Wednesday, 20 May 2009
biofuels and the food chain
One of my all time favourite books is The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham.
It is a book which has had a major influence on my life, ever since I was about eight years old and first heard it being read on the radio.In brief, most of the world's population are blinded by some strange lights in the sky, and as a result the Triffids - strange, ambulant, people eating plants (not purple people eaters... that was something else that caused childhood nightmares) are easily able to kill their prey. Society as we know it breaks down and the hero is forced to make some tough choices about survival.
look, there is a movie! I had no idea.
What would you do if you were one of the few people with sight in the world? Work hard to help the others? Recognise the futility of trying to save and feed everyone else and save yourself?
One of the reasons that I am thinking again of the Day of The Triffids is that I went to the launch of the LEAF project recently.
The Leaf Project is bringing together researchers from the University of the Western Cape, the CSIR, Stellenbosch University and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology to find and genetically map the enzymes that most effectively digest lignocellulosics as part of the process of producing ethanol for biofuels.
Leaf (Lignocellulosic Enzymes for Agricultural Feedstocks) has as its basis the concept of producing biofuel in a way that does not compete with food grade carbons.
“We'll be finding ways to use the lignocellulose in the thousands of tons of sugarcane, maize, forestry and soya waste – the leaves and stalks and husks - that are produced in this country each year,” explained Professor Don Cowan, head of the Institute for Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics at UWC.
The project is getting off the ground with startup funding of R24.5-million from Plantbio Trust, its biggest ever investment into a venture which is in its high-risk pre-proof of concept phase.
So what's the connection with The Day of the Triffids? In the book the few survivors are able to forge out a new and seemingly cosy existence, without losing too much sleep over the dying masses.
In the LEAF project, like so many projects and initiatives nowadays, the central focus is on making a difference to everyone. In this case, the determination of the researchers to produce a biofuel that does not compete with food stocks was repeated again and again.
Is society as a whole becoming less selfish? Have the global economic pressures and the fear of climate change meant that we are beginning to embrace a way of thinking that would previously be scorned as being only for those who were perceived as the loony, tree-hugging left?