Farmland Preservation: Enhancing sustainable development in Maine through civic agriculture

An important shift is taking place in the way people are relating to their food.  With the demand for   organic, locally produced foods and a growing interest in community supported agriculture [2], the reintegration of society and local economics into food production has led to a new agricultural paradigm; civic agriculture.  Defined by Lyson 2000, as “an agriculture and food production system that is grounded in a place, relies on local resources, serves local markets and customers, and is committed to social justice, ecological sustainability and mutually supporting social relations” [5].

Maine, the most Northeastern state of the U.S., has a prominent civic agriculture movement.   Farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, and small-scale  farmers are ubiquitous, growing steadily since the 1970’s [5].  Unfortunately the future viability of small to medium scale agriculture is uncertain.   Farmland preservation is threatened; contending with development, urban sprawl and the shifting demographics of aging farmers encountering difficulty transferring their land to the younger generation [5,2].


Maine Farmland Trust is a vibrant not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving farm land [4]. Boasting an array of programs and social efforts to keep farmland in operation, the trust prevents farmland conversion and attracts new farmers to the region. Agricultural conservation easements are one tool used to ensure that farmland remains farmland into perpetuity.  Easements allow farmers to either sell or donate the development rights to their farm thus ensuring that farm land is never developed when acquired by other owners [4]. The land, when sold, is then sold at farmland property value and not at the developable value thereby facilitating purchase by new farmers.  Maine Farmland Trust can also step in to protect farmland at risk of development through their Buy/Protect/Sell program by purchasing the land, applying a conservation easement and re-selling it at farmland value [4].

The Maine FarmLink program matches farmers interested in buying, leasing, or adopting non-traditional tenure arrangements with older farmers who have land and are interested in either selling or mentoring new farmers [4]. This provides opportunities for people with the desire to farm but who have little initial capital and limited experience.  These aspiring farmers are able to acquire farmland more affordably and benefit from knowledge transfer from experienced farmers [5].

The 2012 Census reflects the success of such proactive programmes and efforts. One of the oldest states in the Nation, Maine’s civic agricultural movement is attracting a significant number of young farmers to the region.  The number of farmers under the age of 35 grew by 40% between 2007 and 2012, a far cry from 2000 when farm numbers and acreage were declining [1].  Moreover, between 2007 and 2012, farm numbers have grown by 24% and farmland acreage has increased by 90,000 acres between 2002 and 2012.

Farmland conservation supports the conservation of wildlife, provides protection to forests and hydrological features [3].  Moreover, farmland conservation is paramount to Maine’s way of life and to  the continuation of civic agriculture;an important segment of Maine’s economy.


1)Curtis A. (2014). USDA Farming Census: Maine has more young farmers, more land in farms.  Bangor Daily News.  Accessing on March 17th, 2014

2)Hamilton, N (1999) Preserving Farmland, Creating Farms, and Feeding Communities: Opportunities to Link Farmland Protection and Community Food Security.  Northern Illinois University Law Review 19: 657-669.

3)Lyson, T.A. 2000. Moving toward civic agriculture. Choices 15(3):42–45.

4)Maine Farmland Trust (2014) Accessed on March 16th, 2014 at

5)Ross N. (2005) How civic is it? Success stories in locally focused agriculture in Maine.  Renewable Agriculture and Food System 21(2) 114-123.

6) Picture by Bridget Besaw. Retrieved from on April 12th, 2014.


Bill C-38 and the Free Reign of Mariculture in Canada

In a world where population growth is increasing exponentially, the question of where we get our food becomes one that is quite important. Mariculture, the marine version of farming, seems like an excellent solution to our problem, one that provides an easily accessible and constant source of protein. Mariculture has seen increasing popularity worldwide, and is mimicking trends in population growth (figure 1, below).

Figure 1: Impacts of marine aquaculture. Source:  Wikipedia 2013 [3].

Figure 1: Growth of world population and aquaculture production. Units of population are in billions and production of aquaculture is in millions of tonnes. Source: Martinez-Porchas and Martinez-Cordova 2012 [1].

