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Deconstructing Dinner

Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY

Nelson, B.C. Canada


February 19, 2009


Title - Biofuels: Food, Fuel and Futures


Producer/Host - Jon Steinman

Transcript - Pat Yama


Jon Steinman: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner a syndicated weekly one-hour radio show and podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio, CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman.


Over the past couple of weeks we've been listening in on recordings from the University of Alberta's International Week in Edmonton and this year's theme Hungry for Change: Transcending Feast, Famine and Frenzy. The week-long event took place in early February 2009 and Deconstructing Dinner was on hand to record a number of the lectures and panels including this final recording from the event that we'll listen in on today. Now in this case, Deconstructing Dinner and yours truly was actually part of this panel.


And the topic: biofuels - a controversial one that we covered in-depth back in November 2007 as part of our two-part Biofuel Boom series. And on the third evening of International Week the organizers of the event compiled a panel of speakers who shared rather differing perspectives on this topic of biofuels.


Sitting on the panel was David Bressler of the University of Alberta; Alex McCalla of the University of California at Davis; and myself. Moderating the panel was Margaret-Ann Armour, the Associate Dean of Science at the University of Alberta and a renowned researcher and professor of Environmental Chemistry.


increase music and fade out


JS: Two quick announcements before we tune in once again to the University of Alberta's International Week, an update to our recent series on salmon farming is indeed necessary as it was on February 9th, only weeks after our series went to air, that a decision was made in the BC Supreme Court case that we covered as part of that series. Alexandra Morton and her fellow petitioners have since been victorious in their challenging of British Columbia's Provincial Government and Marine Harvest Canada. Justice Hinkson who was presiding over the case, ruled that the B.C. government does not have the right to regulate salmon farms. The B.C. regulation of fish farms has therefore become unlawful, unconstitutional and invalid. The fish inside the farm are now considered a fishery, not agriculture and thus the federal government has the exclusive right to regulation. The court suspended the ruling for a period of 12 months to allow the federal government to bring in proper legislation. You can expect a more detailed update on this decision in the coming weeks when we revisit the Norway, British Columbia series, and we'll examine a rather angry letter from Marine Harvest Canada that Deconstructing Dinner received not long after our two January episodes on the topic. And you can stay tuned for that.


You can also expect the long-awaited part 7 of our Local Grain Revolution series on next week's show when we'll embark on the journey that a number of Nelson British Columbia residents experienced back in October 2008, when four sailboats sailed through Kootenay Lake transporting 5,000 pounds of locally grown grains. And more on that next week.




Biofuels. The word does indeed evoke both positive and negative emotions depending which part of the world you're in and who you're receiving your information from.


In this first clip from the biofuel panel as part of the University of Alberta's International Week, we'll hear a segment from David Bressler's presentation. David is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences. His general area of research is the industrial application of chemical, thermal and biological systems for the catalytic conversion of conventional biomass streams to platform chemicals, fuels and value-added commodities. In other words, biofuels are a major focus of his research.


Introducing David to the 200+ audience in a packed lecture hall was Margaret-Ann Armour.


BioFuel Panel - International Week


Margaret-Ann Armour: Please welcome the members of the panel. (audience clapping) The format for this evening will be that each member of the panel will make a presentation, some a little longer than others. And then we will have an open discussion with the audience. And the order of the panelists - Dr. Bressler is going to go first and talk about technology of biofuel conversion; then Jon Steinman will talk and finally Alex McCalla. And then we'll open it up to a conversation with the audience. So David. (audience clapping)


David Bressler: Thank you for that wonderful introduction and again, thank the audience very much for coming out tonight to listen to our panel. I think I speak for all of us in saying it gets us a lot more excited to present when we see a packed house, that everybody is very interested in learning about these issues. So thank you again.


My strategy is today is to kind of lay the table for all my following speakers here. And lay out a little bit about the technologies, a little bit of the numbers associated with what's happening in some of the markets and specifically where the technology is and where it's going.


As was described, my basic area is I'm kind of a hybrid between and an industrial microbiologist and chemical engineer, a little bit of chemistry in there. And we look at conversion technologies to take our biomass resources and look at the highest value opportunities for them, not with monoculars looking at simply ethanol or simply chemical or simply food but looking at the best equation we can get. The key messages I want to deliver with you guys today or, I guess, foster food for thought is you know, biofuels are not biofuels are not biofuels. A lot of double negatives. They're not all the same and there's significant differences in the different generations and applications of them. Where is technology at today? I want to give you a little bit of a vibe on that. It is changing and that's going to be my key message for you guys today is that the reality today is different than it was three years ago and it's going to be radically different in five years from now, 10 years from now. Things are changing. One of the other things I want to make it clear to everybody here, I don't really recognize a food versus fuel debate. Simply put you need energy to make food. If you had a unlimited energy you'd have no problem with energy and food. Somehow we'd better figure out the right way to run the balance between renewable and non-renewable energy and food for everyone. And the question which you probably heard a little bit earlier on in the week if you've been attending is food is it really a supply problem or a distribution problem. And I hope we can get into that a little bit today.


