by Michael Smith (Veshengro)
As the season is upon us, once again, it is time to talk about it.
Gas barbecues are certainly cleaner than charcoal but whether they are better, and especially greener and more eco-friendly, is another question. Presently the gas we use for those, be it propane or butane, is fossil fuel and thus non-renewable, charcoal on the other hand, if from sustainable sources, is. But for those determined to stick with old-school pit mastery, the central message is: check your fuel and especially check the origin of it. Far too much charcoal that is being used comes from far away and often from tropical rainforests.
This edict is inspired by a recent report from forestry NGO Fern.org “Playing with Fire: Human Misery, Environmental Destruction and Summer BBQs”. It is definitely not the cheeriest of summer reading but it certainly is eye-opening. Small-scale charcoal production has the potential to be a lifeline in rural economies all over the world. Sadly that is not happening.
The allegations against charcoal go much further than pollution. Somalian charcoal is linked to funding for Al-Shabaab. The trade in Brazil and Nigeria is linked to human rights abuses, including, in some cases, not just child labor but child slavery, much like with the mining of cobalt, illegal logging and increased emissions.
Thus it is best to buy homegrown charcoal with a good supply chain and suppliers of guaranteed homegrown and home-produced charcoal do exist. But in the UK we run a charcoal deficit. We only make 5,000 tons versus the 60,000 we go through every summer.
If you are shopping on price, and there are some who will, no doubt have to, alas, that charcoal will arrive typically via Felixstowe on a giant container ship from Namibia, 5,000 miles away, of from other, far away places.
Charcoal producers, in Namibia, and elsewhere, are paid by the tonne, and it is easy to chop down a large, protected tree, so charcoal is fueling deforestation. A 2010 investigation, “Namibia's Black Gold?”, found charcoal producers and their families living under plastic sheeting without access to running water or sanitation. And this kind of conditions prevail everywhere in those places.
Not that you would guess all this when you pick up a bag of charcoal from a supermarket. You are unlikely to see any country of origin on the bag. You should always look for an FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) symbol if possible. But that symbol and certification often is also not worth the paper that it is printed on.
Charcoal is excluded from EU timber regulation which requires all timber and many timber products to be legally sourced. So were it included, it would make it a criminal offense to import illegal charcoal from Namibia (and elsewhere).
Seasonal products, apparently, can get away with dodgy supply chains because they hold our attention for such a short time. Not just for us, as consumers, but also, it would appear, for any regulators. Too the detriment of ethically and locally produced product, and, obviously the Planet and the workers.
Thus, as with beanpoles and pea-stick, buy charcoal wherever possible from local producers, from coppice workers. Also local lumpwood charcoal is better in many other ways, and that includes the lighting of it. It should not require any BBQ-lighter fluid or blocks of any kind and should start just by using paper or other tinder.
Considering that the lighter fluid or bricks are petroleum product do you really want gasoline or kerosene with your food?