Ethanol – an evolution to a solution?

The food vs fuel debate is raging in Canada these days as consumers face rising food prices around the world. Some are pointing the finger at biofuels, in particular ethanol, which is made mostly from corn. This corn, the argument goes, is corn that should be going to feed people, and not cars.

The world first started looking towards renewable fuels – fuel sources made from renewable sources like plants, for example – as a way to lessen our collective dependence on oil, a non-renewable fossil fuel.

Whether we know it or not – and I suspect most of us don’t – oil and its by-products are an integral part of our daily life, appearing in everything from ink and aspirin to toothpaste and paint. Our dependence on petroleum evolved gradually over decades of cheap, plentiful oil supplies, and it wasn’t until the last few years that we seriously started looking at alternative energy sources. Some of the more common ones that are on the public radar these days are ethanol (made from corn) and biodiesel, which is a renewable fuel made from soybean oil.

The concept of turning plants into fuel was welcomed as a “green” source of energy that we wouldn’t run out of. The associated increased demand and higher prices for commodity crops like corn and soybeans was an added bonus for farmers, who had long been hard-pressed to make a living solely by growing crops.

But then reports of food shortages and escalating food costs began surfacing along with farmers getting record high prices for corn, wheat and soybeans. All of a sudden, ethanol and other renewable fuels became almost as evil as the oil they were meant to replace – and agriculture went from biofuels saving the environment and farmers being heroes to greedy farmers causing the world food crisis seemingly overnight.

It is unrealistic to assume that we will find the perfect solution to this problem without some trial and error along the way. Our oil dependence evolved gradually and I think our weaning process will evolve equally gradually. But at least the search is on and even if we find imperfect solutions in the interim, the very nature of their imperfection will encourage us to keeping searching, inventing and trying till we get something that does work and work for all.

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