Just a couple quick definitions that I'll use. Bioproducts - if I say that basically everything that's coming from a natural source with the exclusion of biopharmaceuticals. Biomass - any kind of organic material available on a recurring basis. So I don't really distinguish between crops and forestry, animals - they all tend to have by-product streams that we can use. It changes the world a lot when we start thinking carbohydrate protein lipid as opposed to am I an animal person or a plant person, am I a crop person and I'll hopefully make that clear. But just to give you some perspective, there's 224 billion tons per year of renewable biomass worldwide - 15% of the energy used around the world. And the thought here is 35% of the energy needs of developing countries are already coming from renewables. This is not necessarily making ethanol. I'm sure that contributes a bit but a lot of this is simply burning wood, burning whatever you can get your hands on.


Couple things, I just pulled a couple numbers down, kind of set the stage. This data is coming again from the Chicago Board of Trade. If you look, and it's updated to January this year. Couple things - if you look at the corn, the red being the usage, the production again, this is world corn. We're seeing that the production usage or corn is very similar. What you notice is the trend is going up. So the question for discussion and debate is - is this going up just because of production increases? Is it going up because we're redirecting farmland from other crops? Or are we actually technologically getting better? And the answer unfortunately is a shade of gray. It's a little bit of all above.


If you look at things, the stocks we talk about stripping out the supplies of the world and we look at corn and soy, these are the two main targets that we talk globally about biofuels, Again corn being for ethanol production, soy being for the biodiesel. What you'll notice is that over the years and getting even up the fairly current, the stocks and the use of stocks actually we seem to be accumulating more of these two crops over and above. Again the implication, you've got to be aware of what's happening to other food production crops. Wheat is a little bit different, not quite as promising. But if you look at corn experts in the U.S., there was a lot of myths a couple of years ago that the U.S. was becoming a net corn importer, they'd strip all their corn and made it into ethanol, you may have heard that. They're now importing corn from Canada. If you actually look at the exports it's not a clear trend one way or the other; it kind of bounces on a year to year basis. And what you find is U.S. corn exports are more impacted by the production levels of other countries than they are about the world trade prices.


Another little item for food for thought before I get into technology. Between '06 and '07 we talked about, that was when we got the big slam of rising food prices. But if you look, the foods that jumped the most were not necessarily the ones that were targeted again for biofuel production. Oranges are not a seasonal crop, you tend to plant oranges one year and then don't plant them the next year. If you look at what's happening there's major changes in all the crops. And rice and cornmeal which are the two, the two that you would identify most with the traditional ethanol, etc., they only went up 7%. I'm not pointing anything or concluding anything here I'm just giving you some food for thought.


Now if we step back the world food prices are complex. I was looking online today and actually the question I've always had is we've heard that biofuels, biofuels are driving the cost of food up globally. Last year at the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and BioProcessing there was a lot of talk on the issue. One of the proponents got up and spoke on behalf of the World Trade Organization. And basically the statement was their estimate was 40% of the cost was from energy cost increase; 40% was failed crop and crop disruptions in Australia and other locations and only 20 from biofuels. Now you may note if you go to a different source you'll hear up to 80% is from biofuels or 40 or 50%. The point is it's a complex issue and there are multiple factors. The one that I found the most interesting is Merrill Lynch which is one of the more reputed companies in the States forecasting, actually said well the U.S. produces about 3+ billion gallons of ethanol a year. If they didn't produce that ethanol and consume it, they would have in theory consumed about that much traditional hydrocarbon feedstock. The question is what does that do to the global oil prices. And then if the oil prices are going up we know they impact the food prices as well. So there is a complex equation to discuss there but their estimate was that it was $13 per barrel of oil the prices would be higher now if the U.S. didn't go into the corn market. So again, something more to discuss.


In our province, we are an interesting jurisdiction here in Alberta. We have forestry, agriculture, energy, and petrochemical. We have a unique opportunity to look at using our expertise and engineering and processing to harness our biomass. Instead of being alcoholics and making everything into alcohol we could look at a much more diversified picture getting a lot more value out of the equation. The reality is in a First World country we can't win the race to the bottom. And what I mean by that is we can't continually try to make things cheaper and quicker. There's a lot of places in the world that have a better growth conditions, they have cheaper labour. It's always, it's my personal belief that we're much better looking where we can add the most value to our equation and use our production. And one example that we were under assault on the forestry side is pulp crops like Eucalyptus, which can be harvested much cheaper than our traditional Aspen.


The opportunity again is to move from one of production into value-added processing in one form or the other and I don't want to spend a lot of time here but ... Some of the things to give you some perspective nationally, we have a few programs like the Bio Opportunities for Producers Initiatives, BOPI where we're looking at funding $20 million nationally looking at farmer assistance, programs to develop crops in the area; our technologies Agri-Opportunities Program AOP which supports commercialization. Again, that's about a $134 million proposed program and EcoENERGY for Biofuels. This is where you've seen the proposed 10% for renewable alternatives to gasoline, 20% for diesel.


Provincially and I know there's some people in the audience that were involved in developing some parts of this, we have a Nine Point Energy plan. Just a couple key highlights - we've got a Bio-refining Conversion and Market Development program - we're looking at $24 million. Roughly it's 20 to 50% matching funds to help move technologies through all the different aspects of training, infrastructure, marketing, etc. We have a Bioenergy Infrastructure Development Program, about a $6 million program, 35% cost again to cover storage, blending, distribution. The key one in Alberta on top of the federal system is the 9 to 14 per litre subsidy for ethanol, biodiesel and other fuels.