However, there are numerous environmental and socioeconomic impacts associated with farming aquatic organisms. These impacts include eutrophication, loss of genetic diversity, impacts on natural stocks, introduction of invasive species, spread of disease, and a net loss of protein by using wild fish to feed farmed fish, to name a few [2] (figure 2, below). Although mariculture businesses often rely on the power of currents to disperse their pollutants, improper design can lead to compounding environmental degradation. There is also the problem of its effects on local peoples and their livelihoods. As a result, mariculture is often called unsustainable [1]. So the question then becomes, do the benefits of mariculture outweigh the impacts, and how do we minimize those impacts?

Figure 2: Impacts of marine aquaculture. Source:  Wikipedia 2013 [3].

Figure 2: Impacts of marine aquaculture. Source: Wikipedia 2013 [3].

Environmental impact assessment (EIA) is one such tool that is used to determine whether an aquaculture project is likely to have negative impacts. EIA is practiced widely in Canada, and was commonplace for aquaculture projects that needed federal approval [4]. However, changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act from the recent Bill C-38 mean the federal government will no longer conduct EIAs on aquaculture projects [5]. This means that the provincial and territorial governments will have to be the ones to conduct these reviews, and these types of projects often don’t fall under their legislation. What this means is that a lot of these projects are going to fall through the cracks, and environmental impacts will go unchecked. In addition, EIA provided a venue for local people to voice their concerns, but without it, fishermen and indigenous communities will have to seek other ways of getting their voices heard.

Despite this extra pressure on the provinces, the Nova Scotia government has recently turned down an application for a salmon farm in Shoal Bay [6]. This was not, however, the result of EIA, but of an opinion that there would be a moderate risk on wild salmon. This isn’t exactly desirable either, because the opinion of one researcher does not measure up to the scrutiny of the masses. EIAs on mariculture would provide an impartial assessment that would not fall victim to external pressures from industry, government, or communities.

So what is it exactly that needs to be done to make sure mariculture projects don’t go overlooked? There is already a pre-existing body of literature on how to develop sustainable mariculture projects, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) [7] has an extensive document describing exactly how EIA should proceed in mariculture. So in combination, properly designed, assessed, and monitored projects will have their impacts minimized while the benefits are maximized. These steps need to become part of legislation at the provincial and/or federal level. Once this step has been completed, a framework will be in place to ensure that mariculture becomes a solution, and not another environmental problem.


[1] Martinez-Porchas, M., and L. Martinez-Cordova. (2012). “World aquaculture: environmental impacts and troubleshooting alternatives.” The Scientific World Journal 9: 9p.

[2] Emerson, C. (1999). “Aquaculture impacts on the environment.” Proquest. Retrieved from <; on March 18th, 2013.

[3] Wikipedia. “Mariculture.” Retrieved from <; on March 18th, 2013.

[4] Ecojustice. “Fisheries Act Legal Backgrounder.” Retrieved from <; on March 18th, 2013.

[5] Butler, E. (2013).  “No more environmental impact assessment for salmon farms in Nova Scotia.” Halifax Media Co-op. Retrieved from <; on March 18th, 2013.

[6] The Canadian Press. (2013). “Fish farm rejected by Nova Scotia government, risk to wild cited.” The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from <; on March 18th, 2013.

[7] FAO. (2009). “Environmental impact assessment and monitoring in aquaculture: requirements, practices, effectiveness and improvements.” 675p.

Assessing Practices

At present, there are Environmental Impact Assessments for projects and Strategic Environmental Assessments for programs, plans and policies but neither of these address the collective impact and scale of human practices or behaviors which seem to be driving many of the pressures on the environment. In the spirit of alliteration, I propose that there be another category of Environmental and Social Assessment in addition to projects,plans, policies and programs, which relates to ‘practices’. Critiquing a society’s accepted practices and behaviors in a meaningful way could help bring attention to the large amounts of resources used to sustain a convenience-oriented and consumptive lifestyle.

With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2043 (UNDEP), and the fact that there exists both widespread hunger and obesity, a highly relevant example is our present practices related to food, including production methods, irrigation and fertilization, preferences, preparation and preservation/refrigeration, transport and food wastage, to name a few.

