple_bins_600.jpg) 

Over the course of writing, I’ve come to believe that the world has so much potential to improve on our existing systems, and that the future of the environment does sound bleak if we keep things going the way it is now. But I have also been inspired by the stories of what others are doing out there. Over the week I felt inspired by a story on National Geographic about two chefs and their appreciation of their journey in a train kitchen being a microcosm of the real-world food system, relating their challenges in managing their wastes, seek local ingredients and appease the increasingly refined palates of their diners to that of society today. It made me want to figure out how my own kitchen at home can be re-designed to help me cook better!

The journey of food from the field to our plates has evolved and this blog has celebrated its transformation, but we need to find our relationship with food and the environment for ourselves, so that we can have the motivations to make that difference in how we purchase and how we consume. Hopefully, my entries have educated and inspired my readers to take a look in their mirror, and to be the change they want to see in the world.

Odegard, I. and van der Voet, E. (2014). The future of food—Scenarios and the effect on natural resource use in agriculture in 2050. Ecological Economics, 97, pp.51--59.

Oct 26, 2014

Making food global - identifying environmental detriments

“Imagine if you could take wild plants and consume them, food miles would basically turn into food feet.”

Homaro Cantu

The journey of food from the field used to be fairly straightforward. Farmers harvested food unique to the region, they transported it to the market, and people made their food with what their surroundings provided them. However, with the onset of globalization, better technologies and preservation techniques, food can and has gone places, being able to move across oceans and continents to reach the plates of others halfway around the world.

Land in any major city today and chances are you can find cuisine from all cultures, even those not necessarily belonging to the region at all. With the movement of people across the world as the barriers to migration collapsed, we end up in this cosmopolitan reality where you could order a Moroccan tagine in Australia and get a Spanish paella in Beijing. Even produce not found naturally in your country can now be picked up in your nearby supermarket. In Singapore, having food imported has diversified our food options manifold. HungryGoWhere recently released a gallery showcasing breakfasts from all around the world available right here in Singapore, and it is just one of many evidences that food in Singapore is no longer limited to just our local delights of chicken rice or bak ku teh

Just in one city alone, you can now find food from all cultures in Singapore, be it local chicken rice, to Japanese ramen, German schnitzel or Mexican tacos

However, transporting food and produce across continents can bear negative impacts on the environment because food coming in from overseas arrive in ships or are flown in via airplanes. These forms of transport emit large volumes of CO2 emissions and this is a driver for global climate change (Lewis and Mitchell, 2014).  Scientists have expressed this as food miles, which is the distance traveled from the food's country of origin to the country of destination.  For those unsure about food miles, learn more about it from this video. 

Simply put, the further our food comes from, the more miles we accumulate. Singapore in particular could be a major contributor to this problem, given that produce from all over the world has to be flown in or shipped to the island.

While much of our food still comes from regional neighbours, Singapore has accumulates large amounts of food miles by importing from countries like the US, Brazil and South Africa. 
(Source: AVA, 2014)

If we wish to address climate change, we can’t just look towards alternative energy, and I believe food miles have to stop accumulating, fast. The 2014 Greendex Report, a report focusing on how sustainable our habits are, was published just last month and it comments that while people were being more health conscious, global consumption habits are still contributing heavily to our ecological footprint. To focus so much on our own personal health over the state of the Earth, the world we live in is distastefully human, but if we continue endorsing the amount of cross-continental movement for our food, we will expect the Earth’s environmental problems to only continue, and our future generations will be the ones who will have to bear the consequences.

One way suggested by people to lower food miles is to support local produce or become a 'locavore', but seen mostly in the United States and the European Union, where the environmental movement is stronger. What happens though when there are no local farms around?

 Penguin tries hard to be a locavore, only to realize that the only food available is in the nearby supermarket
(Source: http://ingyin1bfoodie.wordpress.com/tag/visual-essay/)

Having a small agricultural industry, being a locavore in Singapore is virtually impossible. What we can (and probably should) do however is to re-look at where our food comes from, and endorse regional alternatives. Why get pork from Canada when you could get pork in Thailand instead? This is one way to minimize our own carbon footprint, as we look for ways to be environmentally sustainable.

