Canada appears to be getting greener all the time. Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently announced the federal government will put more than $1.5 billion into funding for alternative energy technologies. That’s great for the environment, and another first down in the Tories’ drive to appear more in touch with Canadians’ number one concern.
But the prime minister’s advisers should pause and consider the ripple effects of these rapidly developing environmental initiatives — particularly, whether we’ll have adequate domestic feedstocks to make green fuels. A lot of knowledgeable people say on that frontier, we’re in trouble.
One of them is Pearse Lyons, founder and president of Alltech, an international animal nutrition company with its Canadian headquarters in Guelph. Lyons, who built the company from scratch some 25 years ago, stopped at the Royal City earlier this month as part of what Alltech calls its North American Lecture Tour. Lyons and two company scientists cover 20 stops in two weeks, discussing with stakeholders — farmers, researchers and animal science and agricultural communication students, among them — issues Alltech considers imperative to the agri-food sector.
The focus this year, before 60 people in the Holiday Inn banquet room, was the way the ethanol craze is making profound changes to farming in North America. Lyons, whose company traditionally made supplements that are added to corn and soybean-based animal feed, isn’t a big fan of ethanol production with grain-based feedstocks. Often, when he refers to ethanol as an energy source, he calls it “grain-devouring ethanol,” or worse.
Lyons thinks the feedstock that should be used for ethanol — and maybe the prime minister’s alternative energy technology announcement will help propel the industry in this direction — should be fibre and cellulose. This encompasses U.S. President George W. Bush’s pet commodity, switchgrass, along with other plants and trees — such as poplars — that could be cultivated but presently have little or no industrial or commercial value. In fact, in his annual state of the union address last week, Bush pushed for new technology development to expand ethanol feedstocks, including wood chips and switchgrass.
Other countries, such as the Philippines, are trying to bring on crops such as sweet potatoes and cassava as feedstocks. And a Canadian company, Iogen, is an international leader is cellulose-based ethanol research. But in North America, now, and for the immediate future, corn is the preferred feedstock for ethanol.
There’s a huge disconnect between corn as an ethanol feedstock, and corn as an animal feed. A big part of the livestock industry has been built around corn as a feed, just like the energy sector has centred on oil. Now, with ethanol arriving on the scene, things are changing. All of a sudden, there’s a competitive situation developing between livestock producers who need corn to feed their animals, and energy companies who need it for ethanol production. And we’re just at the threshold — last week, Bush also called for 35-billion gallons of renewable fuels at the pumps by 2017, about five times the current level.
Lyons, and many others, say the world’s grain supply can’t meet both feed and energy needs. At some point, we could simply run out of domestically produced corn. Then we’d have to import corn for either feed, or ethanol, or stop growing other crops and grow corn instead. However, the U.S. is in the same predicament as we are, so we’d have to go a long ways to find additional corn.
Conversationally, I’ve heard arguments for importing ethanol instead of corn. That’s interesting — besides environmental reasons, we started pursuing ethanol in the first place because we wanted to depend less on foreign oil. So, we end up relying on foreign ethanol instead? It seems counter intuitive. There must be some way to strike a balance.
A bright spot in this energy evolution is that ethanol production leaves a byproduct called distillers grains, which has potential as animal feed. There’ll be a lot of it around when ethanol plants get rolling, but right now, much more research is needed to figure out how to make it a viable feed source with all the energy, consistency and price competitiveness of corn. There’s also research going on to develop high-starch corn, specifically for ethanol production.
From a farm perspective, the key in all this is to find a decent price for corn that give those who grow a good return, but doesn’t strike a stake into the heart of those who use it — livestock producers. Significant price increases will have to be passed up the chain. And the price of corn is rising. If demand continues, some estimates say that by 2009, Ontario farmers will have to grow an additional million acres of corn. Predictions are already being made that farmers will meet demand in part by bringing on marginal land or fallow land. That defeats some of the Harper government’s environmental dreams for Canada.
As far as agriculture goes, every environmental incentive Ottawa rushes to push forward will need a long, hard look. It needs a perspective and vision that goes well beyond the drive to the polls, be they opinion or electoral.
Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.