What prompted my concern was the discovery that the family-owned McCain Foods Ltd is pushing to develop the market for frozen foods in India (Nolen, 2012). How could we assess the environmental impact if most of India accepted frozen food as a lifestyle? A lifecycle assessment of the packaging and an EIA for the production facilities would not address the energy demand for freezers in each household, the energy consumption of stores and refrigerated vehicles for transport, the manufacture and disposal of appliances, etc. This concern is in no way meant to imply that those in poorer countries should not have the conveniences that we in wealthier nations have. This issue serves to highlight that there are complex and far reaching environmental impacts in all of our behavior and practices. Instead of blindly or aggressively pushing our accepted practices on other cultures for the economic gain of a few, it is necessary to acknowledge the detrimental environmental, social and health impacts of our often overly consumptive and convenience-oriented lifestyle and practices.

Since our western scientific knowledge paradigm prefers to accept quantifiable realities, a metric for measuring the environmental and social impacts of our practices and behaviors would be useful. Social impacts can be particularly challenging to define, despite there being indications of extreme effects. For example, as a result of the ‘Green Revolution’ in the 1980s and 1990s, which created unaffordable dependencies on agricultural technologies (fertilizers and pesticides), farmer suicides in India soared. Many others felt their only option was to sell their kidneys and body parts to survive (Patel, 2007 p25).

Environmental impacts of our practices, however, could be addressed or quantified more easily in the concept of embedded energy. For example, widespread food waste, either through system inefficiencies or social behavior, deserves a proper environmental assessment. There are differences in food waste between affluent and poorer nations. Although data is limited, it suggests that in developing countries, food loss is higher immediately after harvest, while in affluent nations food losses are greater after purchase (Parfitt et al, 2010).


Food wastage is a multidimensional problem. The production demands include fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, harvesting, the energy requirements of processing, the production of packaging and its destiny in the landfill, the energy to transport as well as the construction/maintenance of road networks must be considered when assessing the impact. One study estimated that food wastage accounts for approximately 300 million barrels of oil per year in the US (Hall et al, 2009). Another article purports that the energy in wasted food is greater than the energy available from other efficiency and energy procurement strategies, including bio-fuels and drilling for oil in the outer continental shelf (Cuéllar & Webber, 2010).

Cultural and societal behaviors and practices should undergo impact assessments to properly critique their complexity and relationships to resource use. Analyzing embedded energy is one way to assist in understanding the environmental pressures of our practices.


Cuéllar, A. & Webber M.E. (2010), Wasted Food, Wasted Energy: The embedded energy in food waste in the United States, Environ. Sci. Technol., 44 (16), pp 6464–6469
DOI: 10.1021/es100310d Publication Date (Web): July 21, 2010 (accessed 13/03/13)

Hall KD, Guo J, Dore M, Chow CC (2009) The progressive increase of food waste in America and its environmental impact. PLoS ONE 4(11): e7940. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007940 (accessed 15/03/13)

Nolen, S. (2012) McCain hopes breakfast item will thaw India’s resistance to frozen food, The Globe and Mail, New Delhi, Published May. 22 2012

Parfitt, J, Barthel, M. and Macnaughton, S.(2010), Food waste within food supply chains: quantification and potential for change to 2050, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 2010, 365
doi: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0126 published 16 August 2010

Patel, R (2007) Stuffed and starved: the hidden battle for the world’s food system, HarperCollins Publisher Ltd, Toronto, ISBN 978-1-55468-001-5

UNDEP Population Division, Population Estimates and Projections Section, World Population Prospects, 2010 Revision, (accessed 13/03/13)

Missisquoi Bay Tragedy

On August 17 2012 thousands of dead fish washed ashore at Missisquoi Bay QC, a popular fishing and recreational site on Lake Champlain (2). The compounding effects of high temperatures, calm water and excess nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen caused blooms of blue-green algae to occur. In general, excess phosphorous and nitrogen comes from wastewater treatment facilities, developed land use, agricultural practices, and eroded streambank sediment (10). As the lakefront tends to be prime developed property, individual actions, such as fertilizing lawns, can supply the excess nutrients to the lake. Atmospheric contributions of nitrogen through human activity can also contribute to eutrophication (9). The Gazette newspaper report explained the situation in the following video.

