Citizens in industrialized societies, including Canada, will cling to their extravagant lifestyles and massive over-consumption for a while yet, it seems. Global climate change is still seen by most people — even those who have no doubt of its human origins — as something that can be fixed by legislation, tougher rules and punitive penalties on big polluters — and that allegedly clean and green quick fix, ethanol.

Yes, we can all keep our individual chunks of steel, rubber and glass, those symbols of 20th century excess and irrationality, so long as we shift to burning alcohol.

This particular mass delusion was madness enough to inspire the still-ailing Fidel Castro out of his bed to write the first editorial he has written for the country’s principal newspaper, Granma, since falling ill last July. It’s not as if there is a lack of issues for the grand old commander-in-chief to comment on. But this one he deemed the most important. Why?

To quote Castro himself: “More than three billion people in the world are being condemned to a premature death from hunger and thirst … The sinister idea of turning foodstuffs into fuel was definitely established as the economic strategy of the U.S. foreign policy on Monday, March 26th last.”

That was the day that President George Bush met with the Big Three auto CEOs and declared ethanol to be the next strategic fuel for the empire — and a partial answer to its failed Middle East policies.

Castro was talking about corn but this is not the only grain that the ethanol pushers are talking about: wheat, sunflower seeds, canola and other foodstuffs are already being used and targeted by, amongst others, the big oil companies. The demand for ethanol will be so enormous that only the largest and best capitalized corporations in the U.S. will be able to take advantage — driving smaller producers out by driving up the price of corn.

Bush proclaimed coming out of the meeting with the Big Three that he is aiming at reducing gasoline consumption by 20 per cent in 10 years — a staggering number if it is to be taken seriously, requiring 35 billion gallons of ethanol. Of course Bush and his corporate allies talked about using wood chips and switchgrass, too, but corn is the key.

To produce that much ethanol would take 320 million tons of corn. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organizations (FAO) says that U.S. corn production in 2005 reached 280 million tons and the U.S. produces 40 per cent of the world’s corn, controlling the market price. It doesn’t take complicated math to see that just to meet U.S. ethanol demands within 10 years will take up 46 per cent of the world’s corn supply.

This is an obscenity because most of these billions of tons of corn are now eaten by the world’s people — most of them poor — or fed to their livestock. Ultimately, it means that the world will have to produce more and more grain just to stand still and at the same time that the demand for ethanol increases the price of corn.

The FAO says the competition between grain for fuel and grain for food is already happening and was the principal explanation for the decline in world grain stocks during the first half of 2006.

As Castro pointed out in his Granma article, not only will corn be priced out of reach for millions, “What is worse, let the poor countries receive some financing to produce ethanol from corn or any other foodstuff and very soon not a single tree will be left standing to protect humanity from climate change.”

He also pointed out, demonstrating that his grasp of world events is as acute as ever, that the increased demand for grain for energy will also greatly exacerbate the already critical water shortage facing two thirds of humanity.

Despite this catastrophic scenario there are still those who will argue that the trade-off has to be considered, that global climate change due to carbon emissions must be tackled. But recently, two Canadian studies raised serious doubts about what we actually get in this morally questionable trade. The U.S. may well get a strategic replacement for oil but there are serious doubts the world’s climate will benefit.

One study was done by the Library of Parliament’s Frédéric Forge working in its science and technology division. Forge says the benefit of the massive effort required to use 10 per cent ethanol in all vehicles will be minor: “In fact, if 10 per cent of the fuel used were corn-based ethanol [in other words, if it were used in all vehicles], Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions would drop by approximately one per cent.”

But an unpublished study by Environment Canada says even this estimate is questionable. A recent CBC report — it came and went with no one else touching it and was not repeated — revealed that scientists at Environment Canada studied four vehicles of recent makes, comparing normal emissions with a 10 per cent ethanol blend and using a range of driving conditions.

The study revealed that there was virtually no statistically significant difference in greenhouse gas tail pipe emissions. Some of the hydrocarbon gas emissions actually increased under some conditions.

The delusional thinking that tells us we can maintain our current lifestyles and save the planet will, sooner or later, be relegated to history’s dustbin. The sooner we dispose of that part of the delusion embodied by “salvation by ethanol” the better.


Murray Dobbin

Murray Dobbin was's Senior Contributing Editor. He was a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over 40 years. A board member and researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy...