PARIS - It is a new stain on the already tarnished reputation of biofuels. After being accused of aggravating food insecurity and driving up food prices, accelerating tropical deforestation and even increasing greenhouse gas emissions, crop-based biofuels are now being accused of worsening air pollution and creating health problems.
The European Union’s target of 10% renewable energy in the transport sector by 2020 in order to reduce the effects of climate change, could in fact be aggravating ozone pollution and causing nearly 1,400 premature deaths every year, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Researchers from England’s Lancaster University studied the production of wood-based energy and biofuel that is supposed to limit the use of polluting oil and coal.
In their case study, enough land area in Europe to meet the EU’s 2020 objectives – around 72 million hectares – was converted into short rotation coppice biofuel crops such as willow, poplar or eucalyptus trees in order to produce high amounts of ethanol.
These crops are characterized by high tree density (1500 to 3000 trees per hectare), in rotations of five to ten years and have high yields. They also have the characteristic of emitting higher levels of the chemical isoprene as they grow, than do the traditional crops they are replacing.
Isoprene is reactive volatile organic compound – that when mixed with other air pollutants (such as nitrogen oxide) produces toxic ozone, one of the most dangerous air pollutants.
Lung problems and premature deaths
This pollution can cause lung problems and affect the brain, kidneys and eyes, and is blamed for the deaths of about 22,000 people a year in Europe. The increase in isoprene emissions created by these new crops will lead, according to the study, to an extra 1,365 premature deaths per year, costing society $7.1 billion.
Another consequence: crop yields would be affected, since ozone impairs crop growth by reducing their gas exchange and chlorophyll. The study estimates that the production of wheat and maize would be reduced by 7.1 million tons (3.5% of current wheat crops) and 800,000 tons (1% of maize crops) each year, a loss of $1.5 billion.
"Growing biofuels is thought to be a good thing because it reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," explains Nick Hewitt, one of the authors of the study. “Large-scale production of biofuels in Europe would have small but significant effects on human mortality and crop yields.”
The researchers suggest planting biofuel crops far away from population centers or zones of intense agricultural production with the aim of limiting ozone formation. Genetic engineering could be used to reduce isoprene emissions.
However, the study from the University of Lancaster did not compare the potential damage caused by biofuels to the impact on human health from producing coal, oil or natural gas. “We are not in a position to make that comparison,” said Hewitt. According the European Environmental Agency, overall air pollution, mainly from fossil fuels, causes around 500,000 premature deaths in Europe every year.
“‘There are many different biofuel crops, cultivation methods, production and processing systems post-harvest, and different final biofuels. Each one has advantages and disadvantages, which must be compared to the advantages and disadvantages of alternative options,” explains Professor Ottoline Leyser, Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory of the University of Cambridge.
Dr Angela Karp, Scientific Director for the Rothamsted Research Center says that ““Land use calculations of impacts for willows and poplars need to consider that they are among many biofuels crops being grown (most of which are not trees but grasses) and take into consideration the large land areas already under forests. For all these reasons we do not see that the UK needs to reconsider its interest in biofuels.”
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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