Video:The Gazette – Blue-green algae kills thousands of fish in Missisquoi Bay

Missisquoi Bay is surrounded by rolling hills and farmland. There are many dairy farms which grow corn and hay for their livestock (6). As in most cultures, our agricultural practices tend to be focused on certain livestock, based on what we deem to be acceptable to eat. “According to the National Corn Growers Association, about 80% of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock” (10). Human history is rife with instances of environmental sustainability taking a backseat to cultural bias. For example, raising cattle was inappropriate for the early Europeans who settled in Greenland and they conservatively refused to ‘eat local’. The environmentally stressful hay production coincided with an unexpected change in climate, eventually leading to the colony’s collapse (1).
Given the past and present agricultural practices of heavily fertilized crops such as corn and hay, the topography of the area, the numerous tributaries of the Missisquoi Bay/Pike Basin as seen in the map below (7), and the relatively shallow depth of the bay, the problem in Missisquoi Bay is not surprising. However the previous year was more severe due to a combination of the aforementioned cumulative effects and extensive regional flooding.

Originating in Vermont and New York states (3) water levels rose and retreatted, inundating fertilized farmland and then bringing back phosphorous and nitrogen to the lake. The flooding also caused increased sediment loads, as well as increased opportunity for invasive species. “Flooding and other changes in the physical and chemical environment put highly adaptive invasive species at an advantage over native species”(5i).
Flooding with its associated surface runoff is not the only extreme weather event which could be problematic. Drought tends to cause excessive fertilizer buildup on the soil, which can poison animals (4). Fertilizers and pesticides also contaminate ground water (10).

Video: The Emmy award winning documentary Bloom – the Plight of Lake Champlain explains the relationship between cattle farming, corn, urban development, storm water and the health of Lake Champlain. Although there are political, regulatory, economic and social hurdles, it offers some innovative and hopeful solutions (12).

A great deal of time, money and effort has been spent on the water quality of Missisqoui Bay and Lake Champlain on the part of governments, scientists, environmental assessors, farmers and community groups. Frequent monitoring (5iii), countless studies spanning decades, public participation and education, voluntary farmer mitigation measures (5iv), respect of established thresholds of nutrient loading, shared responsibility through the International Joint Commission (5ii) and having Lake Champlain designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (8) are all very positive steps in assessment and monitoring processes. Unfortunately they were not enough to prevent the collision of cumulative effects and natural disaster. Furthermore, simply reducing nutrient inputs does not seem to have a linear effect on eutrophication given the multiple causes and complex mechanisms involved (11).
This event brings up several important considerations for Environmental Impact Assessment. Firstly, predicted climate change and natural disasters should be considered when planning and managing not only our watersheds, but all aspects of the environment. For example, the recent seismic activity around Haida Gwaii in British Columbia will hopefully be considered as the debate over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline continues.
Another consideration for EIAs is the conflict of interest through self-assessment, having the proponent or industry be responsible for the assessment. Financial responsibility should remain on the part of proponents but should assessment responsibility be left to proponents in ‘good faith’? In the documentary Bloom (12), it suggests we cannot assume industry practices such as self-regualtion, self-assessment or self-inspection are sufficient. One person described this as allowing ‘the fox to guard the henhouse’. Regulation, assessment, inspection and enforcement should be as objective as possible, therefore independent of an industry’s or proponent’s agenda.
This leads to the third concern. When the proponent of a project is responsible for the EIA, it seems unlikely that they will be inclined to explore in depth any issues that they would deem to be ‘not their fault’ or could hamper their agenda, yet Environmental Impact Assessments should ideally address the compounding effects of multiple projects or practices as well as historic factors and contributions.
The fourth concern is how realistic and feasible is it to expect EIAs to be as broad and all-encompassing as is necessary to meaningfully predict nature’s complexity as seen in cumulative effects and nature’s uncertainty as witnessed in natural disasters. They simply cannot but that should not prohibit the effort to do the most comprehensive assessment possible.


(1) Diamond, J. M. 2005. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. New York: Penguin Books. Page 266. ISBN 0-14-30.3655-6.

(2) The Gazette. August 18 2012. Blue-green algae kills thousands of fish in Missisquoi Bay (with video). (accessed 09/10/12)

(3) The Gazette. May 26 2011. Storms in U.S. root of record flooding. (accessed 10/10/12)

(4) Hall, J. B. 2002. Nitrate Levels Could Be Unsafe In Heavily Fertilized Fields and Pastures-Livestock Update, Virginia Cooperative Extension. (accessed 09/10/12)

(5) Lake Champlain Basin Program. (accessed 06/10/12)

(5i) (accessed 30/10/12)

(5ii) (accessed 06/10/12)

(5iii) (accessed 06/10/12)

(5iv) (accessed 06/10/12)

(6) Mississquoi Water Quality: A summary of the Lower Missisquoi Water Quality Project in Franklin County, Vermont.  Factsheet, 1990-1997. (accessed 12/10/12)

(7) Mississquoi Bay/Pike Basin Map. (accessed 10/10/12)

(8) United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, MAB
Biosphere Reserve Directory. (accessed 10/10/12)

(9) United Nations Environment Programme. Planning and Management of Lakes and Reservoirs:
An Integrated Approach to Eutrophication. (accessed 10/10/12)

(10) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (accessed 12/10/12)

(11) World Health Organization- Eutrophication and Health. nitrates/pdf/eutrophication.pdf  (accessed 10/10/12)

(12) Guadagno, V.A. and Bright Blue EcoMedia. Bloom:The Plight of Lake Champlain

Mink stink in Nova Scotia, a need for EIA

Gaining a permit to establish a mink farm in Nova Scotia should require a provincial environmental impact assessment. This condition, if it were fact, would have avoided years of conflict, bad press and prolonged conciliation. It also wouldn’t have “exposed” Nova Scotia’s seemingly undercover, prominent, and (in my opinion) unusual mink industry. An industry which serves as Nova Scotia’s biggest agricultural export, earning $140 million a year, covering half of Canada’s total exports of mink fur (3).

Though Nova Scotia had been farming mink (for fur exports) since the 1930’s (3), it only became a headline issue in 2008. It was then that the Nova Scotia Department of Environment released an evaluation of various lake water qualities in the southwestern watersheds (7). The survey determined that there was significantly deteriorating water quality, which coincided with increasing nutrient trend in area lakes (4) and elevated levels of fecal coliforms (5).

This sign in Tupperville, Nova Scotia expresses the view of many residents (1).

With this area hosting approximately 40 mink operations (and counting) (5), it didn’t take long for environmental groups and concerned citizens to suggest the proliferating mink farms as a likely cause. With their operations being completely unregulated, citizens have taken it upon themselves to investigate and lay blame:

(Video taken August 12 2012: Little Lake Doucette, Municipality of Clare, Digby County, by YouTube user: ‘Mink Stink”)

With now more than 40 applications for permits submitted to expand or open new farms in one county alone (1), individuals have sought legal representation; mink farming has prompted a local law firm to initiate the preliminary phases of a class action lawsuit over the contamination from the industry (7).

Nova Scotia has a Fur Industry Act (passed in 2010, a joint effort between government and industry), and caused much outcry from citizens due to their exclusion from its formation (5). The regulations of the Act have yet to be finalized, and when they do, they will allow for 3 more years before obligatory compliance (7).

A mink farm’s development does not need to be cleared by Environmental Nova Scotia or confirm to any environmental assessment regulations (it falls under the Department of Agriculture) (2), therefore it is still operating unregulated, with no certain end date. The reactive Fur Industry Act demonstrates retroactive policy formation and lagging governance. More inclusive environmental assessment regulations would have averted this issue and perhaps the industry would still be the province’s best-kept secret. Now, it is known for its intensive water contamination practices and is all in order to satiate a growing demand for the furs in the Russian and Chinese markets (1).

Markets that are, according to some, growing in popularity:

Fur is fashionable and no longer taboo. The world’s top designers are using fur in their collections, and fur garments are a soughtafter status symbol…”- Dan Mullen, President of the Nova Scotia Mink Breeders’ Association (6).

