Take a Leap — Bioproducts are no Longer Just for the Bandwagon

Some people used to think farmers only could grow crops for food.

Today, though, some think farmers only should grow crops for food.

It’s a great debate, with, I suspect, the answer somewhere in the middle. Philosophical, theoretical, economic and even spiritual debates rage about farmers’ role in feeding the world versus growing crops for renewable biofuel.

Everyone wonders why, in light of the rising global population and chronic hunger, farmers could conscionably raise commodities for anything other than food.

Then Big Oil smugly raises the price of gas right before the weekend, gouging Canadians yet again. Or new studies surface about problems stemming from greenhouse gasses and fossil fuels, or how climate change is not a maybe anymore. That happens, and we’re reminded why alternative fuel sources are necessary, and why they were sought out in the first place.

I’ve always thought farmers have the right to grow whatever makes them a living. It’s their land and they need to be profitable to survive. I don’t buy into the unwritten social contract aspect of agriculture, the one that implies farmers must, not can, grow the food people need. I do believe farmers want to grow food, though, and feel some sense of moral obligation, let alone pride, in doing so.

Somehow immune from this kerfuffle has been the idea of growing crops for industrial bioproducts. Those who think ethanol or biodiesel is unethical, unaffordable or impractical don’t seem to have the same problem with commodities being used to create the likes of co-called green products – for example, car parts, fence posts, packaging material or storage bins made from biomass such as corn stalks, or purposefully grown biocrops such as miscanthus.

Rather, they see it as good business.

Case in point: BMO Bank of Montreal’s $1.3-million support of the University of Guelph’s research-intensive Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre, announced earlier this week. The centre, located beside the university’s Department of Plant Agriculture, is dedicated to finding what it describes as renewable, eco-friendly alternatives to petroleum-based materials in manufacturing and consumer goods.

The donation, made as part of the university’s Better Plant project, a $200-million fundraising campaign, will go towards expanding the centre’s research and commercialization facilities and acquiring new research equipment.

Banks don’t jump on bandwagons. BMO thinks bioproducts will be a game changer. And they like winners. The premier’s recent challenge to Ontario’s ag sector to double growth and production stirred the pot, but it appears this bank at least thinks farmers will rise to challenge, perhaps with new commodities.

After all, the premier didn’t say how to do it. She just said show leadership.

I’ve heard people say all producers should, to some degree, have industrial commodities built into their cropping strategy. This latest development suggests that’s good advice.

Where do you line up?

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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