While this TreeHugger's local biodiesel supplier, Piedmont Biofuels, may get its hands dirty in everything from soap making to community supported agriculture in an effort to support local resilience and resource efficiency, that does not put it above criticism from some quarters. Recently a row has broken out in the local press over Piedmont's use of poultry fat as a feedstock. On the one side stand the vegan-purists, who claim that any purchase of waste animal fats is inexcusable, due to the support it gives to the factory farming industry:
The use of animal feedstocks financially aids the producers of them by providing one more revenue stream, allowing them to avoid disposal costs—whether it is the main item produced or incidental to the production of some other. If you purchase a product, you support its production.
Given the energy-intensive (typically petroleum-based) nature of raising meat, and the inefficiencies of conversion of plant protein to animal protein (with the associated waste of water and land), animal-derived biodiesel is not eco-friendly. If Piedmont Biofuels is earnest about promoting alternatives to an unsustainable energy policy, it seems contradictory that it would formulate animal-based biodiesel.
Others, however, advocate a more pragmatic approach, with a response to this letter (from Bob, another vegan) claiming that waste chicken fat represents the lesser of two evils, when compaired to petroleum-based diesel:
With all due respect Joe, this sounds like what Voltaire was considering when he said that "The perfect is the enemy of the good." As a vegan, I find CAFO's (confined animal feeding operations) reprehensible. As a planetary citizen, I find petroleum reprehensible as well. [ ] Poultry farmers have been getting paid for their poultry fat for years, this is not a new revenue stream for them created by biodiesel demand. Poultry fat gets fed to cattle, swine, and poultry, and turned into cosmetics among other uses. [ ] A firm like Piedmont Biofuels has two clear choices today - utilize feedstocks that are financially sustainable, or cease operations and send their customers back to petroleum diesel.
This lead to a pretty scathing response from Joe, a "real vegan", who claimed that Bob was "no vegan [he] would like to hang out with", before Evan at Piedmont stepped in to try and calm the fray:
We have all been working tirelessly with minimal staff all winter, trying to fight the cold and the equally tireless upward trend in feedstock prices. We are, as always, doing the best we can. I believe we've referenced our recycled poultry feedstock several times in our co-op membership e-mails, but I agree we could do a better job at making it clear. Thank you for the tip.
On the bright side, we are still displacing mideast imported crude oil, one gallon at a time, with a local waste product. Imagine what might happen if we all stopped complaining about the imperfect, and tried to focus on the good. . .
It certainly makes for interesting times when conscious consumers start asking whether their fuel is suitable for vegans. While we are, to some degree, sympathetic to those who want nothing to do with any animal-derived product ever, we tend to come down on the side of the pragmatists. After all, imported oil is hardly the stuff of wonder for our animal kingdom, and we can't see the fate of the chicken farming industry hanging by a thread on whether or not their waste fat gets used for feeding more animals or for fuelling more cars.
What this episode does illustrate is that there are no quick fixes and no easy answers. Ultimately, nearly every TreeHugger would like to see an end to both CAFOs and fossil fuels. Sometimes we have to make some imperfect choices on the way to getting there.
[Disclaimer: This author has just purchased a diesel vehicle and is in the process of becoming a member of Piedmont Biofuels. He is not actively involved in their operations.]