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Organic aggro

Is “biofuel” Unspeak? Walden Bello, director of Focus on the Global South, thinks so: he prefers to call the idea of using vegetable matter to run cars “agrofuel”:

Biofuel is the more commonly used term, because it has an environmentally benign connotation, but these fuels are hardly innocuous. Indeed, agrofuels contribute to global warming and certainly do not provide a solution to climate chage. The climate agenda mainly serves as an excellent and conveinent spin for the agrofuels regime already being built. ((Bello, The Food Wars (London, 2009), p106.))

It’s probably true that, these days, the prefix bio– often has a “benign connotation”, as in holistic ecological terms such as biosphere or biodiversity, and things that are to be considered very bad because they do nasty things to the bio, such as biocide or Bioshock. In any case, normal petrol, being made from dead plant and animal matter, is just as bio as is corn ethanol.

“Agrofuel” certainly sounds less cuddly. The choice between the prefixes agri– (as in agriculture or agribusiness) and agro– (as in agronomist, agrotourism or agroterrorism) seems to depend more or less on how pleasant the resultant sound is, but does agro– also inevitably carry an echo of aggro, such that an agrofuel is a fuel that is really annoying?

In French, similar considerations have led to the alternatives biocarburants or agrocarburants (as well as the English word “biofuel”), though here there is an extra factor to be considered, since bio is also the French term for what we call “organic” food. Of course, there is no food that is inorganic. The agricultural sense of “organic” was a piece of Unspeak deliberately crafted by Lord Northbourne in 1940 in a book entitled Look to the Land. ((See Paull, John, “The Farm as Organism: The Foundational Idea of Organic Agriculture [pdf]“.)) He cooked up the phrase “organic farming” to encapsulate his view of “the farm as an organism”, and contrasted it with what he called “chemical farming” — though any “organic” farm is, of course, also stuffed to the brim with chemicals.

So perhaps to be brutally neutral we should do away with “organic” as well as with certain uses of “bio–” as a cloak of virtue. But I’m not really feeling the idea of Steve Austin as The Agronic Man?

  1. 1  Fraser  October 8, 2009, 8:22 am 

    The use of “organic” to mean something like “natural”* has always given me the shits, especially when it’s explained as “food that’s not full of chemicals”. I’m not sure whether to accept the word just because everyone now understands it (or think they understand it) a certain way, since that meaning blatantly contradicts the apparent meaning of the word.

    On the flip side of that coin, “biofuel” isn’t really unspeak because it is accurate and, unlike “agrofuel”, widely understood. People may not be aware of the consequences of bio-/agrofuel, but the word itself doesn’t to cover them up. I agree with you about “agro”: it’s just as suggestive as “bio”, but in the opposite direction. That may be helpful to Walden Bellow, who has a particular opinion to promote, but it doesn’t help us find a less politically charged word. Fighting over which word to use would just distract attention from the real issues.

    *Of course, you can argue what’s “natural” until the three-headed cows come home.

  2. 2  Mark Clapham  October 8, 2009, 9:57 am 

    ‘Agrofuel’ does sound like a euphemism for exceptionally strong lager.

  3. 3  Dave Weeden  October 8, 2009, 10:48 am 

    The only reason I can think of for preferring agrofuel is probably unsufferably pedantic. All hydrocarbons used as fuel derive from ancient biomass, so biofuel is really a tautology. Hmm, maybe I really do prefer agrofuel. But, hey ho, too late now.

  4. 4  Levi Montgomery  October 8, 2009, 11:06 am 

    Re the misuse of “organic” to mean “this stuff is all natural and therefore is at least as chemical-free and harmless as, say, rattlesnake venom” (which I assume IS, in fact, what they mean):

    A local store advertises its store-made peanut butter as “100% Natural! Absolutely No Chemicals Of Any Kind!”

    Um, ok… it’s pure energy, then?

  5. 5  Guano  October 8, 2009, 3:10 pm 

    Wasn’t there a time when biological washing powders were the ones that had the stronger chemicals in them?

  6. 6  Steven  October 8, 2009, 3:31 pm 

    I thought it meant they were full of scrubber animalcules?

    Massive props to Mark at #2.

  7. 7  Seeds  October 8, 2009, 3:35 pm 

    “A local store advertises its store-made peanut butter as “100% Natural! Absolutely No Chemicals Of Any Kind!”

    Um, ok… it’s pure energy, then?”

    I imagine it’s a hard vacuum. Difficult to get the lid off.

  8. 8  Torquil Macneil  October 9, 2009, 9:03 am 

    The annoying thing about ‘biofuel’ to my mind that logically it should include crude, which is, after all, just naturally processed vegetable matter, as biological and organic as you like.

  9. 9  ejh  October 11, 2009, 4:21 pm 

    I believe it’s neither Bellow or Below but Bello.

  10. 10  Barney  October 13, 2009, 3:21 pm 

    The OED has the following ‘bio-‘ words in its ‘Addition Series’, leading up to ‘biofuel’:

    bioavailability: the proportion of a drug which reaches its site of pharmacological activity when introduced into the body
    biohazard: a risk to mankind or the environment, esp. one arising out of biological or medical work
    biomass: fuel material derived immediately from living matter
    bio-diesel: a bio-fuel (see below) intended as a substitute for diesel
    biodiversity: diversity of plant and animal life, as represented by the number of extant species
    bio-fuel: fuel derived immediately from living matter

    So I’d say the other neologisms around the time of ‘biofuel’ weren’t that cuddly, on the whole.

  11. 11  Steven  October 13, 2009, 3:24 pm 

    Nor would (or did) I. Thanks for the list!

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