People contest that food miles aren’t everything, and that it might be becoming an outdated concept. Transportation is only one part of the problem, and looking into food production is equally important as well. The problem is determining the exact carbon footprint from each process to find out which food is more environmentally sustainable would be both time-consuming and costly. Hence, I still affirm using food miles, and that it can be a very good gauge of how sustainable our food is presently, and how sustainable it can be in the future.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. 
Let’s bring this idea into food as well.

AVA, (2014). AVA Annual Report (Corporate) AY2013/14.

Lewis, M. and Mitchell, A. (2014). Food Miles: Environmental Protection or Veiled Protectionism?.Michigan Journal of International Law, 35(3).

Oct 19, 2014

Takeaways from Takeaway Packaging

"Sometimes life gives us lessons sent in ridiculous packaging"

Dar Williams

As I explored on food waste last week, it only seems appropriate to discuss about the packaging coming from our food products as well. 

For food safety and quality, we observe food being packaged by airtight wrappers, perhaps to a point of excess. A few months back, a German supermarket has begun embracing the idea of zero packaging, doing away with all the packaging from their products and asking patrons to bring their own containers to hold their purchases instead. While I find the concept novel, it will likely be a while before mainstream supermarket chains like Fariprice and Giant will contemplate such a concept, and in my opinion, doing this will probably be met with much resistance by Singaporeans, who may associate a lack of food packaging with unhygienic products.

Beyond the packaging of food products itself, the bigger issue I wish to blog on would concern the amount of packaging we use for takeaway food. The number of people I observe who practise takeaway in school alone since the start of semester has been staggering. Seeing many carry their food in disposable containers issued by food stores, NUS has estimated that this has resulted in the use of some 54,000 plastic bags and containers from canteens every month (NUS, 2010).

While this takeaway culture could stem from Singapore’s cheap food as compared to cooking for yourself, what disturbs me is that takeaway, or ‘dabao’, is emerging to become a social norm, possibly even a way to accommodate a fast-paced working life. While Singaporeans love their food, what has happened with eating directly at these areas, to enjoy the surroundings whilst chowing on your favourite food?

I acknowledge that it may always be more convenient to eat in the comfort of your home, but these acts of convenience has also led to unnecessary amounts of disposables being used to store food and subsequently thrown away. Excessive packaging like this can cause for more space in Semakau Landfill to be filled up more quickly, such that the lifespan of Singapore’s only landfill will decrease. What’s worse is that food packaging will not be accepted by recycling facilities for recycling (NEA, 2011), resulting in a one-way ticket for all of these containers to the incineration plant and subsequently the landfill. 

Semakau Landfill (above) already receives about 200,000 tonnes / year of incinerated waste, and has a lifespan reaching up to 2035. Do we really want to send more than what is necessary?

However, this is not an irreversible problem, for there are Singaporean companies that seek to minimize food packaging by coming up with innovative packaging materials and design. One notable example would be Geometria, which believes in an Earth-to-Earth concept, ensuring their packaging is of biodegradable material and decomposes together with any food waste. 

While innovations like this biodegradable ‘food-carrying pyramid’ seems like a panacea to takeaway waste, F&B outlets might perceive these options as overly costly, especially when conventional packaging comes at a fraction of the price.
(Source: www.geometria.sg

There have also been different non-governmental efforts highlighting the problem. In 2013, a youth, Ms Tamsin Chen, formed her team of like-minded individuals and launched Operation Zero Waste Dabao, a 2-week advocacy campaign to encourage the working community to curb food packaging. However, given the short-term duration of the campaign, what I fear is that this campaign was not able to reach out to enough people, and may have been seen mostly as a one-off fad which people quickly forget.

