Clean Food, via Clean Fuel

November 24, 2011 |

The secret that “food vs fuel” proponents don’t want you to think about?

Not all food is created equal. Dirty food, made using dirty process, makes a dirty world. And then there’s clean food.

Here’s some food for thought.

Last night, some earnest soul tweeted that coffee prices are rising because Brazil is turning all its agricultural land into cornfields to make ethanol. The fact that Brazil’s coffee crop has doubled in the past 10 years, corn is stable, and they are grown in different parts of the country (anyway) seems to have eluded our friend on Twitter.

All of which reminds us that we should not make blind assumptions that urbanites “get it” when it comes to food production.

Which is why, this US Thanksgiving, we’d like to highlight an important breakthrough in clean food, powered by clean fuel.

What is clean food?

What exactly is clean food – isn’t all food clean as long as you don’t get sick? And how does clean fuel play a role?

Clean food is food made using clean practices. To use an absurd example in order to illustrate – if we found a highly low-cost way to make food requiring, say, the use of neutron bombs over the western prairies, it might be a easy food, or cheap food, but it wouldn’t be clean food. Dirty hands make dirty food.

Which brings us to black carbon. It’s a residue that comes from incomplete combustion of, say, firewood. Because it absorbs heat and reduces the reflection of sunlight, it is the second-biggest component of global warming after CO2.

18% of the world’s black carbon comes from indoor food preparation using charcoal or wood-based fires, primarily in Africa and Asia. Now, cooking staple foods is not an option – you can’t eat raw rice, and undercooked bitter cassava forms cyanide in your tummy when you eat it, and can kill you. You need to boil water and cook intensively – two gallons of water in your pot, that’s more than 20,000 BTUs by the time you are done, or more than two pounds of charcoal. Multiply that by the mouths to feed in China, India and Africa – well, that’s a lot of black carbon. Bad for your lungs too. That’s dirty food.

So that’s the bad news. But here’s the good news.

Emitted CO2 remains in the atmosphere for more than 100 years – yesterday’s flue gas will remain aloft until at least the year 2111, no matter what we do to reduce future emissions. But black carbon remains aloft for a couple of weeks – so reductions we make today, will have impact on global warming almost immediately.

So, bring on the ethanol cookstove – or a jatropha oil cookstove such as we profiled yesterday as the winning image in our Day in the Life of Biofuels photo contest. Dramatically lower emissions, much better air quality inside the home. That’s clean food, and safe food.

All of which brings us to CleanStar Mozambique.

CleanStar is an integrated food, energy and forest protection business which retails clean cook stoves and bottled liquid cooking fuel to low-income households in Mozambique’s capital Maputo, as a safe and affordable alternative to charcoal.

CleanStar Mozambique’s first integrated food and cooking fuel production facility is currently being built in central Mozambique in partnership with ICM, Inc. of the United States. The facility will process agricultural surpluses procured from a growing network of small-scale farmers, who are adopting a climate-smart agroforestry system developed by CleanStar Mozambique to sustainably boost local food production, income levels, and resilience, while rehabilitating degraded soils and enhancing biodiversity. CleanStar’s facility will process surplus cassava into an ethanol-based cooking fuel, and surplus legumes and grains into fortified flour, animal feed, cooking oil and other packaged products.

CleanStar Mozambique’s approach simultaneously tackles five key issues in sub-Saharan Africa: energy access, rural development, food and nutrition security, deforestation, and respiratory disease and deaths arising from indoor charcoal combustion.

In other words, a worthy if small entrant in the development of clean food.

The Novozymes-CleanStar-ICM venture

Now, back in September at the Clinton Global Initiative, Novozymes and partners launched a food-energy venture in Mozambique.

Yesterday, Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML) announced a carbon financing agreement with CleanStar Mozambique. Under the agreement, BAML has an option to purchase and market millions of carbon credits, all of which will be generated through displacement of charcoal with clean cooking fuel. The revenue will be used to subsidize the clean cook stoves that would otherwise be too expensive for low-income consumers in Mozambique.

According to Novozymes, “the deal is unique because it is done at an unusually early stage of the project and because it involves a significant upfront payment.”The carbon finance and revenues received by CleanStar will be used to subsidize the upfront cost and ongoing warranty for the clean cook stoves, technology that would otherwise be too expensive for low-income African consumers.

The deal tectonics

Under the agreement, Bank of America Merrill Lynch has an option to purchase and market CERs (each representing a tonne of CO2e reduced), all of which will be generated in Mozambique and other least developed countries in sub-Saharan Africa through displacement of charcoal with clean cooking fuel. CERs can be used by the thousands of liable entities with emission reduction obligations under mandatory cap-and-trade programmes such as the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and the Australian Carbon Pricing Mechanism.

BAML’s view

“In the past few years, we’ve analyzed dozens of clean cook stove ventures with a view to providing carbon financing. CleanStar’s business was a standout to us because they have addressed the shortcomings of other attempts to scale-up distribution of stoves,” said Abyd Karmali, global head of Carbon Markets at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“The stove distribution plan marries community-level engagement with leading-edge approaches to deploying consumer products at the base of the pyramid in emerging markets, whilst implementing climate-smart agriculture systems on degraded lands to secure a sustainable and cost-effective supply of clean cooking fuel.”

The Bottom Line

It’s a venture to pay close attention to. If it gets scale, it could go far – very far, in addressing climate change, while promoting stronger rural economies in the developing world, reducing deforestation, and promoting health.

All good things to focus on this US Thanksgiving Day holiday.

And one more thing. Keep in mind that distinction between clean food and dirty food. Measuring and mitigating emissions only to the point of crop production is not enough.

The real opportunities for the agricultural community in addressing climate change, in the near term – reducing black carbon – are well downstream of where “food vs fuel” advocated will point your attention to.

Which, of course, reveals their agenda.

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