JS: This is Deconstructing Dinner. You're listening to David Bressler, an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta. David was speaking as part of a panel on the topic of biofuels at the University's International Week in February 2009. In just a moment we'll listen in on the next panelist, yours truly, who lent a different perspective on the controversial topic of biofuels. And following my presentation, we'll hear from Alex McCalla, a Professor Emeritus in Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California at Davis.


But before we get to those presentations, we'll listen to one last segment from David Bressler's talk. Because David's presentation got quite visual in nature, we've only included a sampling of segments from the remainder of his presentation. And here again, David Bressler.


BioFuel Panel - International Week


DB: But where I want to focus is it takes energy to make food. Okay so we know we're going to need energy. We want it either renewable, in Alberta we're really good at non-renewable and we have a long heritage and probably future in the non-renewables sector making it cleaner. Great colleagues here in Campion Engineering are working hard to make it cleaner, more sustainable but you know we need to understand what we're doing.


So what are we starting with with biomass? More chemistry. Basically the way I mentioned this earlier, you have to think of biomass as having three main parts that matter for fuels. We have fats and oils which are natural biological energy storage mechanisms; carbohydrates and sugars which again are the short-term energy supply and structural and proteins and amino acids. These are laced with sulphur nitrogen. Not the best targets for fuels. Okay but they're good for feed; they're good for a lot of other applications. Carbohydrates and sugars are a lot of oxygen so we need to use things like microbes or other processes to convert them to more of a hydrocarbon type structure. And fats and oils obviously are high energy. We need to figure out a way to get this into a fuel form that doesn't turn into butter in -18 degrees. Okay.


Other sources and this is the thing we can't just think about our food crops, municipal wastes are commonly used for biofuels now. We talk about biogas, several other forms, agriculture and forestry again, lignocellulosic has a lot of future and dedicated crops - starch, fibres, oils, you know about those. All of these though are targets for what I would prefer to think of as in terms of an integrated biorefinery. That's where we're going to try to take the crop and make a lot more from it than just the fuel.


So there's two main approaches to fuels. There's the focused as fuel, and I heard this put last week by Peter Sandfort from Katzen International - these are the guys that build most of the ethanol plants across North America. He calls them alcoholics. These are the people who focus on corn to ethanol and feed the rest to cows or you know dedicate a biomass. And then there's basically integrated biorefineries which I'm sensing is a little bit more the push in Canada and especially in Alberta. And you've got companies like Permolex in Red Deer that take crops like wheat and triticale and break them down, get the protein, the flour and the ethanols the byproduct of the process. That changes things immensely if the fuel is the byproduct and not the core product. Highland Feeders again in southern Alberta - this is a big you know tens of thousands of animal feedlot but they're interlacing biogas production and now an ethanol plant with their feed operation. That has huge cost-efficiency savings. You're not drying the distiller grains and other things.


In the biomass world with their oilseed crops and grains, we have to look at how we make a diversity of different products. Fuels can be part of the equation definitely but we've got to have a more balanced approach than we have now. So where are we at. Ethanol, the units production of corn based ethanol reached five billion gallons in 2006. It's gone down a little bit. The goal was to replace 30%. They can't get there with just grain. Technology could only get there with just 15%, reach 15% levels. They are moving to cellulosic and some of the major companies in the U.S. like Poet are making huge leaps of faith redesigning and reconstructing their plants right now to move to a cellulosic world. They're hoping that the enzyme technologies are ready for deployment within about a year. So there is some huge leaps of faith with huge dollars going in.


There's a lot of bioweed ethanol plants going under right now. Part of the construction of the plants is you've got to understand the technology is all types. There's some companies that are very well-established, very well-financed, very good technology. Those ones are still running pretty stably. As the price of fuel is going down their feedstocks going down, they're kind of riding that. The ones that are dying right now in the U.S. economy are the ones that were taking leaps of faith with either inferior technologies or they were banking on being able to sell off their capital in three to five years, finance it off and they got caught in a very vulnerable window with the crash. We are going right past what I would call the second generation, you're not going to see it deployed. A lot of the smaller energy transfers, a little optimizations. There is companies like Syngenta that are moving cellulase the enzymes that break down cellulose right into the plants. The U.S. army has spent 1.4 million to fund Draths Corporation. They're looking at direct chemical conversion of sugars to hot aromatics. Again, high value-add. Biogasolines using catalytic converters, sending sugars directly to alkanes, we're bypassing biodiesel, we're bypassing gas, we're moving right to synthetic hydrocarbons. You've probably heard Algo Production for the maybe transplant to remove us off some of the cropland. The big deal is some of these crops that are coming lignocellulosic side, are much higher energy density than anything we've seen or talked about for biofuels. You could see miscanthus, sorghum, poplar, and even in Canada but probably not the U.S., we're seeing hemp crops being developed for high quantities of biomass. Okay this is changing everything in terms of how much biomass, how much sugars can you produce per unit. And the companies doing it are looking at everything from water-use efficiency, invasive, can they use marginal lands. Again, the fuel world is changing. Okay and they have partners all over North America. But this is the dream is that we move to our feedstock. It's not food versus fuel. It's how we best use our feedstock to make everything we need - food, feed, capsules, solvents, fuels, whatever. But let's look at it like an integrated biorefinery instead of a mono product from a single feedstock.