Despite Zero Waste Dabao Singapore’s showing great success in managing to save on >40,000 disposable containers and plastic cutlery over 2 weeks, the question lies in its long-term impacts, on whether this has translated to working Singaporeans changing their mindset on disposables   
(Source: http://operationdabao.wordpress.com/

I believe that if we wish to curb the problem, we must be firstly have the willingness to change our personal habits, even if at expense of convenience. With reference to the takeaway culture in NUS, one habit that students can practice would be to reduce packaging would be to bring a container wherever they go. In NUS, this is encouraged by rewarding people who use re-usable food containers with stickers, which can be accumulated to get you a cheaper meal..

Bring a container, get a sticker.
Get 5 stickers, save on your next meal – it’s as simple as that!

Initially motivated by the challenge in finding a seat in crowded canteens, I decided to get a reward card and bring my container around campus, and over the weeks have managed to earn myself a few good cheap meals whilst doing my part for the environment. Despite being new to the idea of carrying a container, I find myself liking the concept very much and hope the trend catches on with other NUS students, who must be convinced that carrying an extra container in their bag is not as inconvenient as they see it to be. I can also see this idea being carried forward for the working community. In essence, takeaway if you must, but there are always environmentally friendly methods to do it.

Now some have contested that washing your personal containers after eating would waste more water, or that doing so conserves negligible amounts of resources (Marsh and Bugusu, 2007). Yet, imagine the ripple effect this can have if thousands of Singaporeans do this at least once a day, lowering our packaging waste and indicating to markets that we do not actually need so much takeaway packaging. Moreover, even if what naysayers say is actually true, why not adopt another alternatives to lower food packaging? We could always eat at the place itself, or even cook your own meal every once in a while, and these ways would equally reduce the packaging waste produced.

While the food fills your tummy, let’s not forget the waste from our food, be it food itself or the packaging in which it comes from, should be kept to a minimum, such that the landfills will never be too full of thrash.

Till the next post!

Marsh, K. and Bugusu, B. (2007). Food Packaging and Its Environmental Impact. IFT Science Reports - Food Technology, [online] (04.07). Available at: http://www.ift.org/knowledge-center/read-ift-publications/science-reports/scientific-status-summaries/editorial/food-packaging-and-its-environmental-impact.aspx [Accessed 19 Oct. 2014].

NEA, (2011). A Guide to 3R Practices for Households. Singapore.

NUS, (2010). [online] Available at: http://www.nus.edu.sg/oes/prog/do/greenalert/jan1910_green_initiatives.html [Accessed 19 Oct. 2014].

Oct 13, 2014

Food Wastage in Singapore - Think before you throw!

"Hunger never saw bad bread"

Benjamin Franklin

From the Field to the Plate. 
The idea to document the journey of food from the field down the production chain to the plate sounds simple enough, but over the course of this blog, I realize the journey of food goes beyond the plate after it is consumed by the hungry masses. What then happens to food after it gets consumed? Does it get disposed? Or are there ways to recycle food for further use?

In previous weeks I explored how food leaves the production line for fueling vehicles rather than filling stomachs. In this post I bring forward another key controversy in food’s journey to our plates, its wastage. Just like other forms of waste, food is wasted from both production processes and post-consumption, leaving it piled up in landfills and attracts animals and vectors, which see them as sources of food. Vectors in particular carry diseases which can affect the health of the population (Khoo, Lim and Tan, 2010).

Let’s begin by showing some statistics from Singapore over the past few years:
As of 2013, there has been a 17.4% increase in food waste in Singapore, reaching an all-time high of 796,000 tonnes
(Source: Siau (2014); Sim (2014))

As evidenced above, food waste in Singapore has grown tremendously over several years, without any improvements to recycling rates. Wasting of food can be observed by 4 main stakeholders, households, supermarkets, food factories and finally restaurants, each having their own reasons for throwing food away. Households are conscious of expiry dates and dispose of food, while supermarkets might throw away food if it doesn’t look aesthetically pleasing enough. Restaurants in particular are in conflict, as the National Environment Agency mandates catered and pre-packed food to be consumed by 4 hours (App2.nea.gov.sg, 2013).

The problem of food waste however, has not gone unnoticed and considerable efforts have already been made by the government. Singapore has established a working group with representatives from multiple governmental agencies targeted at addressing food waste, and have recently commissioned a survey to understand the food habits of Singaporeans. The press has also presented headline articles highlighting the shocking statistics and similar tips (see TODAY or The Straits Times).

