In the two weeks since U.S. President George W. Bush pronounced his enhanced commitment to biofuel, momentum for it — and hysteria surrounding it — has switched into high gear. When Bush gushed about biofuel in his state of the union address, the industry’s excitement level on both sides of the border accelerated. And so has the rhetoric about what this could mean for society.
First, the already frenetic farm sector is scrambling more than ever now for answers about the supply of North American corn, ethanol’s current favourite feedstock. Estimates are staggering of how much corn will be needed to feed the ethanol machine, and of a potential corn shortage.
No one, including farmers, really knows where corn for ethanol will come from, or how it will get from where it’s grown to where it’s needed. It’s said the U.S. rail system is already operating full bore, so even transportation is a question, before it’s turned into ethanol, and after.
In the U.S., stories abound about crop producers banding together to put up ethanol plants, to process local corn that used to be fed to livestock and try to capitalize on the ethanol movement. That makes business sense, but livestock farmers are warning that is going to drive up the competition for corn and push prices higher. They’ve already risen more than 80 per cent in the past few months.
Someone will have to pay for the higher cost of feed. Those costs are likely to get passed on down the line, to consumers.
The growth in ethanol has prompted some Midwestern U.S. farm sector pundits to say ethanol represents a bigger agricultural revolution than the event of the steel plow. The plow arrived on the scene in the mid-1830s courtesy of blacksmith John Deere, and by 1855 his company was selling 10,000 units a year. That’s huge.
But that’s also a 20-year span. The farm sector is talking about running low on corn as soon as this fall. It will hardly take 20 weeks, let alone 20 years, for this new technology to start making a major impact on the farm scene.
And further on down south, things are just getting sillier and sillier. For example, Texas farmers who traditionally grow cotton, a dry land staple, are switching to corn, anticipating a continuing price spike. But they can’t grow corn there very well, if at all, without irrigation. And as any University of Guelph Aggie student who’s participated in the U.S. crop tour will tell you, the aquifer that provides irrigation water for the southern and Midwest U.S. is drying up. Estimates suggest a quarter-million new acres of corn in Texas alone. Imagine how much water that will draw.
All this has catalyzed a new kind of interest in ethanol from environmentalists and future watchers. Initially, they applauded ethanol’s proliferation, because of its lower greenhouse gas emission properties. But now, people such as Lester Brown of the controversial U.S.-based Earth Watch Policy Institute, are calling on governments to halt biofuel plant development until there’s a master plan. He says studies must be conducted to show how much ethanol is needed, the anticipated supply, the available feedstocks and the potential affect on food costs.
What a turnabout, and what a pity. Something that held such promise for the environment, consumers and farmers is now being feared. Oil companies must be smiling that same smile they get when they arbitrarily jack up pump prices before a long weekend.
Ethanol supporters need to ramp up education. With the diffusion of new technology and innovations such as ethanol comes a diffusion of responsibility, too. The federal and provincial governments are doing their bit to try to promote a smooth transition into a bio-based economy, supporting research and other activities and organizations that help position the province and the country as leaders.
However, if consumers start thinking ethanol is driving up food prices, watch out. Never mind that other forms of energy significantly influence food prices, too. Ethanol will be vilified, and any gains to farmers or the environment will be jeopardized.
Here’s a great opportunity to turn to educators, communicators and the brain trust of agricultural economists we have in Guelph, people who understand the farm sector, and how it connects with the rest of the business world. We’re fortunate to have some of Canada’s best farm economy and policy minds here. We need their collective wisdom on where the ethanol train is headed — because right now, it appears to be out of control.
Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.