Anyway, I hope I gave you some feedstock to build on today and I'll pass it over to my fellow colleagues. (audience clapping)


JS: And that was David Bressler with the University of Alberta's Faculty of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences. Next on the biofuel panel, Deconstructing Dinner was invited to share its perspective and speaking to the audience was yours truly.


BioFuel Panel - International Week


Jon Steinman: Well I first just want to extend a thanks to the University of Alberta and to the organizers of International Week for having me here this week at this event. It's been incredibly inspiring to see just the content of this week and I only wish that I could be able to attend everything. And the attendance such as the attendance tonight has been remarkable at every session that I've been involved in and been to. And certainly this is one of the first experiences I've had in an academic setting where food is being focused on in the way it has been this week. And I think what captures really how amazing this event has been was a couple of nights ago when I sat down with Frances Moore Lappé, the key note speaker of the event and someone who is, I would say the godmother of food security, said that this event, the energy around this event reminded her of the energy that she experienced back in the 1970s, around this topic, around this subject. And I can't think of a better compliment coming from her so again, congratulations to International Week for putting on this event (audience applause).


And so it is an honour to be up here as part of this panel of speakers with such diverse backgrounds. I know we sat down for just a little bit before tonight's event, talked a little bit about where we're all coming from and certainly we're all coming from very different places around this topic of biofuels. And when looking at the incredible background of each of my fellow panelists I thought well maybe my university degree should have also been on my bio as well which it wasn't for tonight's program. And it would have read - Bachelor of Commerce in Hotel and Food Administration. But then again, what would someone who was educated to become a hotel or restaurant manager know about biofuels. And I think the easy answer is where a lot of that cooking oil used in deep fryers can end up. I know in my community in Nelson, the local ski hill fills their groomers, their snowcats up with biofuels or used cooking oil - biofuel from the kitchen at the ski hill. But that's not the nature of biofuels that we're speaking of tonight. We're speaking of what are more appropriately called agrifuels. Fuels derived from agricultural commodities grown on a large scale - wheat, soy, canola, corn, sugarcane, palm, and many more under development. And ever since I left university with that degree in hand I've been seeking to balance my education by immersing myself into understanding where all of that restaurant food comes from and what impacts the production and distribution of our food is having on this planet that we call home.


Now did I ever think that my understanding of agricultural and food systems would lead me to sit on a panel on the topic of biofuels and did I ever think that the price of my loaf of bread or the price of a tortilla in Mexico would ever be dependent upon my neighbour's daily use of his gasoline powered snowblower. And on both counts - no. And it's looking at this issue from perspectives like that that leads me to being as perplexed as I am today. That the idea of creating fuel from large tracts of land is still on the table as an industry worth investing in and worth adjusting national policy to support its growth. Despite what I see as overwhelming evidence to suggest that the investment and support for biofuels is, to put it quite bluntly, a shining example of our collective insanity here in the western world. As one of my guest who I frequently invite onto my show said - biofuels are an example of our consensus trance. In other words, we're told something is good and the herd follows.


In 2004, author Ronald Wright published "A Short History of Progress," a book that outlined the many collapses of civilization in centuries of millennia past. Perhaps it's a book you've read. And all of these collapses were due to agricultural blunders. And the book ends with the similar state of our agricultural systems today. And I think there's every reason to believe that Ronald, is today sitting in his home in British Columbia and looking at the widespread support for biofuels and thinking - I told you so.


We're lost, we're confused. And in my short presentation tonight I hope to outline only a few of the many examples that I believe prove this to be true. But insanity aside, I do believe that dialogue on this topic of biofuels is indeed a fascinating one and I'm quite eager to hear my other fellow panelists on this topic who I know have a wealth of knowledge on this topic of biofuels. And there are a number of reasons why I believe this subject is so fascinating. And the first reason is the one I consider to be the most important and that is the issue of consumption. We as a species as a culture can not engage in a debate on converting food crops into fuel crops without acknowledging the highly consumptive culture that we are a part of. Because there is today every shred of evidence on the table to suggest that we and more importantly we in the western world can not continue to live the highly consumptive lifestyles that we live. We just can't. And I think as Frances Moore Lappé would put it, there are simply too many people on this small planet to continue living the way we do. Essentially, the party's over and as peak oil strategist Julian Darley would likely say, we're starting to experience the hangover. And so that's my first position. Biofuels as an ideal representation of our collective denial in the face of global crises.