Role of Society and Business in addressing the Food Waste Problem
Non-governmental groups have also been in action. In ENV1101, we looked into the importance of environmental grassroots around the world in driving policy changes. In Singapore however, it is rare to see such extreme environmental activists in action. Rather many present themselves as educators, hoping to rally the masses to collective action. This is no exception to food waste, an emerging issue in the field of environmental sustainability. Mr. Eugene Tay, founder for Green Future Solutions, pioneered the first food waste related website “Save Food Cut Waste”, which highlight tips for users to minimize their food waste. 

The push to tackle food waste has been done across multiple sectors, sometimes as collaborations and others individually. Above are some of the organisations working towards a Singapore with minimal food waste

Youth and NGOs have also been involved in this struggle. In 2013, a group of Mass Media students from Nanyang Technological University launched Makan Mantra for their FYP, a campaign to teach people steps to reduce food wastage when dining out, a common trend amongst working Singaporeans (learn more about their campaign here). NGOs such as the FoodBank and Food from the Heart, were also founded by individuals keen on making a difference into the lives of the needy, who had very evident difficulties in procuring food. The impacts these stakeholders have made to the F&B industry is evidence that so long as a problem concerns you, small groups can have the power to be the change we want to see.

Inspired by what they observe in Singapore, advocates take unique approaches to reduce food wastage. Makan Mantra (top) worked towards educating people on ways to make ideal food purchases, whereas FoodBank SG (above) used a social enterprise model to re-direct food that would have been thrown away to the needy instead
http://www.beermarket.com.sg/makan-mantra/; http://www.foodbank.sg/banking-differently/how-it-works)

Beyond actions taken by the public, some businesses have also been active in trying to cut down on the food waste they produce, either from re-distribution of food, or from the use of mature technologies to recycle food. One case study in particular impresses me, and that would be Marina Bay Sands, one of Singapore’s Integrated Resorts.

What does Marina Bay Sands do with all the uneaten food after an evening of buffets!
(Source:: http://www.feveravenue.com/chocolate-affair-at-marina-bay-sands/http://www.marinabaysands.com/restaurants/buffet.html)

Because of their countless buffet options situated at their Casino, restaurants and Convention Centre, Marina Bay Sands collaborates with Food from the Heart to redistribute unconsumed bread to the needy after breakfast buffets close. They also use Eco-Wiz digesters, which convert food waste into re-usable water. Although I could not find a video explaining the green strategies of Marina Bay Sands, I did manage to find a video on how this Eco-Wiz technology works.

However, just having these technologies available should not justify excessive production of food by companies, for that is also a means of depleting resources unnecessarily. Also, the degree to which businesses can afford these technologies really depends on their finances. While bigger companies can invest in such technologies to go green, I am of the opinion that governments have to provide more to support food recycling in smaller F&B businesses like cafes, who are usually hampered by equipment costs, as well as areas of high human traffic, such as hawker centres. This can be done by funding areas with trial systems to allow for recycling of food.

Food waste is a controversial issue, and I feel it is a reflection of modern society’s insistence that everything can be thrown away and the environment will somehow make it magically disappear. Food today has become a lot easier to assess, and people seeing this would likely argue that throwing away a small portion of their plate that they couldn’t eat finish would probably do themselves. However, little actions do add up, and creating such unnecessary waste streams would result in greater environmental problems than people can imagine.

Let us be considerate for the environment.
Follow your Mummy’s advice and:

(Image Source: http://www.clker.com/clipart-355662.html)

App2.nea.gov.sg, (2013). [online] Available at: http://app2.nea.gov.sg/docs/default-source/public-health/guidelines_for_ordering_catered_meals_for_functions_and_events_3rd_edition.pdf?sfvrsn=2 [Accessed 13 Oct. 2014].

Khoo, H., Lim, T. and Tan, R. (2010). Food waste conversion options in Singapore: Environmental impacts based on an LCA perspective. Science of the total environment, 408(6), pp.1367--1373.

