Biofuels and the Food Crisis

Wed, Oct 1, 2008


Bill C-33 provides a $2.2 billion subsidy for biofuels and requires that all gasoline include 5% biofuel content by 2010.

Yet there is increasing evidence to show that the rush to biofuels will do more environmental harm than good. And converting food crops to fuel, causing food prices to skyrocket out of reach of millions of hungry people, is a “crime against humanity, says United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler. (See Important Points below).
Bill C-33 is coming up for 3rd and final reading.

Please write immediately and ask Opposition Parties to vote NO to Bill C-33. If your MP is a Liberal, this is especially important, as they are split on the issue.

Let us know whether your MP will vote No, Yes or won’t say.

In solidarity and thanking you,

Kathleen, Peggy, Pauline and Becky for


  • “Demand for biofuels like ethanol are not only a major cause of increasing prices, but research suggests they may make climate change worse. In this context it is absolute madness to have a mandatory target,” Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada.
  • “Farmers in our countries pay with their blood so that people in rich countries can feed their cars,” says Javiera Rulli, of Base Investigaciones Sociale, based in Paraguay. The grain used to fill one SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year.
  • One thousand decision-makers on climate change from 105 countries ranked biofuels as the last option, out of 18, for solving climate change, according to a World Bank report.
  • A study by the University of Edinburgh shows that biofuels could increase greenhouse gases by 50 to 70%.
  • The Harper government’s target of 5% ethanol content in gasoline by 2010 will only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 0.2%. (GreenPeace)
  • The World Bank and the IMF have singled out government subsidies for biofuel as playing a significant role in skyrocketing prices for food. In Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, people are being evicted from their land to make way for soy, sugar, and palm oil plantations for agrofuels.
  • A study was done by the Library of Parliament’s Science and Technology division found that, if 10 per cent of the fuel used in all vehicles was corn-based ethanol, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions would drop by approximately one per cent.
  • The link between food shortages and biofuels is black and white, says Roger Samson, executive director of REAP-Canada, an agricultural research group. “It’s completely unsustainable. … We cannot expand the consumption of food crops for fuel or we’re going to starve a lot of people,” he said. “It’s a nightmare scenario.”
  • According to the UN World Food Programme, rising food prices are already causing conflict in 33 countries.
  • Indigenous people in northern Argentina are dying of malnutrition as they lose their land to agricultural expansion for biofuels, says food activist Soledad Vogliano.
  • “To grow biofuels, agricultural corporations are eating up forests and water resources at an alarming rate,” says Ditdit Pelegrina of the Philippines-based organization SEARICE. In Indonesia and Malaysia alone, millions of hectares of forest have been cut down for agrofuel production. Forests are our biggest defence against climate change since they absorb carbon, says Pelegrina.
  • Biotech companies such as Monsanto, however, have strongly lobbied for biofuels, which will increase monoculture, genetically modified crops and greater corporate control of agriculture.
  • The U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, has called for a 5-year moratorium on the production of biofuels using food-producing plants.
  • There are 14 facilities producing biofuels in Canada and six others are being built. The first one to receive funding under the governments $2.2 billion subsidy program will produce ethanol out of wheat grown specifically for ethanol. It is in the Saskatchewan riding of Conservative Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

Use of food crops for fuel has some MPs urging caution and others expressing concern about a ‘global food catastrophe’

From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail

OTTAWA— When the Harper government made support for biofuels its biggest environmental policy, the aggressive push to produce gasoline from farmers’ crops received broad support from opposition parties. A year later, that political consensus in favour of biofuels is suddenly breaking down on Parliament Hill.

At $2.2-billion, federal support for Canadian biofuels is the government’s most expensive environmental program. It had also been the least controversial. But a series of high-profile international attacks on the use of food crops for fuel has some MPs questioning the impact of biofuels on rising food prices and social havoc among the world’s poor.

Canada should put a moratorium on subsidizing biofuels and should advocate that other Western countries follow suit,” said Liberal MP Keith Martin, his party’s critic for international development.

“The realistic thing to do is put a moratorium on it now so people can actually wrap their heads around the facts. The current biofuel strategy is deeply misguided,” said Dr. Martin, expressing a view that is starkly out of sync with his own party.

