Biofuels aren’t causing the food crisis – they’re part of the solution

Sugar cane residue can be used as a biofuel
Image via Wikipedia

By Gordon Quaiattini.

The most significant challenge that confronts the world is the need to grow beyond oil. Indeed, at a time when crude oil is trading at or above $115 per barrel and when experts predict gas prices could be as high as $1.40 per litre by the summer, the need for viable alternatives to petroleum has never been more vital or more urgent.

We must address the unhealthy dependency we have developed on fossil fuels while replacing a substantial part of our energy mix with renewable biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol. This will pay a variety of dividends: Biofuels are a cleaner, greener and more affordable source of energy that will strengthen economic prospects at home and in emerging economies alike.

That statement may come as something of a surprise given the headlines. In recent days and weeks, considerable attention has been dedicated to concerns about rising food prices. Warnings about food shortages in the developing world are coupled with concerns about more expensive groceries at home. Biofuels are often singled out as the reason.

But the fact is, demand for oil is outstripping the supply of oil. Record oil prices are what is inflating food prices worldwide, including those crops that have no relation to biofuels, such as fish and rice.

Indeed, many argue that the failure of the OPEC cartel to boost production is a strategy aimed at keeping prices high — a move that amounts to a $500-billion tax on North America this year alone, and which contributes directly to the impoverishment and economic fragility of many developing nations.

As we read about food shortages in the developing world, it is important to note that while Saudi Arabia reaps hundreds of billions in profit this year, Kenya will earn roughly $3 billion from exports. If the $1.3 trillion taxed from the world economy by OPEC countries in 2008 was instead re-distributed to those nations in need, it would lift the entire Third World out of poverty. Haiti for example, has a huge untapped biofuel source in its sugar cane crops.

The great benefit of biofuels — such as grain ethanol, cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel — is that they can help fill the supply gap and create needed competition with OPEC. Indeed biofuels offer the only available, accessible and affordable alternative to fossil fuels.
In contrast to much of the recent discussion, let us review the facts on biofuels and sustainability.

Sustainable prices: crude oil that trades north of $100 per barrel may
be a boon to the ranks of big oil and OPEC countries, but it is no gift
to ordinary families who are facing some of the highest prices ever
seen at the pump. It is also the overwhelming contributor to higher
food prices because of the costs of shipping product to market, and
overall inflation is set to rise due to the passed-on costs of higher
fuel prices from businesses of all kind.

Biofuels offer the prospect of real competition and price moderation.
Indeed, according to one report in the Wall Street Journal, if not for
biofuels, crude oil would be trading 15 per cent higher and gasoline
would be as much as 25 per cent more expensive. A healthy supply of
alternative energy sources will give us the power to combat gasoline
price spikes.

A sustainable environment: Ethanol and biodiesel burn cleaner than
fossil fuels, resulting in the release of fewer pollutants and
emissions. The federal government has mandated that 5 per cent of our
fuel supply be comprised of ethanol and 2 per cent biodiesel — which
according to Natural Resources Canada, will result in the reduction of
greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) equal to removing one million cars from
Canadian roads.

Second-generation biofuels made from materials like switchgrass, straw,
algae, even yard and lumber waste will cut GHGs even more. Finally, all
biofuels are biodegradable. Unlike oil, they will not harm soil or
groundwater in the event of a spill or accident.

Sustainable economics: Biofuels offer new markets and better incomes
for farmers, many of whom have had to struggle for years with
production costs that outpace sale prices. This is true of Canada and
the United States, but excitingly, it is also true of the developing
world. In North America we are only utilizing 30 per cent of the
agriculture land available — and it’s 15 per cent in the developing

Far from creating food shortages, biofuels represent the best
opportunity for sustainable economic prospects in Africa, Latin America
and impoverished Asia if they are truly able to be part of and benefit
from a growing biofuels market.

When one examines all the facts, all the forces and all the potential,
the real picture of biofuels begins to emerge: they are the most
environmentally friendly and economically viable alternative to
gasoline today.

Gordon Quaiattini is president of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association (

The Ottawa Citizen
Fri 25 Apr 2008
Page: A15
Section: News
Byline: Gordon Quaiattini
Source: Citizen Special

3 thoughts on “Biofuels aren’t causing the food crisis – they’re part of the solution

  1. Cellulosic ethanol made from waste sources is an opportunity that exists today as well, as the article mentioned. It does not compete with food crop availability, and can also be used in the the developing world. Northwind Ethanol ( is one example of a company here in BC that is using a cost-effective, proprietary process for converting wood waste into ethanol. Together with their financial partner, Mantra Venture Group, the company is looking at several pulp mills that can be converted for this purpose, at the same time helping out struggling BC forestry communities.


  2. Thanks for an very interesting perspective on the benefits of biofuels. A lot more enlightening than the negative talk of biofuels that seems to dominate the big newspapers here in Vancouver.


  3. Did the Citizen actually publish this advertorial written by a biodiesel industry rep? Even worse, it got picked up by Green Pages?! Why?
    This editorial does not address any of the core environmental problems with biofuels. Of course they are cleaner burning than oil; that’s the main reason we got into them. But the total ecological effects of growing, harvesting, producing, and burning them are shaping up to be potentially worse than those caused by producing and using oil. Clearing rainforests (which absorb carbon) and burning the trees (thereby releasing carbon) to make way for biofuel crops is hardly a greenhouse gas reduction strategy. A comprehensive study covered this year by Science magazine found that when land clearance is taken into account, all the major biofuels cause a massive increase in emissions.
    Then there is the incredible amount of OIL used to grow the biofuels! Modern farming burns up plenty of fossil fuels. Some have suggested that the amount of oil energy used to grow and process a given quantity of biofuel crops actually exceeds the amount of energy available in the end product. So much for biofuels being an “available, accessible and affordable alternative to fossil fuels.”
    While the current food crisis has many contributing factors and can’t be blamed entirely on rising biofuel production, it has no doubt played a role. Producing the amount of biofuel that countries like the US and Canada are aiming to consume over the coming decades will require astounding amounts of agricultural land. That certainly won’t help food security as we march on to a world population of 7 billion. There is only so much arable land on the planet, and if there isn’t enough left to grow sufficient food on, then none of the price trends and market forces to which Quaiattini refers will keep people from starving. That would be magic.
    Biofuels from agricultural waste don’t appear to be a sustainable option either; crop residues build and maintain soil whn they are left to rot in the field. That’s led George Monbiot to wonder whether producing biofuels from crop residue “could lead to peak soil as well as peak oil.”


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