Now my next position is one of trust. Should we on this biofuel issue place our trust into the people making the policy level decisions and/or the ones heavily influencing them. And my answer is a resounding no. Why should we not trust these individuals and groups? And I'll draw your attention to the word used most often to describe the benefits of biofuels - renewable. And it's a nice word. It's a word that invokes images of green rolling hills, vast fields of daisies, smiling faces for miles around, it's a nice word. Renewable. The word has been so attached to the push to introduce a global biofuel industry that even the trade association here in Canada calls itself the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association and their website On the ecoACTION website launched by our Conservative government and their page on biofuels you'll find the words "renewable biofuels," "renewable field strategies," "renewable alternatives to gasoline" and I would say, none of that is quite accurate. And in fact I would call it misleading. In our blindness we've forgotten to look at the sum of the parts making up the whole because while a plant or tree may itself be renewable, the resources necessary to grow such crops at the scale required for biofuel production requires a host of non-renewable resources for a biofuel industry to remain efficient and economical. Petroleum products for pesticides; herbicides in the containers that hold them; natural gas to produce the fertilizers required to inject into the lifeless soil that our agricultural systems have created around the world. So while corn, wheat and canola may all be renewable, they're not sustainable. And as Darrin Qualman of the National Farmers Union highlighted on the November 2007 Biofuel Boom series on Deconstructing Dinner, we do have another renewable resource to look to that we once used to light our homes and fuel the lamps lining our streets. And that was whale oil. When we started collecting whales as Darrin outlined, killing whales and bringing them back and extracting oil - that was a renewable. The whales would renew themselves by reproducing. And so long as you didn't kill the whales faster than they could reproduce, it was actually sustainable. But as you scale that up and try to double and redouble and redouble the amount of oil you took, the resource remains renewable. It just ceased to be sustainable in that you soon get down to your last pair of whales and you kill them. And it's over. Of course whales were an important food source of aboriginal peoples abroad and ironically, just like the canola of today, whale oil was also used in margarine.


As for agrifuels, well one may suggest we could simply move away from petroleum and natural gas as inputs to our agricultural systems and replace them with renewable inputs. For example, biodiesel for a tractor. And this was exactly the suggestion from the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association when I posed this very question to them; this question of renewability. And what the Association failed to address was the dismal energy ratio of biofuel production in terms of the energy that goes into the process and the energy that comes out the other end. Oil after all has provided us with a pretty amazing return on energy investment and biofuels are way behind that. Darrin Qualman responded to the Association's suggestion on that show of a biofuel fuelled biofuel production system. That you had a system that ran around and around and around and used up a lot of energy producing energy and really generated very, very little surplus. But generated a lot of C02 along the way.


Now back to this issue of trust - should we trust the industry and policy makers. In September 2007 I sat in at the annual conference of CropLife Canada and gathered there were all of the major agricultural corporations operating in this country and by extension, around the world. Speaking at the event was the President of the Canola Council of Canada, JoAnne Buth. And she encouraged the industry to get behind the production of canola biodiesel. And there was according to her a promising future for canola. But I asked Miss Buth about this food versus fuel debate - should we, for example, be converting agricultural land from growing food to growing fuel in light of the crisis facing our global food system. And in this slide that I will put up right here, her response was this. And it reads, "So we get dragged into the food versus fuel debate. And one of the things that we have to say right up front is this canola is about oil. It's not about wheat. Wheat is a commodity and a staple crop especially for food for a lot of countries throughout the world." So according to JoAnne Buth, canola is not a food. And certainly if anyone picked up a packaged of processed food lately canola is likely one of those ingredients both here in Canada and increasingly abroad.


And as a final example on this issue of trust, should we trust the industry proponents influencing policy. And we can remain at this Canada CropLife Conference because it was there as Miss Buth stood in front of a few hundred delegates, politicians, and media that she put up a slide of a car, up on the screen. And the car was the first mascot so to speak of the new Canadian canola biodiesel, the more, as she said "environmentally friendly alternative." But this wasn't any car. It wasn't a Smart car; it wasn't a hybrid; it wasn't an electric car. It was a funny car, which for those of you who may not be familiar is a drag racing vehicle, you know that slides down strips of asphalt at maybe 500 miles an hour. And the reason she had this funny car up on the screen is because it was fuelled by canola biodiesel. And plastered along the side of the car it read "Canola" and there's an image as you see up on the screen here of a field of canola. And Miss Buth, she announced that the Canola Council of Canada will be travelling across Canada to help promote canola biodiesel and that they'll be putting this car that you see up on the screen, up front and centre on their forthcoming canola biodiesel website. And you may also be wondering why this car up here has such a large muffler. And the reason is that it's not so much a muffler, but a jet, because this car is not a traditional motor engine. It's in fact, a jet powered car.


And so as part of the show, the Biofuel Boom series that was aired on the show back in November 2007, I included some audio to capture some of the absurdity of using this vehicle as a mascot for the supposedly environmentally-friendly canola biodiesel. Some of the audio I included was an announcement by Prime Minister Stephen Harper back in July 2007 where he was announcing the one and a half billion dollars that was going to be promised over the nine years starting in April 2008 onwards, that would be used as incentives for getting a biofuel industry up and running here in Canada. And so I want to play this clip quickly for you because I then took this clip and reworked it a bit to really capture how absurd some of these messages that the Canadian public are receiving really are. So take listen.


1st Audio Clip:

Stephen Harper: Canada is uniquely positioned to become a world leader in the production of biofuels. The global appetite for more environmentally-friendly sources of energy is growing by the day. The world is waking up to the fact that what and how we consume today will determine the quality of life for the generations of tomorrow. This is a grave responsibility, one that Canada takes very seriously.


