Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Should We Be Creating Our Food from Crude Oil?

A certain UN top official has recently called our ill-conceived use of food crops as automotive fuel a crime against humanity. Would it surprise the same UN official that 50 years ago we tried to get cheap food from crude oil?

By: Vanessa Uy

Currently, the whole world is burdened by sky rocketing food prices in which our poorly planned bio-fuels program is mostly to blame. What if – in the mother of all ironic twists – we can derive food cheaply from where we get almost all of our automotive fuels, namely crude oil? But more importantly: is this even possible?

During the 1950’s through the 1960’s, a chemist working for the Société Française des Pétroles BP in Lavera, France had experimented with a process of deriving edible protein from crude oil. Chemist Alfred Champagnat added fertilizers to a batch of crude oil and air is bubbled through. This set-up resulted in a crop of yeast, which is about 50% edible protein. Though at the time other oil companies had also experimented with this method, the experiment showed very promising results. One pound of crude oil yielded about half a pound of protein. Amazingly, the process is very efficient because it creates edible protein several times faster than farm animals can synthesize protein from their feed or fodder. Though the crude oil derived protein resembled a tasteless and odorless powder in it’s raw state it can readily be turned into a meat-like concentrate and aromatic Far-Eastern style fish sauces. This crude oil derived protein has a tremendous potential as a source of low cost source of edible protein for the world’s poor during the time of the experiment. Alfred Champagnat estimated that only about 3% of the annual world output of petroleum / crude oil would be needed to produce 20 million tons of pure protein - –ore than three times the protein supplied by the world’s annual fish catch during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Champagnat’s experiment really showed promise back then, but will it be a viable solution today to our ever increasingly difficult quest to provide low-cost food for the world’s poor?

Even though the circa 2008 price for crude oil is now teetering near the 120 US dollar-per-barrel mark, it is still considered by experts – especially scientists employed by oil companies – to be one of the cheapest natural resources available. Sadly, it’s so very true. A liter of gasoline is costs even cheaper compared to some brands of bottled water of the same volume. Even the experts working for the crude oil conglomerates continually tell us that the cause of the present sky high fuel prices is due to increased demand in China and India and not because the world’s entire supply of crude oil is running out.

Environmental concerns aside – isn’t it a disturbing thought that we might be actually using more crude oil per unit volume than we are using plant derived cooking oil? And is this might be the reason why all of the used cooking oil derived bio-diesel schemes are - at present – doomed to failure? Our current transport, electricity generation and other industrial processes are heavily dependent on crude oil and other fossil fuels. Because of this, the greatest problem of shifting to cleaner sustainable energy technologies like hydrogen and fuel cell technologies is technological infrastructure incumbency. We cannot easily –at present - adopt hydrogen-based systems because we built our industrial infrastructure around fossil fuels for almost a century that we can even produce crude oil derived fuels far more cheaply than their plant derived counterparts. It’s the hydrocarbon technology incumbency problem that tied us down. Not to mention that we have invested billions in the crude oil industry for nearly a century in making gasoline almost as cheap as bottled water.

But what if the petrochemical conglomerates manage to make edible protein more cheaply than our current farming and fishing methods by using Alfred Champagnat’s method scaled-up to industrial levels. Would this grant them absolute power since these conglomerates now control not only our energy supply, but also our food supply as well? These are profit-driven corporations and helping our planet’s hungry and poor inhabitants probably ranks last when it comes to their day to day corporate practices. It’s a brave new world.

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