Deconstructing Dinner: BioFuel Boom


Industry and government refer to them as "sustainable” and "clean”, but biofuels are far from it.

We now face the greatest global crisis humanity has ever known, and as our society grows and consumes, how we choose to respond to climate change warrants watchful eyes.

Warranting such patrol, is the heavy push to increase the production of biofuels derived from agricultural crops. These forms of biofuel refer to ethanol derived from the starch of corn, sugarcane or wheat; or to biodiesel derived from the oils of canola, soy or palm.

However, the positive biofuel image being painted is being called deceptive. As climate change fever takes hold of our consumer culture, greenwashing has too taken hold of Canada’s now-heavily subsidized biofuel sector. Greenwashing refers to the promotion of sound environmental practices while actions prove otherwise.

Greenwashing was evident at the CropLife Canada conference I attended in Saskatoon this past fall. CropLife is the trade association representing the biggest names in chemical agriculture and biotechnology.

Speaking at the conference was JoAnne Buth, President of the Canola Council of Canada. She described new opportunities for using Canada’s canola crop to fuel the world’s vehicles.

Predictably, Buth’s message was ostensibly "clean”, "green” and "environmentally-friendly”, but how she chose to introduce canola biodiesel should raise an eyebrow… or two!

Placed in front of conference delegates was an image of a drag racing car, also referred to as a "funny car.” The car, we learned, is fueled by canola biodiesel and is adorned with scenes of a prairie landscape. The side panel reads, "Canola.” The absurdity of associating a drag racer with assumed environmental benefits of biofuels didn’t stop there; this particular vehicle is jet-powered!

We know that conservation is hands-down the most effective measure to combat climate change, but such an idea doesn’t impress the Canola Council of Canada. "We’re going to try and capitalize on this,” said Buth to conference delegates, "and we’ll be launching a web site where we hope to essentially have the schedule for the funny car up front and centre so we can draw them in and educate them about the benefits of canola biodiesel.” I can admit I let out quite the laugh following this suggestion. Regrettably, none of Canada’s most influential figures in agribusiness joined me.

However, the seriousness of the biofuel issue runs much deeper than the irony of a jet-powered car as an environmental mascot. In October, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, referred to biofuels as a "crime against humanity”, and called for a five-year moratorium on the expansion of biofuel production around the world. Ziegler points to the increasing value of food crops and the toll it’s taking on the price of food for the world’s poorest populations.

This concern did not stop the promise of $1.5 billion in federal subsidies to the industry. Prime Minister Harper’s funding announcement included the word that many proponents of biofuels, like JoAnne Buth, are using indiscriminately – "renewable”.

While a crop grown to produce fuel may indeed be considered renewable (as it can be grown again the following year), Eric Holt-Gimenez of the California-based Institute for Food and Development Policy (FoodFirst) suggests "the industry is attempting to greenwash fuel crops by saying renewable, and by association, leading people to believe they’re sustainable.” Holt-Gimenez stresses that most industrial agriculture is not sustainable at all. "[Industrial agriculture] is one of the major causes of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, as well as erosion, deforestation and landlessness.”

Darrin Qualman of Saskatoon’s National Farmers Union (NFU) also believes the use of the word renewable is "deceptive”. Qualman draws a more holistic picture around biofuel production, one that includes the numerous non-renewable resources required to grow such biofuel crops. Farm machinery, processing, transportation, petroleum-based pesticides, and natural-gas-based fertilizers, all paint the bigger picture in a more murky shade of grey rather than the green one being painted by industry and government. Environmental and health concerns also include water pollution from industrial farms, air pollutants from agricultural chemicals, and the known and unknown risks of genetically-modified crops.

Canada’s biofuel trade association has gone as far as naming itself the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association (CRFA). In a radio advertisement created by the CRFA, a young girl is heard suggesting that biofuels "help trees make good air”. Similarly, the CRFA’s Robin Speer insists that biofuels "reduce air pollutants.” However, a look into the global south reveals a much different picture. Huge tracts of land are being cleared to meet rising global demand accelerated by government-set biofuel mandates. As deforestation in the tropics alone is said to account for nearly 20% of carbon emissions from human activities, the "clean” air message being used by the CRFA and other biofuel proponents is, quite clearly and disturbingly flawed.

– Jon Steinman

Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. More information on today’s topic can be found at (