On terminology: “biofuels” vs. “agrofuels”

By now most people I talk to have heard the argument that biodiesel is maybe not the best idea we humans have had. Despite being wildly popular in certain rich countries where the support of large voting blocs (industrial-scale farmers, well-meaning but misinformed environmentalists, persons concerned about energy self-sufficiency for political and/or economic reasons, persons concerned that all money sent to Arab nations directly funds terrorism) is too strong to ignore, this technology has yet to develop to the point where it generates more fuel than its production requires or results in a net reduction of CO2, and thus serves only to drive up total emissions and increase the cost of staple foods. While those of us in Canada likely haven’t noticed that world grain prices have increased 80% over the past three years, the World Bank and the UN’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs agree that 33 countries face unrest due to food shortages caused by high costs, not to mention climate change and high oil prices. US biodiesel in the past two years alone (18% of all US grain production) could have fed 250m people. The UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food calls biofuels “a crime against humanity”, and is seeking a five-year moratorium, although secretary-general Ban Ki-moon (for whom climate change is grave concern) is calling for a comprehensive review of costs and benefits instead, something that’s never really been done. To make matters worse, the perception that prices will continue to rise means far less grain goes to market: as the International Rice Research Institute puts it, “who’s going to sell rice at $750 a tonne when they think it’s going to hit $1,000?” It is typical of famines under capitalist regimes that food is horded to maximize profit, reducing the percentage of the harvest which is made available to consumers, despite increased demand (see Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis for one detailed analysis of this).

I mention this because I was interested to note recently in Le Monde that this debate has developed its own vocabulary. Like the terms “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, the choice of which position the speaker in the debate, the French and German terms for biodiesel have been joined by new words coined by their opponents, which translate as “agrodiesel” or “agrofuel”. So, when Nestlé head Peter Brabeck spoke to a Swiss newspaper on this issue, he was translated by Forbes as saying “if we want to derive 20% of rising oil demands from biofuels there will be no food left”, and this was widely translated in the French press using the word “biocarburant”, but in fact he used the German word “Agrotreibstoffe” when speaking with NZZ am Sonntag, and not “Biotreibstoffe”. Like Brabeck, I personally like these neologisms, in that they emphasizes the agriculture industry’s role in the production of these fuels (“agro-” is from the Greek term for “field”; “bio-” simply means “life”).

How common are these terms? Google shows six times as many results for “Biotreibstoffe” as for “Agrotreibstoffe”, and twenty-four times as many results for “biocarburant” as for “agrocarburant”. However, Google currently returns 1341 times as many hits for “biodiesel” as for “agrodiesel” (according to Google, the latter are mostly in Portuguese, perhaps because Brazil is a major producer) and 185 times as many hits for “biofuel” as for “agrofuel” (and these are apparently mostly in Indonesian). Given these numbers, Forbes has grounds for not using a new and unfamiliar term, but it could reasonably argued that the French press unfairly weakened Brabeck’s statement with their translation.

So I’ve now set myself the goal of helping to popularize the words “agrofuel” and “agrodiesel”, in order to help Brabeck and all others who agree with him more clearly express their denunciations. We’ve got our work cut out for us, fellow English speakers, but I have faith in the power of networking. Help me spread the word!

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In other news, my samba band may not be a loud as this orchestral piece featuring machine-gun fire, but my ears are still ringing after forgetting to bring my earplugs to last night’s practice. Hopefully I’ve now learnt my lesson.