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May 04, 2008

Biofuels aren’t part of the problem, they’re part of the solution to high fuel and food prices

By Gordon Quaiattini*

The world is experiencing a bio revolution. You can see it changing everything from medicine, clothing, auto parts, agricultural crops and fuels that power your car. Biotech medicines can now target specific cancer cells, bioengineering is dramatically increasing crop yields, and biofuels are starting to challenge the OPEC oil monopoly.

Biotechnology is fuelling dramatic change around the world, but this change is not welcomed by everybody. The National Post recently published an alarming front-page article in which biofuels such as ethanol were blamed for damaging the global economy, causing starvation in the Third World, imperilling the food supply, destroying the environment and raping the world’s forest.

Canadians deserve hearing the facts, beginning with the real cause of rising food prices.

The benevolent, good-hearted people at OPEC ­who surely do not have any interests of their own at heart ­would love for you to believe that food prices are rising entirely because some corn is being used to make ethanol. The truth is that increases in food prices are rooted largely in increases in fuel prices. The cost of oil keeps rising — it’s up an astonishing 100% in the past year alone, increasing the cost of getting food from field to store to table. Increased demand in emerging economies such as China and India are impacting pricing for all commodities and yet somehow biofuels are singled out.

Biofuels aren’t part of the problem, they’re part of the solution. Because of this new market and 21st-century agriculture practices — less fertilizer, less water, drought-resistant grains and increased yields on existing agriculture land — more crops are being planted and harvested, increasing supply at a time when, in the United States at least, a legislative cap actually restricts the amount of corn that can be directed toward ethanol production.

Ethanol and biodiesel are the most environmentally friendly and economically viable alternative to today’s oil prices. Take a look around. Oil prices are entrenched at more than US$100 a barrel, leading to some of the highest gas prices this country and its motorists have ever seen.
The global climate is being altered by emissions from fossil fuels. It seems clear that, as a planet, we need to grow beyond oil ­to pursue an alternative course that is better for our environment, for our economy and for our own wallets. That is the course offered by ethanol, biodiesel and other emerging biofuels.

The more biofuels we produce and use, the less reliant we will be on oil and OPEC ­and the more we will expose cartel members to the new (to them) idea of competition. It is now possible to imagine a world where fuels will compete against each other in a free market.

The more biofuels we produce and use, the more we will help farmers in both the developed and the developing world. Sugar cane in Latin America and the Caribbean, and switchgrass and jatropha in Africa, are untapped biofuel resources that could help the Third World grow out of poverty. We are talking about a progressive agriculture policy that will help governments reduce or eliminate subsidies by making agriculture a more economical and free-market undertaking.

The more biofuels we produce and use, the less we will pollute our environment and contribute to global warming. The simple and well-documented truth is that ethanol and biodiesel burn cleaner than petroleum-based products. And according to data from Natural Resources Canada, the federal renewable fuels standard, which mandates a minimum percentage of biofuels in the fuel supply,­ will result in reductions to greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing more than one million cars from Canadian roads each and every year. What’s more relevant going forward is that increased demand for ethanol will be met by new technologies such as cellulosic ethanol, which is made not from corn but from agriculture biomass, switchgrass, straw, and even wood and yard waste.

It is trendy these days for those with a political agenda or a divergent economic interest to label ethanol and its ilk as the source behind pretty much every problem on the global stage. Indeed, the Post headline would have you believe that biofuels have gone from “saviour to villain.” But a more objective analysis would recognize the true promise of biofuels.

Policy leaders in Canada, the United States, Brazil and Europe rightly recognize biofuels will reduce the cost of harvesting and transporting food, economically bolster rural communities, help to meet the world’s growing energy demands in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way, and aid farmers in their efforts to access new markets and achieve a new prosperity.

All that may not create a snappy headline. But eventually it will create a better world.

*Gordon Quaiattini is president of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association.

National Post

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