Siau, M. (2014). Recycling of foodwaste yet to catch on in Singapore. Today. [online] Available at: http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/recycling-foodwaste-yet-catch-singapore [Accessed 13 Oct. 2014].

Sim, W. (2014). More food going to waste. The Straits Times. [online] Available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/more-food-going-waste-20140319-0 [Accessed 13 Oct. 2014].

Oct 6, 2014

Biofuels (Part 2) - Exploring Innovations for ASEAN

"Biofuels... it's already had one life and now it's going to be used again, which is nice"

David Hannah

In my last post, I have explored the significance of biofuel production in the ASEAN region, as well as established that there are food security challenges that will be faced in trading off food crops for biofuel production. In this post, I shall be exploring two topics pertaining to biofuels, firstly in feasibility of using biofuels as an energy source in Singapore, as well as global innovations in biofuels to address food security issues that can be learning points for ASEAN. 

This comic sums up the controversy that biofuels take away food from the hungry and uses it to feed our transportation vehicles instead

Biofuels in Singapore
While Singapore is in ASEAN and is the leading oil trader in Asia, biofuel produced here constitutes less than a percent of Singapore’s energy production (eia.gov, 2014), a measly droplet as compared to other ASEAN countries. Almost all of that is exported out as well. Some reasons for this lack of development of the sector was suggested in Mukherjee & Sovacool (2014)’s report, which highlights on sustainability issues in palm oil production. Singapore lacks land space to produce enough crops to convert into such fuels. Being a low-lying equatorial island also prevents us from crops which grow better in hilly terrain and cooler climates to the industry’s development. Despite our inability to grow as much food crops as compared to our neighbours, Singapore’s strong economic presence in the region still draws investment from MNCs for biofuel production, with some of the world’s largest biodiesel factories based on Jurong Island (for more info see here). Food crops are then imported from our regional neighbors

Singapore has been exploring our biofuel capabilities. Biodiesel usage is presently in the testing stage for domestic households, in the most unlikely of places, an offshore island we call Pulau Ubin. The island might house few houses and even fewer residents, but it’s presently the test bed for an alternative energy grid combining solar energy with biofuels to power generators, supplying electricity for businesses and households in Ubin Village. Driven by the Energy Market Authority and Daily Life Renewable Energy, it has addressed an age-old problem for business owners and residents who previously had to source for diesel from the mainland on a daily basis. (for more information visit here)

Solar panels decorate the rooftops of buildings in Ubin Village and generators are placed in secure control rooms fueled by biodiesel produced from the mainland
(Source: http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/biofuel-driven-energy-grid-launched-pulau-ubin)

However, whether this successful test-bed can be scaled up to cater to the needs of Singaporeans is entirely another matter. As compared to Ubin residents, Singaporeans would have higher living standards and a greater demand for electricity. This would make biofuels less feasible as it still has lower energy efficiency as compared to conventional fossil fuels, the current fuel of choice for Singapore’s electricity production.

Global Solutions for ASEAN
On a global level, both developed and developing countries show increased utilization of biofuels. However, biofuels’ main controversy remains to be that food crops, which can be used to feed the hungry and improve food security, are being used to fuel the push for biofuels instead, causing food prices to rise unnecessarily. In 2007, the export of US corn to Mexico was minimized to support corn ethanol production in the US. This raised the prices of tortillas, a Mexican staple, by 25%, sparking off the ‘Tortilla Riots’ and strained bilateral relations (for more information, read here).

(Source: Wise, 2012)

7 years on, scientists have made progress to improve food security across the world, with the emergence of second-generation and third-generation biofuels. Both of these fuels are made from non-edible biomass, which makes them not in direct competition for consumption. However, second-generation biofuels still require many of same agricultural resources, such as land and fertilizer, as first-generation biofuels, making them still in direct competition to food crop production (Koizumi, n.d.). There are notable exceptions to this, such as jatropha, an emerging biofuel which can grow even in infertile soil, such that it can be grown by farmers on non-arable land. This Deutshe Welle article sums up some of the unique features and possible challenges that jatropha cultivation faces in developing nations.