Reference cited:

(1) Delaney, Gordon. “Law firm targets N.S. mink farms”. The Chronicle Herald. July 11 2012.

(2) Province of Nova Scotia. Environmental Assessment Regulations. Environment Act. September 15 2009.

(3) Taber, Jane. “Nova Scotia’s mink farms are booming- but the neighbours aren’t pleased”. The Globe and Mail. August 17 2012.

(4) Taylor, Darrell. “A Water Quality Survey of Ten Lakes in the Carleton River Watershed Area Yarmouth and Digby Counties, Nova Scotia”. Water & Wastewater Branch, NSE (Nova Scotia Environment). October 2010.

(5) Tri County Watershed Protection Association (TCWPA). “The impacts of the mink industry on freshwater lakes in Nova Scotia: An overview of concerns”. David Suzuki Foundation. April 25 2011.

(6) Waalderbros, Kim. “Mink Revival”. Guide Canada. June 2012.

(7) Wagners. “Mink Farms/Yarmouth County”. Wagners, a serious injury law firm. 2012.

Why Canada Needs EIA in Agriculture

Here in Canada, we pride ourselves on having an abundance of natural resources. Our relatively small population density portrays a vast expanse of natural resources at our disposal, ready to be exploited (Statistics Canada, 2012). One of the resource sectors that receives little attention, but is a major component when discussing environmental impact, is the food and agriculture industry. Canada is the third largest exporter of wheat, and has large meat and dairy industries as well (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2012). As it now stands, there is no environmental policy with regards to agriculture (a framework policy has been written, but not enacted); no Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA’s) are required for agricultural land, which makes it very difficult to predict and mitigate the impacts of agriculture on the ecosystem (OECD, 2012). To that end, little support is given to farmers to conduct research or make management plans based on sustainable agriculture principles. In a study on environmental farm planning by Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada (2012), only 27 percent of all Canadian farms use environmental farm planning and of those, only 33 percent received government funding. Why doesn’t the Canadian government see the value in investing in sustainable farming practices? It would support farmers in making sustainable management plans, and encourage decision makers to implement a policy towards sustainable agriculture in Canada. Furthermore, it would be useful in establishing baseline data of the impacts agriculture has both in order to make future comparisons, and to monitor the effects of mitigation measures.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently released a report on the state of agricultural policy and monitoring within OECD countries (OECD 2012). Emphasis is placed on increasing agricultural productivity, investing in new technologies and research to do so. It endorses the idea of increasing productivity in order to meet demands of a larger, wealthier population. But then conversely introduces the fact that OECD countries are losing productive agricultural land due to misuse and overuse (OECD 2012 p.69). Furthermore, it recognises that agriculture is not only largely resource intensive (land use, water use, chemical use), but that it is a large contributor to climate change itself and must be central to implementing mitigation measures for climate change. These views are supported by NGO’s (See video below), as well as the scientific community (Horrigan, Lawrence, and Walker (2002); Pelletier, Arsenault, and Tyedmers (2008)).

Impacts of traditional farming practices. Compassion in World Farming, a charity for the humane treatment of farm animals

It is clear that increasing productivity the traditional way is inherently unsustainable, which is precisely why Canada should invest in EIA as a tool to reduce the negative impacts of traditional farming on our common resources, as well as to support farmers in creating sustainable management plans. Although the Canadian situation seems bleak, there are a few concerned scientists, farmers, and academics who are working towards shifting practices by sharing ideas and research. The following video is an example of a step that is being taken to change traditional farming practices for the better. Although I am an avid believer in bottom-up approaches to paradigm shifts, I also believe that government policies can guide people in making responsible choices.

Improving Canada slowly. Conference on organic agriculture 2012


Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada (2012). Environmental Farm Planning in Canada: A 2006 Overview. Last accessed September 30th 2012.

Horrigan, L., Lawrence, R., & Walker, P. (2002). How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture. Environmental health perspectives,110,445-456. .html

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (2012). Agricultural policy monitoring and evaluation 2012.