JS: Okay so that's the first clip. Now this next clip that was also included as part of the show took this very segment of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's speech and added the audio of what this car, this jet-powered canola biodiesel funny car, what it sounds like. And here are the two together.


2nd Audio Clip:

Stephen Harper: Canada is uniquely positioned to become a world leader in the production of biofuels. The global appetite for more (jet sound of car increasingly getting louder almost drowning out speech) environmentally-friendly sources of energy is growing by the day. The world is waking up to the fact that what and how we consume today will determine the quality of life for the generations of tomorrow. This is a grave responsibility, one that Canada takes very seriously. (big, loud jet sounding screechy noises and bangs sounding like fireworks and then dies down)


JS: Now I want to end my presentation with one last reason as to why I believe we have gone absolutely mad to even consider the injection of agrifuels into the global economy. Because biofuels are founded upon another model that I believe has already proven to be a failure. And that is the industrial agricultural systems that biofuels are reliant upon and will increasingly be reliant upon at current rates of consumption. Whether it be water pollution such as the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Winnipeg, air pollution, soil degradation and erosion, impacts on human and animal health, the sheer lack of biodiversity found within these systems, the known and unknown risks of genetically engineered plants, the current push to genetically engineered crops for better biofuel production, and the subsequent and unavoidable contamination scenarios that will most certainly exist with fuel crops crossing with food crops. The corporate control of our food system by a handful of corporations and now those same corporations controlling both food and fuel. And an industrial agricultural system that breeds landlessness, poor farmers, poverty, sickness, and inequality. And through their failure to address these concerns the media is also complicit in these tragedies and these threats. And I know for me, it's my goal as a journalist to inject a healthy dose of sanity back into a culture that has completely lost its way. (applause)


JS: And this is Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated weekly one-hour radio show and podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio, CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman. You were just listening to yours truly speaking in February 2009 at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. I was speaking as part of a panel on the topic of biofuels which was one of many events as part of the University's annual International Week. This year's theme was Hungry for Change: Transcending Feast, Famine and Frenzy. And if you miss any of today's episode or would like to check out other recordings from the event, you can visit our website at


And the third and final panelist making up the evening event was Alex McCalla. Alex is an expert in international trade, has directed the Agriculture and Natural Resources Department at the World Bank. Since graduating from the University of Minnesota, Alex has served in many roles at the University of California at Davis, including his current position as Professor Emeritus in Agricultural and Resource Economics. Here's Alex McCalla.


BioFuel Panel - International Week


Alex McCalla: How would you like to have to follow that? (audience laughter) And I don't have any slides. I don't have any sound effects (audience laughs) and I probably don't have very much to say but I'll give a little bit of an advertisement for tomorrow night I think we'll have more to say.


What is very interesting to me about this topic is why is this topic so hot and so controversial at this point in time. If you look at it from one side the topic engenders many, many apparently laudable policy objectives. It reduces our dependence on non-renewable fuel sources. It would help to diversify our energy sources between a variety of renewable sources. It would seem to contribute to those sources being much more geographically and generally dispersed. Most everybody grows something and if you can convert something into a biofuel it seems better than depending on those that have petroleum reserves. It seems to some to be a mitigation on the global warming issue because net carbon emissions may be diminished. It seems good for the environment in the sense that it reduces pollution from burning petroleum products. It seems good for farmers because it increases the demand for their products and the prices they get and therefore ought to be good for the agricultural society. And if those prices that rise as a result of increased demand for biofuel are passed through to farmers in developing countries who make up the majority of the world's poor, why isn't that good for poverty reduction in rural development? So, on one side of the debate there seem to be a lot of laudable, plausible, desirable objectives. On the other hand, it also engenders a very negative response. It pushes up food costs for the very poor. It fuels rich country's SUVs at the expense of poorest peoples food supply. It's net energy savings are small or even negative though David's suggested that that's no longer true. It competes with precious land for precious land resources and takes them away from food production. Higher prices induce production expansion to marginal and fragile lands, ecologically sensitive lands. And the ones who benefit as we've just heard are those who are the large corporations, would build the plants and other farmers and consumers would lose. And I could go on but that's enough to say that there's a lot of big issues on both sides of the question. So why is the debate now so hot. Using biological material for energy is as old as mankind. We've been using fuelwood, charcoal, manure, biogas, agricultural waste and byproducts to produce fuel for almost the length of human activity, at least in settled agricultural periods. So what's new about now. And that's what I've been asking myself and maybe that's what we can debate here tonight.


First, I think that we have been on a bit of a dream trip as a world and as countries in thinking about what we have now in abundance will last forever. And I think that the 1970s and the OPEC helped drive this home, is that we finally as a world come to the realization that our traditional, usually cheap source of energy - petroleum is going to run out sometime. Now Alberta's got a lot of stuff but how long is it going to take and whether or not that's going to survive the ecological challenges. But number one I think, all of a sudden we said we can't depend on what we've been use to depending on all these years. What does that lead to? It leads to governments being concerned about looking after the long term. And so how do you look after the long term? You do short term things. And what do you do? You say okay if people won't do it on their own, we're going to mandate, replacement of petroleum by other sources. And we're going to do this in a variety of ways but nevertheless we're going to say okay, as of 2011 - 10%; 2015 - 20, whatever the numbers are. So all of a sudden, biofuels is a policy issue, a global policy issue, where it wasn't before.


