Corn not the only biofuel for Ontario's new ethanol plan, says researcher

A soil researcher at the University of Waterloo says second-generation biofuels are a more sustainable option than corn for Ontario's new ethanol plan.

Scientist says second-generation biofuels ‘not something we invented yesterday’

Switchgrass is a popular choice as a fast-growing, robust biomass crop. (S E Wilco, cc-by-sa-2.0)

Ontario's new ethanol policy has attracted debate over sustainability, as it's expected corn production will increase to meet the heightened ethanol demand.

From the University of Waterloo alone, three professors have shared their differing views on the provincial proposal. 

Sarah Burch, a geography and environmental management professor, called the strategy "promising" in the short-term, saying it could be "a boon for the corn industry," while Dawn Parker, a planning professor, feels using more ethanol is bad policy.

"This causes substitution away from production of corn and soybeans for food, and into production for biofuels, and in the past that exacerbated world hunger," she told CBC.

Now a third voice has emerged. Maren Oelbermann, a soil researcher and associate professor at the department of environment, resources and sustainability, reached out to CBC News to say that critics should stop focusing on corn and start talking about "second-generation biofuels."

"The idea has been around for quite a while," Oelbermann said. She identifies those second-generation biofuels as crops that are "not used for agricultural production for food," such as certain trees and types of grass.

"We have known for a long time that you should probably not be using [first generation crops, such as corn to produce ethanol] because they need to be used for agricultural production, i.e., for food production."

The concern over corn-based ethanol production taking away from food production was especially prominent about a decade ago. Food costs began to increase rapidly in 2007 and countries around the world felt the impact. 

The World Bank Group's Global Development Finance said in 2007 that the "reorientation of agricultural output towards biofuels" contributed to reduced grain stocks globally.

Then in 2008, food scientists recommended halting food-based biofuels in order to reduce corn prices by 20 per cent with the "burgeoning worldwide food crisis."

Which plants?

Oelbermann said using perennial plants such as poplar, willow and types of grass such as switchgrass and silvergrass, would be a more sustainable way of producing biofuel and won't take away from crop production.

Oelbermann submitted a research article on second-generation biofuels recently for review. (University of Waterloo)

Those plants have deeper root systems and have a higher ability to restore soils, said Oelbermann, with the added benefit that they can be grown on "marginal land," which tends to be too poor for food crops.

"You want to leave the good land for agricultural production so we can ensure food security," she said, "It's definitely more sustainable."

By using growing perennial plants for ethanol production on those marginal lands, Parker's concerns about reduced food production could, in theory, be largely mitigated.

However, Parker said in an email, using marginal lands for ethanol production could take away land that "might be better used for natural reserves."

Research ongoing

As the debate over the sustainability of biofuel production ramps up again, scientists continue to conduct research at their own pace, including at the University of Guelph.

The university announced in 2011 it had been working on a research project using willow and poplar as energy alternatives out of the Guelph Turfgrass Institute. The lead researcher had been studying willow as a bioenergy source for at least several years before that. 

The trees were harvested once they reached a two-centimetre diameter and were then transported to biofuel production facilities.

"This is not something we invented yesterday," Oelbermann said. This type of research has been existing in Europe for many years as well, she pointed out, but in Canada, she says the research is still in its infancy, especially when it comes to determining whether these second-generation biofuels are "carbon neutral" or not.

Factors like the amount of fuel used in transportation between farm to production facility and the effect of using fertilizers all need to be considered in the calculation.

For now, Oelbermann is waiting to hear back about a research article on biofuel sustainability she submitted to an academic journal for peer review.

About the Author

Flora Pan

Associate Producer & Reporter/Editor

Flora Pan is a multimedia journalist based in southern Ontario. She currently works out of Windsor. You can reach her at flora.pan@cbc.ca or on Twitter @FloraTPan.

With files from The Associated Press

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