Pelletier, N., Arsenault, N., & Tyedmers, P (2008) Scenario modeling potential eco-efficiency gains from a transition to organic agriculture: life cycle perspectives on Canadian canola, corn, soy, and wheat production. Environmental management, 42, 989-1001. DOI10.10 07/s00267-008-9155-x

Statistics Canada (2012). Population density, births and deaths for selected countries.–. Last accessed September 30th, 2012.

It’s all about Palm Oil

Palm oil is a ubiquitous component in many of our manufactured foods. Produced from the fruit of the palm tree, Elaeis spp., and labeled under such names as cetyl alcohol, palmitic acid and vegetable oil, this edible oil is in everything from cereals to ice cream, candles to detergent, and in many cosmetic products such as shampoo and lipstick (Porteous & Mogg, 2006). Recently however, a significant proportion of palm oil is going to the energy sector, specifically for biodiesel. The reason this edible oil is used to produce fuel is that it has the highest yield per hectare/year over most other sources (Atabani et al., 2012. Table 4).

Oil Content by Feedstock

Important motives for using a potential food stock for fuel are that it is processed from a renewable resource; it is an affordable alternative to fossil fuels, and that makes it highly attractive in this age of climate change and energy security.  Likewise this results in a fuel that is potentially sustainable, nontoxic, and easily transportable, and which can be used in most diesel engines without expensive modification. This is a very strong incentive when considering that the transportation sector is the second largest consumer of energy in the world (Atabani et al., 2012). Also, depending how the numbers are calculated, biodiesel has net carbon-dioxide emissions 78% lower than conventional diesel, has no sulphur emissions, and produces relatively little particulate matter which in turn results in cleaner air. But it’s not all good news. Biodiesel contains less energy than conventional diesel which results in an increase in fuel consumption of anywhere from 2-10%. It also has high emissions of nitrogen oxide(s) which is an important greenhouse gas (Janaun and Ellis, 2010). Furthermore, since biodiesel uses a common food stock there is a very real concern that it is driving an increase in food prices globally. There are also important social issues associated with palm oil plantations. In Africa, South America, Indonesia, and Malaysia indigenous peoples are being driven from their lands and large swaths of carbon storing tropical jungles, with all of their abundant biodiversity, are being decimated (Van Der Horst & Vermeylen, 2011). Steps are being taken to control this environmental damage and to produce a more socially ethical palm oil industry. Among these are certification schemes to ensure that new plantations are sustainable and equitable. GreenPalm is one such certificate trading programme which is also endorsed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO is a non-profit, voluntary, and industry-led trade organization whose purpose it is to promote a sustainable palm industry in a transparent manner. The RSPO were themselves evaluated in 2009 to verify if they were meeting their claims and their mandate. Laurance et al., (2010) published a review of the organization and their conclusion were quite scathing. The RSPO was found to certify producers without monitoring, producers of palm oil were able to become members of the RSPO without prior certification, and several of the largest RSPO certified users such as Nestle, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever were found to be using oil derived from freshly deforested jungle. Palm oil use is increasing and environmental and social impact assessment and clear regulations are needed to ensure that the industry becomes sustainable.

Al Jazeera’s weekly Asian current affairs programme documentary on the palm oil industry:101 East: The price of palm oil

A.E. Atabani, A.S. Silitonga, Irfan Anjum Badruddin, T.M.I. Mahlia, H.H. Masjuki, S. Mekhilef. (2012). A comprehensive review on biodiesel as an alternative energy resource and its characteristics. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 16, Issue 4. Pages 2070-2093

Janaun J., Ellis N. (2010). Perspectives on biodiesel as a sustainable fuel. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 14 (4), pp. 1312-1320.

Laurance, W. F., Koh, L. P., Butler, R., Sodhi, N. S., Bradshaw, C. J. A., Neidel, J. D., Consunji, H. and Mateo Vega, J. (2010).  Improving the Performance of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil for Nature Conservation. Conservation Biology, 24: 377–381. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01448.x

Porteous, J., & Mogg, R. (2006). The new oil barrens. ECOS, 2006(132), 21–23. doi:10.1071/EC132p21

Van Der Horst, D., & Vermeylen, S. (2011). Spatial scale and social impacts of biofuel production. Biomass and Bioenergy, 35(6), 2435-2443.