Third, what's different now is we're talking about mainly, and most of the debate tonight's been about ethanol, a bit about biodiesel. We're talking about purpose-grown crops being used for biofuel not part of an overall production system which you are talking about before in terms of waste byproducts and so on. And this has led, coupled with the mandates to a rapid expansion of production of ethanol and biodiesel under varying kinds of policy debates.


And, fourthly as David has I think aptly pointed out, this all of a sudden policy attention and driven by the fact that we went through a high fuel price period in the 1970s and back into an even bigger run up now, has all of a sudden led to an enormous set of investments in technological change. So that what's happening today, what policy today is addressing is issues of yesterday. I think that's the message I get from David.


So why is it that we get all these issues? Is it because the objectives are wrong? The things that are said to be good about it or is it because we're doing it wrong? Is the policy implementation the problem? If the concern is to reduce foreign dependence - I'm now saying if I were in the United States, one of the concerns is to reduce foreign dependence and transfer to domestic sources of renewable sources, domestically - and that could be varying kinds of biomass sources depending on where you live - what's wrong with that if we want to have a diversified energy source? We're talking about wanting to diversify the wind into solar, why not have part of that equation be biomass. So is it because we've chosen the wrong vehicle to do that. I mean Brazil's been in the business for 40 years, they've got 45% of their fuel stock supply now coming from sugar. Is that the wrong crop? Sugar's in terms of litres of ethanol per hectre is twice as efficient a source as corn, for example. But did we select the wrong crops or did we as David has suggested not look at this as an integrated issue but as a commodity issue.


I think most countries in choosing policy options decided that if we're going to do something about this and today there's a big debate in the U.S, Congress on the package about Buy America, okay. So the issue was that if we're going to have a policy that is going to try and develop a domestic fuel supply, then we should have policies that support local industry. So we should support local farmers and many of the strongest supporters of ethanol are farm groups. We should support local producers. We should encourage local investment. How do we do that? Well we can do it with tax credits; we can do it with tax reductions; we can do it with direct subsidies; we can do it with border taxes. And most countries do all of those things at varying degrees and I understand in Canada there's differences among provinces in terms of how much there is in terms of tax rebates or tax reductions.


So how is it that when we chose these things to do that we got it wrong in the eyes of some people? And maybe we can use the U.S. as an example. Why did the U.S. choose corn? Corn is an inefficient fuel stock, we knew that. Corn is an important human food. It's an important input into the production of other foods, livestock, for example. It's a major source of industrial products - high fructose corn sweetener and it's a very widely-traded product. Why do we choose corn as the source in the U.S? But that's what happened and the U.S. put into place border protection, domestic production and producer subsidies and encouraged the production of very substantial increases in ethanol production. Beyond that the U.S. encouraged decentralized small-scale investments when every technology development as occurred for agriculture if you go back to fertilizer, if you go back to high fructose corn sweetener, if you go back to many other commodities, as technology advances, scale increases. So now you've got a large number of small-scale inefficient producing plants that with corn prices now down to where they're below where they were three years ago, are going to go out of business. So, it's going to be replaced presumably by larger scale companies and firms as David has suggested.


So, is it because we chose the wrong fuelstock, the wrong set of policies to accomplish it and did we encourage the wrong technology or did not have the foresight as to what the right technology was in moving forward?


And, I think finally it was decided to do it fast. And that decision to do it fast happened to occur with a set of events in the world grain and food market which has driven up prices to a very high spike over the last two or three years which immediately raises the question did biofuels cause the food price spike? Okay. And I'll say two things. One is that this is still a widely debated issue and there are estimates ranging from 70% of the increase in farm prices came from biofuel to three and everything in between, I won't identify the sources of those because some of the origin is stuck to people but the institutions are in the room (audience laughs). And now, in some sense with the prices down almost to the level where they were before the spike ran up, is it a moot issue? Maybe biofuels didn't have any impact on prices. Maybe it was the moon. Maybe it was the macro events. Maybe it's what, I don't know what the causes are but I invite you to tune in tomorrow night because that's what I'm going to talk about then. And I think now it's best that we should give you an opportunity to be involved whether or not biofuels are saviours or devils. (applause)


JS: Alex McCalla, speaking in February 2009 in Edmonton Alberta.


This is Deconstructing Dinner where you're listening to recordings from a panel on the topic of biofuels. The panel was part of the University of Alberta's International Week. We've now heard from the three panelists, which included David Bressler, an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University. David was followed by Deconstructing Dinner and yours truly, and just now, Alex McCalla of the University of California at Davis.


And in closing out today's broadcast, we'll leave you with one last segment. This one includes the panels final comments and then a few short clips of audience questions and panelists responses.


