Biofuels should run on solar energy not on taxpayers dollars
Roger Samson, Freelance
The ability of plants to capture and store solar energy through photosynthesis holds great promise as a renewable energy solution for mankind.
However, agriculture must maintain its primary energy production role: creating nutritious food for the human body. Can we develop sustainable biofuels and ensure a continuous supply of fairly priced food for the people of the world?
Traditionally, agriculture has had a surplus production capacity. In fact, low farm commodity prices in the last several decades have even forced governments to set land aside. Now, however, the surplus production capacity of the agricultural sector is increasingly modest. This is especially true of cereal crops such as corn and wheat, which are staple foods for the majority of people around the world.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that last year there was a 4.6 per cent increase in cereal grain production. But because of higher demand for these cereals year-end global grain stocks decreased by 5 per cent.
At the same time a record 100 million tonnes of cereals were used last year as biofuels. If these grains hadn't been used to produce fuel, there would have been an increase in grain stocks of approximately 12 per cent.
So, why are cereals being so widely used for biofuel production? After all, it is well known that corn-based ethanol is not an efficient way to convert solar energy into fuel. Indeed, the energy balance of corn ethanol is barely positive, meaning that it takes almost as much energy to produce the fuel as is eventually created by it.
The truth is that ethanol runs on corporate lobbyists convincing governments to subsidize it with tax revenues. Meanwhile, other more sustainable biofuel options get no subsidies despite the fact they produce 700 per cent more net energy gain and carbon dioxide offsets than corn ethanol from each acre of farmland.
So, just how big are the corn ethanol subsidies? In Ontario (a net importer of U.S. corn), the combined provincial and federal subsidies last year were about 16.7 cents per litre of ethanol produced. This whopping incentive effectively creates a $64 per tonne subsidy for corporations to import U.S. corn to make ethanol in Ontario. And voila! Another driver of inflation on world cereal prices. Ontario taxpayers have deeper pockets than the poorest nations in the world and they are able to reach deeper into the world food basket to produce biofuels if they so desire.
This year, an additional 25 million tonnes of cereals will be taken out of the global food basket as taxpayer subsidies enable high-priced corn to be made into ethanol. Speculators are in their glory as they realize the U.S. will not have enough corn to meet the projected demand for ethanol, feed and traditional export markets. There is nothing they love more than a commodity shortage to drive up prices and so cereal grain prices have risen across the board.
Food inflation in the last year has subsequently increased by 4.5 per cent in the U.S., 6.9 per cent in Europe, 23 per cent in China, and 35 per cent in Sri Lanka. Not surprisingly, food crops for fuel are being vilified as a crime against humanity.
The first thing that can be done to make biofuels more sustainable is to use crops that more efficiently capture solar energy than cereal grains and oilseeds. The best options are energy crops that can do this on marginal farmlands. This would minimize conflict with the global food supply. Resource-efficient native perennial grasses like switchgrass are adapted to these lands and can produce 40 per cent more net energy gain per acre than corn.
We must also efficiently convert the biomass (captured solar energy) into a useful energy form. Scientists now understand that liquid fuels are the losers in the energy conversion game. It's much more energy efficient to produce biogas and fuel pellets from biomass to replace fossil fuels. In a race to create energy security and greenhouse gas abatement, whole plant biomass crops converted into pellets or biogas beat turning seed crops into liquid biofuels hands down.
So how can we create a policy framework to support sustainable biofuels? Well, it will only happen when the federal government gets out of the business of picking technology winners with taxpayer money and instead creates greater parity in the use of incentives to reward genuine climate-friendly technologies.
Adopting the proposed 1-2-3-4-5 renewable energy program would be a step forward. It stands for one national renewable energy-climate change program, $2 per gigajoule (a gigajoule (GJ) is a measure of energy) for green heat, $3 per GJ for biogas, $4 per GJ for green power and liquid biofuels, and the 5 stands for a required 50 per cent reduction in green house gases before the technology is eligible for the incentive.
The food vs. fuel crisis is not going to go away until countries like Canada reform our subsidies. These must support biofuel technologies that efficiently run on solar energy and use marginal farmland.
Roger Samson is executive director of Resource Efficient Agricultural Production-Canada.