Biofuels – Love them or loathe them

The UK has assumed a leadership position in Europe which enjoys the active support of the biofuels i

Love them or loathe them, it is certain that you can’t keep biofuels out of the headlines. Last year the financial pages hyped biofuels as the next big green investment opportunity.

This year the column inches paint an emotive picture of biofuels as the root of many evils currently afflicting the planet - rainforest destruction, starvation, poverty. It is probably safe to assume that neither picture is accurate.

But given that biofuels will almost certainly be part of our low-carbon energy future there is a genuine need for greater transparency and understanding, both with regards to the scale of benefits that biofuels can bring, but also over the risks that they carry.

When considering the scale of the impact, it is worth observing the normal modus operandi of the detractors of all forms of renewable energy, which is to pick on a single technology or process, present it as a ‘universal’ solution and then to ridicule this proposition.

Remember the images of a countryside swathed in wind turbines, as Bernard Ingham protested that wind ‘is not an answer to global warming’? Now we are told that there is simply not enough land to meet global demand for both fuels and food, but it is still not apparent who presented this as a serious proposal.

Given the scale of the challenge that we face, one might have hoped that the debate over climate change would have grown up, and those with a serious interest in securing stabilisation of CO2 concentrations at 550ppm would have accepted the reality that only a diverse combination of measures – each with their own advantages, limitations and risks – can together deliver progress.

There is no magic bullet.

Biofuels have a part to play, and in reality it is modest - the EU has limited its ambition for biofuels to 10% of the transport fuels market by 2020. The UK government estimates that its Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation will be saving 1 Mtonnes of carbon annually by 2010; by no means the complete solution to the crisis of burgeoning transport emissions.

But this limited scope is no reason in itself not to pursue the opportunity: it is the sum of a series of actions, each pursued vigorously and effectively that will mitigate climate change. Dismissing a solution because it alone fails to deliver salvation, plays directly into the hands of those with a vested interest in doing no more than preserving the status quo.

So what of the well-publicized risks? It is true, there are risks inherent in a biofuels supply. As indeed there are in many of the steps that we must take in the path to tackling climate change, and at times society faces difficult decisions. But the suggestion that these are not being recognized and managed, whilst it might make good campaign fodder, is far off the mark.

The EU’s 10% biofuels target is itself rooted in the research of the European Environment Agency, which found that European agriculture could meet - sustainably -17% of our primary energy needs. The report carried the caveat that specific steps must be taken to develop these resources with proper environmental safeguards. The UK is doing just that. To support this, the Government has established an ambitious programme of carbon reporting for biofuels that has as its end goal an incentive framework that rewards biofuels not on volumes supplied, but on the basis of verified carbon savings.

In taking these steps the UK has assumed a leadership position in Europe which enjoys the active support of the biofuels industry. Indeed, the industry has gone a step further, proposing an ambitious timetable for the move to carbon-based incentives.

This is simply a case of good risk management for business. Any environmental policy that ignores sustainability, or any carbon abatement policy that cannot demonstrate its capacity to deliver carbon savings, is itself unsustainable and presents unacceptable risk to investors. The timetable provides a clear way forward, whilst accepting that we cannot regulate on the basis of carbon until we have the data to make accurate and informed decisions.

In the real world this takes time, but will result in a better system that is built on the solid foundation of reliable data, not an artifice that presents the illusion of progress but delivers no real safeguards. The UK biofuels supply chain is working towards implementing a system that is robust, credible and enduring, rather than dashing to deliver a quick fix that would inevitably unravel.

And there may be a bigger prize from this approach. A leadership position is only of value if others follow, and while the UK may be pursuing biofuels for carbon abatement goals, the motivation elsewhere in Europe today can be decidedly different. The only prospect for more widespread adoption of the UK approach will be if the Commission and other Member States are persuaded that it is a reliable, workable and effective tool for securing carbon savings. Biofuels’ detractors have far more to gain from supporting the UK policy than attacking it.