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion made headlines in Regina last year with his call for a doubling of federal ethanol targets to 10 per cent by 2010, twice the 5-per-cent target in a government bill currently before the House of Commons.

The government legislation was debated yesterday and is expected to pass with the support of most Liberal and Bloc Québécois MPs. While Dr. Martin’s hard line on biofuels is in the minority among Liberals, there are clear signs that political support for ethanol is shifting. All three opposition parties joined forces to amend the bill in committee, placing a short leash on Canada’s biofuels plan. Just one year after it becomes law, a parliamentary committee will be forced to review the environmental and economic impacts triggered by the 5-per-cent target.

Wavering political support could ultimately mean Canada will have to import ethanol to meet its targets. The biofuels industry has argued that legal targets are urgently needed to encourage Canadian farmers to get into the business and boost domestic supply.

When the legislation was briefly debated in the House on Monday, NDP MPs were overwhelmingly negative toward the government’s approach, expressing concern that biofuels could trigger “a global food catastrophe.”<

The Bloc is supporting the government bill, but that party’s environment critic literally squirmed this week when asked whether he supports his party’s position.<

“We have a party line. The vote will be in a few days. I don’t support corn-based ethanol,” said Bernard Bigras. Asked whether he was uncomfortable with his party’s position, he offered a polite “no comment” and left.<

Rising food costs

As agricultural policy, creating gasoline out of crops such as corn is widely praised as a source of new revenue for farmers. Politicians also love biofuels from an energy-security standpoint in the hope of reducing dependence on foreign oil.

Most vehicles on the road can already run on gas that contains as much as 10-per-cent ethanol, a common type of biofuel, and many new cars and trucks can run on 85-per-cent ethanol.

Until now, the ethanol debate has largely focused on whether government support is good environmental policy. The fuel burns cleaner, meaning fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. But critics argue that once the emissions from farm tractors, transport trucks and fertilizers are taken into account, the benefits of devoting federal climate-change dollars are questionable.

What’s new are the alarm bells ringing from the developing world, where demand for food and biofuels has triggered large-scale agriculture expansion at a cost to the environment and food supply.

World Vision announced last week it is cutting 1.5 million people from its food-aid program because of rising costs. Advocates on the front lines say agricultural expansion triggered by North American and European demand for biofuels is at least part of the problem.<

While some Liberal MPs are expressing doubts about biofuels, Liberal environment critic David McGuinty insists his party is committed to campaigning on Mr. Dion’s 10-per-cent ethanol target by 2010.

He said he is aware of the recent criticism of ethanol, but believes most of it is unfounded. Liberals are focused, he said, on ensuring federal ethanol policy moves as fast as possible away from using corn and other food to make gas and toward new sources of ethanol, such as straw.

He says biofuels are only one factor among many for rising food prices, citing climate change, desertification and mismanagement by governments in the developing world.

“Everybody’s screaming about ‘food for fuel,’ ” he lamented. “It’s too bad we can’t have a rational debate in this country.”

NDP Leader Jack Layton, who was ahead of Mr. Dion in calling for a 10-per-cent ethanol content in Canadian gas, now wants MPs to take a second look at the issue in light of new concern from the likes of the United Nations and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

“Rather than stampeding off in one direction with a quick fix, let’s make sure we are actually doing the fix here,” said Mr. Layton, expressing concern that setting a target without clear rules on how it will be met is risky.

Mr. McGuinty said he suspects the NDP is engaging in left-wing rabblerousing with an eye on politicizing the rising price of food. However, the sudden clamour around the role of ethanol subsidies comes from voices that are rarely dismissed.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – the twin institutions that insist that developing countries adopt free-market policies to qualify for grants and loans – are leading the charge to reverse food inflation.

While acknowledging there are many factors contributing to the price surge, both institutions singled out government subsidies for biofuel as playing a significant role.

For Canada’s producers of ethanol and biodiesel, the shift in public sentiment risks years of lobbying for incentives similar to those offered by governments in the United States

“The issues that come up have nothing to do with food supply,” said Gord Quaiattini, president of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, blaming the rise in oil prices as the main culprit.

Canada and the U.S. export more grain than they consume, undermining the argument that rich countries are stealing from the world food supply to fuel their cars and trucks, Mr. Quaiattini said.

“The notion that somehow we are not providing for the world because of what we are doing in biofuels is just not on, it’s just not factually correct,” he said.

