The Electric Pencil

Rethinking Biofuels: The case against Bill C-33

with 4 comments

Pressure is growing for the federal government to drop Bill C-33. The proposed law would mandate minimum amounts of renewable fuels in gasoline (five percent ethanol for regular gas and two percent biodiesel for diesel gasoline). The bill would earmark up to $2.2 billion for the ethanol industry. While the C-33 originally had all-party support in the House of Commons, its future is now uncertain because the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois have renounced their support, and for good reason.

As the Coalition QuébecKyoto pointed out in a press release over the weekend, and the Toronto Star in an editorial yesterday, while biofuels once appeared to be a panacea for reducing greenhouse gas emissions — and therefore a solution for global climate change — the rise of the ongoing food crisis has put this theory in serious doubt.

Last fall, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, decried using food for fuel as a “crime against humanity.” His words went pretty much unnoticed until January, when food shortages and subsequent protests (some violent) began breaking out throughout the Global South. Indeed, 2007 was a record year for the production of grains. The current crisis has nothing to do with a shortage of food, but rather a significant shift in how we use foodstuffs. As George Monbiot points out:

There is plenty of food. It is just not reaching human stomachs. Of the 2.13bn tonnes likely to be consumed this year, only 1.01bn, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, will feed people.

I am sorely tempted to write another column about biofuels. From this morning all sellers of transport fuel in the United Kingdom will be obliged to mix it with ethanol or biodiesel made from crops. The World Bank points out that “the grain required to fill the tank of a sports utility vehicle with ethanol … could feed one person for a year”. This year global stockpiles of cereals will decline by around 53m tonnes; this gives you a rough idea of the size of the hunger gap. The production of biofuels will consume almost 100m tonnes, which suggests that they are directly responsible for the current crisis.

In the same release, Coalition QuébecKyoto point out to what degree Canada’s farming landscape would need to shift to accommodate a five percent ethanol quota: According to the Agriculture Canada, farming for ethanol would take up 50 percent of our corn fields, 12 percent of wheat fields and 8 percent of canola fields.

While the move to ethanol may be a boon for farmers who would be able to reap the benefits, one has to wonder whether the proceeds will really end up going to small farmers who are hurting the most, or to large agri-business who are able to pump out acres and acres of genetically modified corn.

The vote on Bill C-33 is expected to happen this week. The Conservatives will surely hold their ground, meaning that if the bill is to be defeated, the Liberals will need to vote against it. In an attempt at an upset, RightOn Canada has spearheaded a campaign to pressure elected officials to vote against the bill

And while it is no surprise that the Conservatives will hold onto a bill they sponsored (just as other parties tend to do) you have to wonder what the point was in increasing food aide money by $50 million last month if they’re not actually willing to take the steps needed to stem the rise of the crisis itself?

(Map stolen from Spiegel Online. Make sure to read their excellent piece The Fury of the Poor)

Written by Tim McSorley

May 28, 2008 at 1:01 am

4 Responses

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  1. Not only is it senseless to use food to fuel vehicles while millions across the globe go hungry, it doesn’t do anything for the environment. In fact, its more harmful than beneficial according to the majority of research that’s been conducted investigating the consequences of its use. I only hope that politicians realize this and act on it instead of prolonging dependance on foreign oil and subsidizing agri-business.


    May 28, 2008 at 1:35 am

  2. For years farmers in developed nations have been criticized because the subsidies they received to keep them afloat amid chronically low grain prices were hurting farmers in developing countries. We were told that farmers in those countries could not compete with cheap imported food and thus their production was suppressed. Surely then the higher prices we are seeing now must then be a boon to those same farmers with agricultre being the one export opportunity for many poorer countries.

    Production responds to price signals. Over the past 5 years US ethanol production has tripled and corn production has increased to meet that challange such that US corn exports this year are record high and distillers grain exports (the by product of ethanol production are up 4 fold). Overall US ag exports are up 23% this year alone.

    The corn required to fill an SUV with ethanol is said to be able to feed a person for a year. That corn today would cost about $35 or about 10 cents a day. That we are able to produce that much food in 2008 for that price is remarkable, the fact that for many of the world’s poorest that price is still too high is shameful.

    Farmer Tom

    May 29, 2008 at 5:49 pm

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more Holly. One thing I would add though is that the rise in prices has not necessarily been a boon for farmers in developing countries. When markets were deregulated and subsidies removed in developing countires, mainly back in the mid-1990s, many farmers had no choice but to start selling their crops to multinaltionals, or selling their actual land (which they still work) to the companies themselves. The result is that they are not actually profiting from the increase in prices, and in fact are suffering through the same food crisis as their neighbours. Check out the link to Vandana Shiva’s writings in my previous post on seeds.

    Tim McSorley

    May 29, 2008 at 6:06 pm

  4. […] Posted in Uncategorized by Tim McSorley on May 29th, 2008 The House of Commons passed the controversial biofuel law, Bill C-33, yesterday afternoon when the Liberal Party backed the Conservatives to […]

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