Graham is Head of Fuels and Heat at the Renewable Energy Association, an organisation representing a broad base of interests across the UK renewable energy sector. He has advised a range of Government and private clients, including the Department for Transport which he advised on the implementation of the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation.
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The secret anti-capitalist history of McDonald’s

As a new film focuses on the real founder of McDonald’s, his grandson reveals the unlikely story behind his family’s long-lost restaurant.

One afternoon in about the year 1988, an 11-year-old boy was eating at McDonald’s with his family in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. During the meal, he noticed a plaque on the wall bearing a man’s face and declaring him the founder of McDonald’s. These plaques were prevalent in McDonald’s restaurants across the US at the time. The face – gleaming with pride – belonged to Ray Kroc, a businessman and former travelling salesman long hailed as the creator of the fast food franchise.

Flickr/Phillip Pessar

But this wasn’t the man the young boy munching on fries expected to see. That man was in the restaurant alongside him. “I looked at my grandfather and said, ‘But I thought you were the founder?’” he recalls. “And that’s when, in the late Eighties, early Nineties, my grandfather went back on the [McDonald’s] Corporation to set the history straight.”

Jason McDonald French, now a 40-year-old registered nurse with four children, is the grandson of Dick McDonald – the real founder of McDonald’s. When he turned to his grandfather as a confused child all those years ago, he spurred him on to correct decades of misinformation about the mysterious McDonald’s history. A story now being brought to mainstream attention by a new film, The Founder.


Jason McDonald French

“They [McDonald’s Corporation] seemed to forget where the name actually did come from,” says McDonald French, speaking on the phone from his home just outside Springfield, Massachusetts.

His grandfather Dick was one half of the McDonald brothers, an entrepreneurial duo of restaurateurs who started out with a standard drive-in hotdog stand in California, 1937.

Dick's father, an Irish immigrant, worked in a shoe factory in New Hampshire. He and his brother made their success from scratch. They founded a unique burger restaurant in San Bernardino, around 50 miles east of where they had been flogging hotdogs. It would become the first McDonald’s restaurant.

Most takeout restaurants back then were drive-ins, where you would park, order food from your car, and wait for a “carhop” server to bring you your meal on a plate, with cutlery. The McDonald brothers noticed that this was a slow, disorganised process with pointless costly overheads.

So they invented fast food.

***

In 1948, they built what came to be known as the “speedy system” for a fast food kitchen from scratch. Dick was the inventor out of the two brothers - as well as the bespoke kitchen design, he came up with both the iconic giant yellow “M” and its nickname, the “Golden Arches”.

“My grandfather was an innovator, a man ahead of his time,” McDonald French tells me. “For someone who was [only] high school-educated to come up with the ideas and have the foresight to see where the food service business was going, is pretty remarkable.”


The McDonald brothers with a milkshake machine.

McDonald French is still amazed at his grandfather’s contraptions. “He was inventing machines to do this automated system, just off-the-cuff,” he recalls. “They were using heat lamps to keep food warm beforehand, before anyone had ever thought of such a thing. They customised their grills to whip the grease away to cook the burgers more efficiently. It was six-feet-long, which was just unheard of.”

Dick even custom-made ketchup and mustard dispensers – like metal fireplace bellows – to speed up the process of garnishing each burger. The brothers’ system, which also cut out waiting staff and the cost of buying and washing crockery and cutlery, brought customers hamburgers from grill to counter in 30 seconds.


The McDonald brothers as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

McDonald French recounts a story of the McDonald brothers working late into the night, drafting and redrafting a blueprint for the perfect speedy kitchen in chalk on their tennis court for hours. By 3am, when they finally had it all mapped out, they went to bed – deciding to put it all to paper the next day. The dry, desert climate of San Bernardino meant it hadn’t rained in months.

 “And, of course, it rained that night in San Bernardino – washed it all away. And they had to redo it all over again,” chuckles McDonald French.

In another hiccup when starting out, a swarm of flies attracted by the light descended on an evening event they put on to drum up interest in their restaurant, driving customers away.


