Commentary: Burning the planet to cook our food

WASHINGTON — As the planet's population soars from six to nine billion in the next few decades, we've been wondering how we'll feed everyone.

Now comes the question — how will everyone cook their food?

After spending many a choking hour as a reporter inside homes in Asia and Africa as open cooking fires sent out acrid smoke, I was pleased to hear the UN discuss plans to build better wood stoves for the Third World.

Biomass is what scientists call the stuff we burn as fuel in wood stoves, campfires and cooking fires. It could be wood, peat, twigs, corn husks, dried cow dung, whale oil and leaves.

But with two billion people burning these fuels to cook their daily meals, we are stripping the planet of the very minerals, nutrients and fiber that the earth needs to regenerate new fuel. Biomass also absorbs the rain that increasingly washes away precious soils and silts up our rivers. Cutting down trees also leads to drought as they no longer serve as moist sponges to save water and wick rain from the clouds.

In addition, millions are choking on the smoke.

I recall lying as flat as possible on the floor of a Nepalese house near Langtang mountain on the China border some years back while a woman cooked her family dinner. Acrid smoke from her open fire left everyone hacking and coughing up thick yellow phlegm. The UN now says 1.9 million people each year die from such smoke.

Now come the world's leaders to the UN on Sept. 21, with the latest plan to get villagers from Colombia to Bangladesh to use efficient stoves. I say "the latest" because back in 1992, the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment issued "Fueling Development," an exacting study of efficient cooking stoves for the developing countries.

Having coughed across many developing countries, I had long wondered why that most basic innovation — the exhaust pipe or chimney — is so little in use.

When I built a cabin in the Redwoods 30 years ago, a simple sheet metal pipe sent smoke outside. Our wood stove was fashioned from a 25 gallon milk can using no more than a cutting torch and hinges. Intake and exhaust dampers let me control the burning, save fuel and reduce smoke.

When international donors supplied emergency building kits to survivors of the 1995 Pakistan earthquake, I was pleased to see they gave each family a metal cook stove as well as about six feet of metal stove pipe. No more choking.

But the 324 page Congressional report 18 years ago warned that "technologies must be adapted to a very large extent to the locality in which they are used and that failure to make such adaptations is a principal cause of failure." They noted that local habits and cultures are far more durable than government plans. In fact, since 1992, many efficient wood stoves have been designed, produced, distributed and abandoned.

Why is it that 18 years after this exhaustive report, the burning of the earth's biomass in smoky fires remains the only affordable way to cook in perhaps half the world?

One reason is the rising cost of alternatives such as kerosene, gas and electricity. I used to see the cotton wicks for kerosene stoves on sale in every small shop in India and Pakistan. In recent years, the majority of the world's population shifted to urban areas forcing many to switch from open fires to kerosene, gas and electricity.

But then came the shocks of the fuel hikes. In the early 1990s Iraqi oil supplies were shut down and Kuwait's oil fields burned; then growing Chinese and other demand for fuel exploded.

As a result, in thousands of villages and as well as urban shantytowns, people could no longer afford bottled gas, kerosene , coal or electricity. They shifted back to charcoal, wood and crop wastes.

In Delhi, Dhaka, Dakar and Kathmandu, you can see villagers trekking through town hauling sticks, twigs and charcoal to the market. In Bangkok, people cook outdoors in the alleys. In Haiti, the hills are deforested and eroded to make charcoal for the cities.

Elsewhere, people who no longer can forage for biomass are finding it harder to obtain any fuel to cook.

It seems unlikely that the price of petroleum-based fuels such as kerosene and cooking gas will be greatly reduced — especially while the world does so little to reduce the burgeoning population of a planet hurdling towards the anticipated peak of nine billion souls.

So, will better stoves save fuel and cut harmful smoke? Yes. But will these stoves survive the real world tests? Will they be produced to suit local needs, local fuels and local cooking habits? Can local producers be trained to manufacture these stoves? Will development experts ask people why they like or dislike these stoves and follow up as they require tweaks, repairs and spare parts?

If not, in another 18 years we may see another group of world leaders at the UN calling for better wood stoves.


Ben Barber's articles on developing countries over the past 30 years have appeared in Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Times, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, the London Observer, Foreign Affairs and many other publications. GROUNDTRUTH, his forthcoming book of photos and stories, is to be published by de.Mo press. He can be reached at benbarber2@hotmail.com.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.