Microalgae is another heavy contender for being a mainstream energy source that is still under research. Storing energy in the form of natural oils, solvents are used to break down the cell structure of microalgae and the oils are extracted subsequently. This third-generation biofuel has the potential to produce up to 60 times more oil / acre than land-based biofuels. In addition, being grown in an aquatic environment, it does not compete for resources with land-based food crops, being able to be cultivated even in urban areas. Given these benefits, the US Department of Energy has recently allocated 25 million USD into the further research of microalgae, so as to lower its costs and become more viable for commercial production. It has also began educating the public, releasing this video below to highlight the potential of microalgae cultivation to solve energy problems in the US:

These biofuel innovations however are still not being explored much in the ASEAN region. Policymakers might be most wary of the high production costs. According to the Committee on World Food Security’s (2013) report, the production of second and third-generation biofuels can cost many times more than the conventional biofuels being produced at present. To lower the start-up costs, further R&D might be needed by the scientific community before the ASEAN region can properly consider relying on these forms of biofuels instead.

A comparison of the production costs for different types of biofuels. Evidently microalgae can cost more than 400 times the cost of producing first-generation biofuels like maize (US) 
(Source: Committee on Food Security (2013))

In addition, introducing these innovations might distort an existing status quo, whereby there are presently strong partnerships between existing biofuel companies, the farmers who produce these crops, as well as the government. (Kumar, Shrestha & Abdul Salam, 2013). Transitioning to second and third-generation biofuels might actually have harmful economic implications as this creates competition. This could result in undesirable outcomes such as job losses, energy insecurity and even civil unrest. Should these barriers be addressed however, the future for biofuels in the region could be very bright as it will addresses energy and environmental problems all at once, but more importantly still allow food to reach the plates of all. 

Committee on World Food Security, (2013). Biofuels and Food Security.

Eia.gov, (2014). Singapore - Analysis - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). [online] Available at: http://www.eia.gov/countries/cab.cfm?fips=sn [Accessed 6 Oct. 2014].

Koizumi, T. (n.d.). Biofuels and food security. 1st ed.

Kumar, S., Shrestha, P. and Abdul Salam, P. (2013). A review of biofuel policies in the major biofuel producing countries of ASEAN: Production, targets, policy drivers and impacts. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 26, pp.822--836.

Mukherjee, I. and Sovacool, B. (2014). Palm oil-based biofuels and sustainability in southeast Asia: A review of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 37, pp.1--12.

Wise, T. (2012). The Cost to Mexico of U.S. Corn Ethanol Expansion. pp.3, 8.

Sep 27, 2014

Biofuels in ASEAN - Energy Opportunity or Food Thief?

"Do you know what my favourite renewable fuel is? An ecosystem of innovation."

Thomas Friedman

Renewables guru Per Dahlen once commented that Southeast Asia has the potential to produce 14 million barrels / day, which is more than Saudi Arabia (For more info, visit here). However, what will unlocking this potential cost the region? When I encountered this statistic, one disturbing idea that came off my head was the diversion of edible food crops away from the plates of citizens into machines guzzling out fuel by the barrel, or plots of land that could be used for the growth of food to be eaten being taken away by big businesses to grow biofuel crops instead. Classified into ethanol and biodiesel based on the crops used (ethanol uses starchy crops, biodiesel uses natural oils), biofuels remain a controversial topic across the world and while I have been interested by food vs fuel debate, I have never actually looked into it in-depth. Well, today that ends!

In our search for alternative fuels, have we forgotten biofuel takes land away from subsistence farmers and food away from the hungry?
(Source: http://globalenergyscenario.blogspot.sg/)

To learn more about the importance of biofuels in the ASEAN region, I will be discussing 2 journal articles that I have read over the week. One article (A review of biofuel policies in the major biofuel producing countries of ASEAN:Production, targets, policy drivers and impacts) covers trends and motivations for biofuel production and usage in 4 countries, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, whilst the other article (Palm oil-based biofuels and sustainability in SoutheastAsia: A review of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand) zooms in on palm oil biodiesel and the environmental considerations that are concerned with biofuels, using Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand as case studies.