Mr. Quaiattini’s association lobbied hard in the lead-up to the multibillion-dollar support for biofuels in the 2007 budget. Television and billboard advertising was everywhere. The association hired a long-time confidant of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Ken Boessenkool, to lobby the Prime Minister’s Office and other departments.

The lobbying against ethanol is ramping up this week as environmental and foreign-aid groups stage a cross-country tour featuring activists from some of the world’s poorest nations. Biofuel critics from as far away as Ethiopia, Mali, the Philippines and Paraguay will warn Canadian lawmakers that the Western thirst for “green fuels” is costing human lives.

Soledad Vogliano is among the dozen or so blitzing the country. Speaking by phone last week as she prepared to leave her Argentine home, Ms. Vogliano said rising demand for biofuels and food is proving a deadly combination in her country and many others.

“We have a humanitarian crisis,” she said, claiming that indigenous people in northern Argentina are dying of malnutrition as they lose their land to agricultural expansion. “[These are] the kind of cases we will see more and more with the expansion of the demand for agri-business with agri-fuels.”

Next generation of fuels

In Canada, Environment Minister John Baird is monitoring the food-versus-fuel debate and insists his government is taking the right approach. He points out that of the $2.2-billion his government has set aside to develop biofuels, $500-million is targeted toward speeding up the transition away from using food crops and into the “next generation” technology of fuel from straw and agricultural waste, such as cornstalks.

The biofuels industry and politicians have long defended corn-based ethanol as a first step toward this next generation of fuels – the most prominent is called cellulosic ethanol.

Conservatives are putting their money where their mouth is, he said, in order to speed that new technology and make Canada a world leader.

“People don’t eat cornstalk and agricultural waste, and that’s why we’re so excited about cellulosic ethanol and the new generation of biofuels,” he said. “Our dependence on foreign oil is considerable, and if we want to move away from that, there’s no easy answers.”

Roger Samson, the executive director of REAP-Canada, an agricultural research group focused on the environment and foreign aid, says the link between food shortages and biofuels is black and white.

He points to UN food crop data to argue global food production of coarse grains such as corn is increasing, yet the world’s end-of-season stocks were down 5.2 per cent.

“It’s completely unsustainable. … We cannot expand the consumption of food crops for fuel or we’re going to starve a lot of people,” he said. “It’s a nightmare scenario.”

Tories and ethanol

Part of the federal government’s $2.2-billion support for biofuels has gone to a fund called the ecoAgriculture Biofuels Capital Initiative, designed to encourage the growth of Canadian facilities that can take crops from farmers and make ethanol.

There are 14 facilities producing biofuels in Canada and six others are being built.

The first to receive funding under the program was an operation in Unity, Sask., that will produce ethanol out of wheat grown specifically for ethanol. It is in the riding of Conservative Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty inserted incentives for consumers to buy E85 cars built near his Ontario riding. That policy has since been revoked.

Conservative ministers continue to show symbolic support for E85 – a blend of gasoline that contains 85-per-cent ethanol that is hard to find in Canada and can only be used in certain new vehicles. Most cars on the road are not equipped to handle gas that contains more than 10 per cent ethanol.

Environment Minister John Baird is among the ministers who are driven around Ottawa in an E85 vehicle. Members of Parliament are debating a government bill that would require all gasoline sold in Canada to contain at least 5 per cent ethanol.

The trouble with ethanol

Ethanol eases dependence on petroleum, but it isn’t all that clean-burning. Now, rising concerns about the use of food crops for fuel has some MPs calling for a moratorium on biofuel subsidies.

Corn growers point to increased yield

The U.S. corn crop in 2007 was the highest in U.S. history, according to the National Corn Growers Association.


TOTAL SUPPLY 14.4 billion bushels

Feed: 42%

Ethanol: 22%

Export: 17%

Surplus: 10%

Other Domestic: 9%



VIDEO CPAC’s Public Record: On April 30th, 2008 in Ottawa an event entitled “Crops, Cars and Climate Crisis” discussed the global impact of growing biofuels on food, farmers and human rights.

Globe and Mail Update: Food, Biofuels and Developing Countries online discussion with Javiera Rulli and Wilhelmina “Ditdit” Pelegrina

Canadian Biotechnology Action Network

USC Canada Red Alert on Green Fuels

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