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Canola Fields and Oil Fields

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Issue: 22 Section: Environment Geography: Canada Topics: food security

September 30, 2004

Canola Fields and Oil Fields

The Uncertain Future of Biodiesel

by Dave Ron

Community-scale fuel production?
The price of diesel in Canada has increased by almost 12% over the past year. The agricultural industry has been one of the hardest hit, due to the large amounts of fuel needed for farm machinery and tractors. As people across Canada begin to discover biodiesel, however, some soy and canola farmers are realizing that they're sitting on a gold mine of renewable fuel. Despite its promise, the future sustainability of biodiesel will depend on who wins control of this emerging market.

Biodiesel, a fuel that can be made from vegetable oil, beef tallow, or feedstock, is proving to farmers that they already have a solution to high fuel costs growing and grazing in their own fields. Even better, biodiesel can also be made cheaply and easily using waste vegetable oil recovered from restaurants and fryers. The result is a fuel that can be used in any diesel engine or home heating tank, without conversion, with obvious benefits.

As the Canadian Renewable Fuel Association (CRFA) states, "The main benefits of biodiesel are increased energy self-sufficiency for importing countries, increased demand for domestic agricultural products, biodegradability and improved air quality, particularly lower sulphur emissions than from fossil fuels." The burning of biodiesel emits almost 80% less greenhouse gases than petroleum diesel, and also decreases the amounts of soot, sulfur, PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), major carcinogens and respiratory inhibitors emitted into the air.

Much of the global biodiesel supply is being produced from canola oil, a commodity whose production is rapidly increasing. There emerges a debate, however, as to whether fertile cropland should be used for fuel production over food production, especially considering the substantial amount of waste oil created by the food processing industry. Though normally channeled into dumps and secondary markets like cosmetics, waste oil represents a viable source for biodiesel production. While Canadian figures are vague, the US produces 3 million gallons of waste oil per year. Though by no means a viable substitution, this represents almost 15% of the annual diesel consumption.

There is currently only one biodiesel fuel pump in Canada, located in Unionville, Ontario; but things are slowly changing. As biofuel and biotech companies begin sprouting biodiesel production operations across North America, many believe that the best bet for rapid advancement of the fuel is community-scale production. In fact, farmers, rural dwellers, and community cooperatives are taking the lead in igniting production towards fuelling our future.

The CRFA's west coast office has been relocated to the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission in Saskatoon, to accommodate the prairie's canola growers. In the US, the Farmer's Union Marketing and Processing Association, an almost century-old animal fat rendering co-op in Minnesota, is developing a processing plant set to produce 2.8 million gallons of biodiesel per year. As a recent study appearing in Bioresource Technology asserted, there is a need "to have this added value [of biodiesel from food products] go to farmers and rural economies instead of to specific national companies."

The United States government is also jumping on the biodiesel bandwagon, but many are skeptical of how long the fuel can maintain its green grass roots under the President's plan. At a recent agricultural exposition in Iowa, US President Bush and Vice President Cheney were in attendance to sow their support for alternative fuels in America's future farms. "I believe in ethanol, and I believe in biodiesel," Bush asserted to a reception of applauding agribusinessmen. Hinting that biofuels are part of his energy policy yet to be approved by Congress, Bush has recently called for an increase in the production of the corn-based fuel to 5 billion gallons by 2012, up from a 3.07 billion gallon production capacity in 2003.

Bush's approach to biodiesel will likely mirror his approach to agriculture in general, favorably subsidizing industrial scale farms (using GM crops and pesticides) over the family farms, and leaving the rest up to global market forces. This approach not only seriously limits the long term sustainability of biodiesel, but will likely have socio-economic impacts around the world. In fact, this may have already begun.

Dan Amstutz, the former senior executive director for Cargill, a multinational corporation that has recently initiated biodiesel production in the UK, is now head of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq. Under the control of this free-market practitioner who is well embedded in the American-based agricultural industry, the Iraqi market will likely be directed towards US foreign interests, rather than rebuilding Iraq's domestic agricultural industry. Not only does this translate to the further commercialization of Iraq but it also promotes support for US multinationals over small-scale Iraqi farmers. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote of Amstutz, "[his] background and experience is as a senior executive of the Cargill Corporation … and president of the North American Grain Export Association. He is in Baghdad to flog American wheat, not ours." Oxfam International, the British aid agency, further opined that "Putting Dan Amstutz in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq is like putting Saddam Hussein in the chair of a human rights commission."

Shifting one's gaze from the Middle East back to the midwest, only moments after praising the benefits of biodiesel at the farm show, President Bush expressed his pleasure at the capture of Saddam Hussein. "Even though we did not find the stockpiles that we all thought were there," Bush said, "I would have made the same decision." If steps are not taken to secure a sustainable harvest of biodiesel, it threatens to follow in the footsteps of oil, coal, and nuclear energy, representing a first world fortified economy sown into a ravaged, ransacked field.

Dave Ron is the Appropriate Technology and Biofuel Coordinator for the Falls Brook Centre, in Knowlesville, New Brunswick.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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