Evidence from both articles suggest biofuel production is a rapidly growing energy sector in ASEAN. With the flexibility of biomass to supply both heat and power, we observe more food crops such as sugarcane, palm oil and cassava being grown, only to be used to produce biofuels (Kumar, Shrestha & Abdul Salam, 2013). Below are graphs showing indicate the steady upward trend for production of biofuels in the region (except Malaysia, which has decreased)

Graphs show steady increases in production of biofuels in the ASEAN region 
(Source: Kumar, Shrestha & Abdul Salam (2013))

Both articles also suggest that governments in the ASEAN region support biofuel development despite the potential environmental costs. The biofuel industry is defended because it provides greater energy security by relying less on overseas sources and creating jobs for their citizens. Although the burning of biofuels is also determined to release far less CO2 emissions than conventional fossil fuels, concerns for the environment are highlighted in Kumar, Shrestha & Abdul Salam (2013)’s report to be less of a driver for most ASEAN countries, as they are not required to lower their emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. In fact, environmental problems have stemmed out in recent years from palm oil production instead, such as excessive deforestation and transboundary haze (Mukherjee & Sovacool, 2014).

While biofuels can resolve energy insecurity and even lower greenhouse gas emissions, instances of environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and poor air quality remain a primary concern amongst environmental groups and governments. 
(Source: Watts, 2011; Chua, 2014)

It is not wrong for policymakers to be considering the energy needs for these rapidly developing countries, but my biggest qualms after reading these two reports is whether alternative energy production should be the biggest priority, considering food security for many citizens in these countries fluctuates fairly often. Many people in these countries live below the poverty line, and rely on subsistence farmers for their food. However, the diversion of food crops away from markets has made prices rise, causing even more economic pressures for citizens who choose to grow hungry to afford other daily necessities such as rent. Majority of biofuels in ASEAN aren’t even used domestically, rather it is exported out to Europe and North America (Kumar, Shrestha & Abdul Salam, 2013), where the demand for biofuels has risen drastically. This makes it more controversial, as this suggests that the motivations for ASEAN countries to produce biofuels are economically driven to the production demands of more developed nations, rather than their own personal needs. Given biofuel is not a unique good to ASEAN and can be grown in other areas, what comes across as a simple business transaction between producer and consumer might actually be an outsourcing of environmental costs by developed regions to lesser developed nations so as to create opportunity for higher value services to be established in their own regions.

Biofuels seems to present itself as an emerging alternative energy in the region from the reports, but little breakthrough has been made at a national or regional level to ensure continued food security in ASEAN, suggesting that in the eyes of our policymakers, biofuels will always result in a trade-off. Is this necessarily true? Or is there that magical win-win situation for this food vs fuel debate? In my next post, I shall stay on the topic of biofuels, focusing on their production and usage locally and globally, as well as explore innovations in the biofuel industry that have addressed food security.

Kumar, S., Shrestha, P., & Abdul Salam, P. (2013). A review of biofuel policies in the major biofuel  producing countries of ASEAN: Production, targets, policy drivers and impacts. Renewable And Sustainable Energy Reviews, 26, 822--836.

Chua, G. (2014). Parliament: Transboundary Haze Bill penalties too small, say MPs - See more at: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/environment/story/parliament-transboundary-haze-bill-penalties-too-small-say-mps-2014#sthash.I5ns5yMG.dpuf. The Straits Times. [online] Available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/environment/story/parliament-transboundary-haze-bill-penalties-too-small-say-mps-2014 [Accessed 25 Sep. 2014].

Mukherjee, I., & Sovacool, B. (2014). Palm oil-based biofuels and sustainability in southeast Asia: A review of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Renewable And Sustainable Energy Reviews, 37, 1--12. 

Watts, J. (2011). Norway accused of hypocrisy over Indonesian deforestation funding. The Guardian. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/dec/01/norway-accused-hypocrisy-deforestation-funding [Accessed 25 Sep. 2014].