No More Fuel for the Fire

After an overwhelming response to last month's column on organic food, I found myself pondering other topics that could potentially elicit similar amounts of conflict. After just a few brief conversations at Process Expo, I had my answer – biofuels – which, ironically, one could view as somewhat of an "organic option" in the fuel industry.

Last month, I accompanied the editor of Chem.Info on a plant tour of a New Jersey biodiesel facility. This being the first alternative fuel facility I had ever visited, as well as my first extensive explanation of the opportunities afforded by biodiesel, I had yet to form an opinion on what has proven to be a very controversial topic in the food industry.

When gas prices soared over $4 per gallon this summer, the media was abuzz with talk of alternative fuels, which seems to be a familiar reaction each time gas prices start climbing. Lessening our dependence on foreign oil is always important, but it becomes imperative any time it seems as though no economic relief is in sight. And admittedly, at a point when it starts costing me over $55 to fill my gas tank, any proposed solution sounds good to me.

As if skyrocketing gas prices aren't enough, the price of food is also simultaneously rising. While some consider the latter a consequence of the former, others point to the biofuels industry as it competes with the food industry for crop space and raw materials, thus sending commodity prices soaring. The phrase "food versus fuel" has become just as common in the media as the discussion of rising gas prices. In fact, when I first asked to tag along on the biodiesel plant tour, I could sense that our contact was wary of what the editor of a food manufacturing publication might have to say.

However, while corn and soybeans were a great "gateway feedstock" for the biofuels industry, the real promise seems to lie in the mastering of next-generation feedstocks, such as switchgrass, pennycress and algae. And as the biofuels industry moves away from food-based feedstocks, the "food versus fuel" debate will lose its fire.

In fact, the two industries appear to be in the perfect position to help each other. The food industry has an abundant supply of organic byproducts, much of which contain oil that, if properly extracted, can be utilized by the biodiesel industry. On the flip side, scientists are discussing ways in which distiller's dried grains, a byproduct of ethanol production, can be used in the production of low-calorie, high-protein cookies, breads and pasta.

Call me crazy, but when two industries are at the point where they are literally consuming each other's waste, I think a truce may be in order.