Renewable Fuels From Agriculture: Cracks Widen In the Facade

On the concessions near my farms dandelions dot the land.  On many of my fields, it’s a constant battle.  However, I often wonder whether dandelions are more unsightly than yield robbing.  In any case, their days are numbered.  Soybean planting is about to start up in earnest in this part of Ontario.

The road to pay day is always interesting.  This year it will surely be shaped by the higher prices being determined as I write.  By the time many of you read this the Friday May 9 World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) will have been published.  Market watchers will be watching for the corn ethanol usage number and the soybean oil use for methyl ester (biodeisel) number.  With many of the world’s scribes suddenly finding agriculture interesting, those numbers will fire up the renewable fuel standards debate in the United States.

I’ve been watching it nervously from my Canadian perch in Ontario corn country.  I think it is so interesting how when society gets a choice between being green and food inflation, they decide in mass to throw farmers off the boat.  Wasn’t it just a few short years ago that the words “renewable fuels” was something akin to a breath of fresh air?

Now, it seems the idea of “renewable fuels” such as ethanol is taking fire from all sides.  It has sparked some American farm state senators to jointly send a letter to EPA administrator Stephen Johnson voicing strong opposition to any request to partially or completely waive the Renewable Fuel Standard.  A few short years ago, this would seem inconceivable.  Whatever happened to our concern as a society about greenhouse gas emissions?

Levitate yourself for a moment several thousand kilometers into northern Alberta and land on one of Syncrude Canada’s tailing ponds.  These ponds contain billions of litres of water leftover from being used in tar sand oil extraction.  They are usually lined with noisemaking cannons that supposedly scare bird life away.  However, last week Canada was embarrassed by the spectre of 500 dead ducks which had gotten into the toxic soup where no air cannons had been mounted.  The resulting uproar from some of the world’s media even had our Prime Minister admitting it was a black eye for Canada.

Now 500 dead ducks is tragic, but at the end of the day who do you think is going to win, the duck sympathizers or big Canadian oil?   At the same time in the United States, who do you think is going to win, big corn, or the masses that want cheap food?  Furthermore tell me where we went wrong on the way to engage these industries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

It gets even more bizarre when you think about the environmental activists who are trying to stop oil importation from the tar sands going to the United States because they deem it “too dirty.”  On the other hand the same activists are decrying a cleaner burning fuel like ethanol because it either uses too much energy or people are starving in Africa.  Meanwhile the silence from future Presidents Hillary, Obama and McCain is palpable.

What is forgot in this debate are the environmental benefits of renewable fuels.  In northern Canada we are increasingly spending millions of dollars trying to keep things together while a whole ecosystem shifts under melting ice.  Too many greenhouse gases have always been cited as the culprit and renewable fuels from green sources within agriculture have always been cited as a sunshine solution.  Now, it would seem led by skittish American politicians much of what has been built has turned into a shaky political question mark.

Clearly though, there is much more to this story.  The push for ethanol in the US and Canada never had $123/barrel oil and $5 corn in the equation.  Nobody at the time ethanol development policy was put together imagined food demand competing against biofuel demand.  The era of cheap food was just too all encompassing.

This past winter I could see very clearly how ethanol and renewable fuels were becoming a dirty word in some circles.  Even still, I didn’t see much worry on the faces of growers who for the first time were receiving $5 corn.  However, over the last few weeks I’ve heard some American farm commentators say maybe giving up the ethanol subsidy wouldn’t matter.  Maybe we just don’t need it anymore.  Maybe then, the food inflation critics would go away.

So we might be at a flashpoint in our agricultural history.  You can bet if the Americans give it up, in Canada renewable fuels don’t have a hope.  The regrettable part of all this is renewable fuels from agricultural crops was and is a very good idea.  Losing that thought at a time when global society is distracted with food inflation would be tragic.  Of course that would back up on every farm.  We’ve been there before and I don’t think anybody wants to go back again.