Bio-ethanol research expanding in Canada

First published: June 18, 2004

Over the past several months my research has focused on public policy
relating to bio-ethanol expansion in both Canada and the US.

Many interesting facts have arisen during the course of this research.
One derivative opinion of this research suggests that as technical
achievements in reforming fuels such as ethanol and methanol to hydrogen
begin to take root there will be less focus on best practices
agriculture. The expectation, on the prairies, is that fuel companies
will control food and fuel production using intensive fertilization,
herbicides such as RoundUp and genetically modified wheat that is
resistant to Monsanto’s week killer.

Already, Canada’s Ethanol Expansion Program has given over $78 M in a
first round of 7 contracts, all but one of which is for ethanol
fermentation plants on the prairies, ostensibly to use corn and grain as
feedstock for the process.

The managed yields factor raises itself directly with the entry of Iogen
Corporation of Ottawa, whose federally sponsored demonstration plant
using the so-called Jungle Rot enzyme puts in place a proven process for
deriving ethanol from any cellulosic material containing 60 per cent
carbohydrate. Many in the ecosystem and environment movements hail this
as a benefit. But there is a hidden danger. Both food security and
mobility fuel security are at risk as biomass gets closer to not only
its electrical potential as a source of hydrogen in the market, but
because food and fuel are married together in a permanent and
indivisible way. And all of this comes into play because Iogen, along
with Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada have given the nod
in principal that the best feedstock for the Iogen enzyme process are
wheat and barley straw.

In fact, Iogen has announced its intention to commercialize its process,
not in small decentralized plants around the country where feedstock
such as switch grass and hemp would qualify marginal lands as fuel
producing agricultural lands.

What has to be understood is not that $78 M in contract awards by the
feds is bad, but that the technology in employing Iogen’s enzyme process
is a minor and relatively inexpensive upgrade to the Shell and Husky Oil
dominated contract winners to make so that their corn and grain plants
can run wheat and barley straw. This is accomplished by putting a
front-end pulverization line in place before the digestion and
fermentation processes.

While recent events seem to indicate that Monstanto’s GMO RoundUp
resistant wheat will not be used on the prairies pressure has been
brought to bear on the Wheat Board by the European Union and by
advocates within Canada that would like to see this entity disbanded.
The implications of this place Canadian agriculture in a precarious
position in having to eventually mix GMO and cross-pollinated varieties
of wheat into one system or take on the cost of building separate
handling systems — the net result of which will likely raise the price
of ethanol not to mention impact on what remains of the homestead
farming on the prairies. It still costs less to use one machine to farm
10 acres of land than it does to use ten machines to farm 1 acre plots
of the same crop. Economies of scale have always dominated in the
pricing of fuel at the pumps. Why should the vertical integration
practiced by the fuel industry be any different if they are going to
deal with farmers in Canada or OPEC member nation companies? People are
hungry for inexpensive fuel and make no bones about how rotten it is to
spend so much on gasoline even while there is a war on.

Perhaps more important are the unknown effects of not tilling chaff back
into the soil on natural microbial development are, but it seems rather
obvious that to maintain expected yields, and because wheat is a heavily
soil depleting crop, that it is only a matter of time that food growth
will further fall under intensive chemical management.

Perhaps our politicians can help us decentralize the fermentation plants
around the country. The public has access to Iogen enzyme licensing
through the 19 per cent interest the federal government holds in
Petro-Canada. This was the deal brokered in 1998 with Iogen (20 % owned
by Shell) when the feds handed over $35 M for Iogen’s demonstration
plant in Ottawa.

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