Binkley - Another shade of green


Bio-fuels get a bad rap

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

The frequent accusations that production of ethanol and bio-diesel is causing global food prices to rise beyond the reach of the poor keeps being repeated, but no one offers any real proof.

The charge is especially ironical because one of the original drivers for bio-fuels was to help farmers make money in an era of low crop prices. Farmers grow corn, canola and other crops for income, not the fun of it. If it isn’t profitable, they look for other uses for their land and expertise or let them go to weeds.

By the late 1990s, ethanol and later bio-diesel appeared as the best way to boost crop prices, create badly-needed rural jobs and reduce emissions from automobiles.

Well, bio-fuel production has increased around the world. So much so that all sorts of new sources of feedstock for them are under development. Pond scum, wood and crop waste and the leaves you rake off your law every fall are among many possibilities for so-called next generation bio-fuels. There’s a naturally growing plant in Saskatchewancalled camelina that may have a big role in the future. Experts say the use of crops to produce bio-fuel has probably peaked but will always be an important outlet for poor quality or weather damaged harvests.

The Worldwatch Institute says bio-fuel production increased by 17% in 2010 to reach an all-time high of 105 billion liters. “The increase exceeded the 10% growth experienced in 2009. … Biofuels provided 2.7% of all global fuel for road transportation—an increase from 2% in 2009.” The United States, which idled millions of acres of farmland in the 1980s and 90s because of poor crop prices, and Brazilare the big players in bio-fuel production. Canadais a distant fourth.

Countless studies haven’t found any connection between bio-fuel production and food prices. From the start of this year, there have been repeated alarm bells rung about food shortages and high food prices. Want culprits. Well, climate change is a good start. Remember all the challenges Canadian farmers faced getting a crop planted this spring. In many parts of the world, the difficulties continue.

Another obvious cause is all the wars and unrest in developing countries. Imagine trying to growing food even on a small acreage if you faced the threat of armed gangs and landmines.

But the biggest problem goes back to one of the attractions of bio-fuels in the first place—enabling farmers to make enough money to increase production. A profitable farmer can expand his or her operation with better equipment, hardier seeds and better livestock. And build proper storage facilities so something 30% of their production doesn’t spoil or get eaten by rodents before it can be sold. While Canadian farmers will always have a role in feeding the world, the main source of food for developing countries has to come from their own farmers. That means allowing them to earn a living and acquire land. 

As the Canadian Federation of Agriculture has demonstrated, a small portion of the price the consumer pays for food goes to the farmer unless you are buying directly from them.

Think of producing bio-fuels from corn and canola as the down payment on the development of a bio-economy. Car parts, green industrial chemicals and who knows what in the future can be made from what’s now considered waste. This should be part of Canada’s innovation agenda.

And why does no one suggest maybe we should be trying to control the world’s population growth instead of letting it climb to something like 9 billion by 2050. Making bio-fuels a whipping boy for the world’s ills is a silly distraction.

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