BioFuel Panel - International Week


JS: I guess the comment I want to make is not so much one to spark debate it's actually one that is in a way seeking to sort of tie all of our presentations together. I do see that there are some threads that tie all of our positions together. The one thing that I do believe of course my presentation was very much biofuels-bad, biofuels are the devil. But what I do believe though is that we can integrate our energy that we grow with our food. And it has to be done on a small scale. So much of the talk of ground biofuels is global in scope. We're talking of large tracts of land; we're talking about monocultures and I guess the way I see it is that nature does not have monocultures of anything. And if we are to create sustainable systems we need to mimic nature and I think that involves small-scale systems and I agree with David in the sense that there is a way. I'm sure it can blend all of our needs together but I believe it has to be on a small-scale. It has to be done within communities and that diversity has to be within those communities. And another thing this also does, by diversifying on a small-scale is it takes the corporate control out of these things that we need - our food, our housing, our water, our energy needs and it puts that control into the hands of people in communities. And I think that that's one of the most important things that we need to be looking at when it comes to this energy debate.


DB: Okay, if we're going to talk about why are we debating this now and why is it a hard button - partly because the technologies are moving quickly as we have outlined and partly because of recent events up and down. Part of it has got a lot to do with the political and social structures we live with globally right now. And we talk a lot about being good corporate citizens or good world citizens, eco-responsibility, how much responsibility do people have to look out for thy brother, is the brother next door or is the brother living on the other side of the world. And the question becomes - well if countries are going to be held accountable for feeding other parts of the world what rights would they have and then dictating how that food is disseminated to those other parts of the world? But the question is, how much of the world's food supply security is due to each country? If the U.S. is moving more to let's say an isolationist policy with terrorists and trade and protectionism, moving to energy self-sufficiency at the cost potentially of exporting food, if that's a bad thing then you know everybody's very quick to look at countries when they try to intervene in political regimes in other countries. There are countries in the world that use the food distribution system as a means of population control and control over what's happening socially and politically. I think it's a much more complicated issue than just simple technology or simply the green or not green, or the economics in a market setting. You have different regimes, you have different politics and you have different responsibilities. So I'll give that, everybody probably has a different take on that but, something to think about.


Margaret-Ann Armour: Thank you. I think there is no question about the complicated issue we've heard - many of the aspect of it. This now is open for you. Are there questions or comments and Leslie's going to bring the microphone around so there's one over there and then we'll come back over here.


Audience Member: Thank you. I just wanted to say I know you guys touched on that but I find myself just particularly excited at the fact that we might be growing, you know energy sources outside of traditional hydrocarbons that you take from the ground like oils. And coming for Iraq I think that one thing that we all should consider is the cost of maybe getting rid of some of the conflict and the cost of wars and other commodities like China moving in and needing more oil and things like that. For every country to produce its own source of energy will not only create energy but it will also create security. And I understand what you are saying about having smaller scale and moving on and trying like to supply food of energy and working it together. However understanding corporate structures and the government policies, really moving away from hydrocarbons as a source of energy as we have them now will create security and move away from conflict making them a lot more sustainable, I think. I just wanted to hear what you guys had to say about that.


MAA: Somebody, who would like to respond to that, Jon?


JS: Well maybe I'll just make one quick comment and I think I would echo what Sainath said last night at his lecture here. In that in terms of moving to either very small-scale systems that are very diverse like I was suggesting versus large-scale systems that create more energy security for countries, I'm not convinced that the political will and the financial support for creating smaller more diverse systems is not there. Like to me it's there. We see what's happening right now in this economic recession and how much money is being invested to bail out this recession. And of course it comes down to political will. Where's the money going to go? And I think it comes down to the people who voted for those making those policy decisions to say where is that money going to go. And of course what happens south of the border and what's happening here in Canada to me is the most undemocratic process of distributing funds. And I can think of a myriad amount of ways to invest that kind of money into things that are long-term and not-short-term. (applause)


MAA: Anybody else want to respond, Alex?


AM: Well I would say that if you look at the evolution of the global economy that it has been increasingly driven by what economists call comparative advantage. And that is you should do those things that you do well and exchange those for those things that you don't do well. And I think that energy self-sufficiency is in principle in the same category as say, about food self-sufficiency or anything else self-sufficiency that I think is general is not the most efficient way to use a global set of resources. Now, there may be overriding reasons why you want to be self-sufficient in energy that go beyond the economics of globalization because in some sense moving in a direction of energy self-sufficiency is contrary to the direction everything else is going in the world. But on the other hand, if I look at the policies that are being implemented, they're being implemented in the name of increasing energy self-sufficiency. And we're saying that some of those policies are bad so it's a complicated issue. But I would say in principle that in a world that is as tightly integrated as we have become that the idea of energy self-sufficiency may not be a feasible alternative. But we certainly could be talking about policy arrangements by which we have much more energy security. In the same sense we ought to be talking about policy arrangements whereby we have some sense of food security that goes beyond national boundaries.


MAA: I think I'm going to close the questions there. We've come to the time at which we said we would end and we don't want to keep people. I don't know about you but I feel I have a better understanding of the complexities and a better sense of how we can tease out what the pros and cons are of the biofuels debate. So I ask you to join me in thanking our panelists. (applause)


JS: And that concludes today's recordings from the University of Alberta's International Week in Edmonton. Again, more recordings from the event including some moving talks by Indian journalist Palagummi Sainath and democracy and food security advocate Frances Moore Lappé are available from the Deconstructing Dinner website at


ending theme


JS: And that was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner, produced and recorded at Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant John Ryan.


The theme music for Deconstructing Dinner is courtesy of Nelson-area resident Adham Shaikh.


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