An original McDonald's restaurant, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

***

These turned out to be the least of their setbacks. As depicted in painful detail in John Lee Hancock’s film, Ray Kroc – then a milkshake machine salesman – took interest in their restaurant after they purchased six of his “multi-mixers”. It was then that the three men drew up a fateful contract. This signed Kroc as the franchising agent for McDonald’s, who was tasked with rolling out other McDonald’s restaurants (the McDonalds already had a handful of restaurants in their franchise). 

Kroc soon became frustrated at having little influence. He was bound by the McDonalds’ inflexibility and stubborn standards (they wouldn’t allow him to cut costs by purchasing powdered milkshake, for example). The film also suggests he was fed up with the lack of money he was making from the deal. In the end, he wriggled his way around the contract by setting up the property company “McDonald’s Corporation” and buying up the land on which the franchises were built.


Ray Kroc, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

Kroc ended up buying McDonald’s in 1961, for $2.7m. He gave the brothers $1m each and agreeing to an annual royalty of half a per cent, which the McDonald family says they never received.

“My father told us about the handshake deal [for a stake in the company] and how Kroc had gone back on his word. That was very upsetting to my grandfather, and he never publicly spoke about it,” McDonald French says. “It’s probably billions of dollars. But if my grandfather was never upset about it enough to go after the Corporation, why would we?”

They lost the rights to their own name, and had to rebrand their original restaurant “The Big M”. It was soon put out of business by a McDonald’s that sprang up close by.


An original McDonald restaurant in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/George

Soon after that meal when the 11-year-old Jason saw Kroc smiling down from the plaque for the first time, he learned the true story of what had happened to his grandfather. “It’s upsetting to hear that your family member was kind of duped,” he says. “But my grandfather always had a great respect for the McDonald’s Corporation as a whole. He never badmouthed the Corporation publicly, because he just wasn’t that type of man.”

Today, McDonalds' corporate website acknowledges the McDonalds brothers as the founders of the original restaurant, and credits Kroc with expanding the franchise. The McDonald’s Corporation was not involved with the making of The Founder, which outlines this story. I have contacted it for a response to this story, but it does not wish to comment.

***

Dick McDonald’s principles jar with the modern connotations of McDonald’s – now a garish symbol of global capitalism. The film shows Dick’s attention to the quality of the food, and commitment to ethics. In one scene, he refuses a lucrative deal to advertise Coca Cola in stores. “It’s a concept that goes beyond our core beliefs,” he rants. “It’s distasteful . . . crass commercialism.”

Kroc, enraged, curses going into business with “a beatnik”.


Photo: The Founder

Dick’s grandson agrees that McDonald’s has strayed from his family’s values. He talks of his grandfather’s generosity and desire to share his wealth – the McDonald brothers gave their restaurant to its employees, and when Dick returned to New Hampshire after the sale, he used some of the money to buy new Cadillacs with air conditioning for his old friends back home.

“[McDonald’s] is definitely a symbol of capitalism, and it definitely sometimes has a negative connotation in society,” McDonald French says. “If it was still under what my grandfather had started, I imagine it would be more like In'N'Out Burger [a fast food chain in the US known for its ethical standards] is now, where they pay their employees very well, where they stick to the simple menu and the quality.”

He adds: “I don’t think it would’ve ever blossomed into this, doing salads and everything else. It would’ve stayed simple, had quality products that were great all the time.

“I believe that he [my grandfather] wasn’t too unhappy that he wasn’t involved with it anymore.”


The McDonald’s Museum, Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant in the chain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his history, Dick still took his children and grandchildren to eat at McDonald’s together – “all the time” – as does Jason McDonald French with his own children now. He’s a cheeseburger enthusiast, while his seven-year-old youngest child loves the chicken nuggets. But there was always a supersize elephant in the room.

“My grandfather never really spoke of Ray Kroc,” he says. “That was always kind of a touchy subject. It wasn’t until years later that my father told us about how Kroc was not a very nice man. And it was the only one time I ever remember my grandfather talking about Kroc, when he said: ‘Boy, that guy really got me.’”

The Founder is in UK cinemas from today.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.