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Tutorial 3

Biological Sciences
Course Code
Rudy Boonstra

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October 11, 2007
Today will be short, about 1 hour and then the professor will be in the answer questions to help
prepare you for your exam. Next week will have a slightly easier reading and it will also be
shorter because of the mid-term coming up.
Last Week
We looked at 3 papers regarding bio-fuels and the energy it takes to produce them. One of the
main goals of last week was to emphasize how critical it is to read critically. The publishing in
peer journals can make errors and produce work that is unreliable and can raise questions about
their scientific objectivity.
We ran out of time at the end of last session to talk about the second purpose of the papers which
was to evaluate the usefulness of bio-fuels as alternative energy sources. Even taking into
account the short-comings the papers that we read, I think there are serious questions of the
viability of bio-fuels as the alternative to liquid fuels. There are a number of challenges.
One is the serious ethical concerns as using food crops as an energy source. In particular when
you see we live in a globalized world the consumption of food crops for bio-fuels can have very
serious consequences in developing nations in particular.
If wealthy nations decide they want to use corn, soy, etc., then the demand from the wealthy
nations will drive up the price of the crops and that will cause farmers in other parts of the world
to grow and provide crops to the wealthy nations. The people in the poorer nations won’t be able
to consume these crops. So there are serious ethical problems with inequities.
If there is high demand for bio-fuels that means there will be high demand for that crop and this
year for example, corn prices are very high, wheat prices are very high, and although it benefits
farmers, the reason for the increase in price is the demand for ethanol production. The sellers of
corn, wheat, and soybeans don’t differentiate for the purpose that they crops are being used for.
So wealthy people can afford to pay more to get the corn, wheat, and soy to produce the fuels
that means people who are poorer are saddled with higher prices both for food and fuels. In a
wealthy nation the higher food prices are not as critical as they are in more economically
distressed nations.
S:So the crops in the 3rd world countries will be just as high as they are to us?
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TA:Canada is a large producer of lentils for export to various places around the world i.e. the
Middle East. Chick peas and also wheat is what Canada is known for producing. We are an
exporter of all of these commodities and when we export wheat or corn to U.S.A. much goes for
bio-fuel for production. When we export to India it is probably going for human consumption.
The purchasers of the exports are paying the same price whether for human consumption or bio-
fuels so they compete.
Note: This effect will be aggravated by government subsidies. If the U.S. subsidies bio-fuel
production it means they can spend more on buying the corn because some of the other costs are
covered by subsidies so that drives the price even higher.
S:What are subsidies?
TA:There are always fights especially with the States. A subsidy is any form of government
support i.e. in this case farmer’s or ethanol producers that amounts to a transfer of money to
them that the market doesn’t cause to happen. It could come by way of tax breaks, research and
development, or just cash to build a new plant. Whatever those are it changes the cost of
consuming that resource.
S:Like Welfare is a subsidy?
TA:Yes you could think of it that way. If there are any economists in the room please speak
It goes without saying that my ethical problem isn’t necessarily anyone else’s ethical problem.
Whether we see subsidies as causing an ethical problem or consuming corn as an ethical problem
will vary person to person. But in my view it is a problem in this case.
Secondly, our consumption of liquid fossil fuels is so great it would take vast areas of land in
order to replace our current liquid fossil fuel consumption with liquid bio-fuels. So our
consumption of liquid fossil fuels is probably too great and we probably can’t look to bio-fuels
as a soul source replacement as the Hill paper pointed out. If all the corn and soy production was
put towards bio-fuel it would only replace a small portion of what we consume in liquid fossil
fuels. WE have to lower our expectation of how much we can burn in a year in order to help
solve our current problems.
Thirdly, switching to bio-fuel production doesn’t necessarily help in greenhouse gasses. Liquid
bio-fuels are still combustion fuels. It released carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It
may be true that the carbon molecules were captured when the plants are growing and are being
released now and fossil fuels that haven’t seen the light of day for 1,000’s of years but to reduce
or limit global warming liquid bio-fuels may not be helpful in that goal.
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A fourth challenge that I found the papers not well in discussing is the ecological aspect. In the
U.S. there has been a good deal of farm land that has been taken out of production and is now
forests and wildlife habitat. Some of us would find that ecological. As far as agricultural crops
supply the bio-fuels will we see more land being put into agricultural production? How will that
affect ducks and other species? How will some of these species find other habitat’s when we
develop more land for agricultural production?
S:In S. America they have wiped out forests and made unified crops i.e. bananas. This isn’t
good ecologically?
TA:Yes like the sugar cane in Brazil. You all had the pdf version of National Geographic,
you see the massive field of sugar cane and you just think of what used to be there. It was
probably a very productive area for bio-diversity and if you think of the tropics that are
productive areas and if there is an increase in agricultural production worldwide we will
probably sees increases there. You are taking away really rich tropical habitats and that is an
awful lot of ecological change for the benefit of bio-fuels.
The papers were really touching on current production of bio-fuels but as demand increases and
prices go up then the farmers try to benefit more from the prices and they start to turn marginal
land into farm land and then you have to look at what the land was when it was forest, meadow,
or pasture and what the carbon cycle looked like. Was carbon being caught and sequestered in
the soil and now what happens with the same? Will the land now be fertilized with nitrogen?
What does that mean for microbial reaction? Now the equation becomes much more
Despite the problems associated with the papers I think the message comes through that bio-fuels
have a role to play but it will depend on the other solutions there are. They will not be the only
replacement for fossil fuels. We know that we will have to replace the fossil fuels eventually.
This leads into the next papers we will look at in the tutorials, other forms of renewable energy,
how they fit into the strategy, what are the pros and cons, etc. The paper that we have today is
Green Power for Sustainable?” which is a good summary. How the new sources can help us and
how much potential they have.
Today I would like to go through the class by way of volunteers and I would like you pick a
source of renewable energy that you are interested in. By the end of the class let’s pick 2 sources
of renewable energy that we want to look at further in the next session (next week). After we
pick the 2 sources I will go and find 2 papers that address the issues around that energy source
and they will be the papers we will read for next week.
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