NRC defends funding research in agriculture, biofuel

Senator thinks research council could separate itself more from the practice of using food crops to produce fuel

National Research Council Canada tiptoes carefully around the food versus fuel debate when it supports crop biotechnology research, senior NRC officials recently told senators.

“The food-fuel debate is very important to the NRC, so we decided a number of years ago that we would not pursue research in, for example, ethanol from corn,” said Jerzy Komorowski, the NRC’s general manager for aerospace and engineering.

“We are focusing on what we refer to as third generation biofuel. We would be looking at crops which have the opportunity of growing on marginal lands and in spaces that are not competitive with food.

Komorowski and Roman Szumski, vice-president of the NRC’s national bioproducts program, described to the Senate agriculture committee a recent NRC breakthrough that saw a Falcon 20 jet fly for part of a flight using only biofuel produced from the carinata variety Resonance.

Szumski said it was the first civil aircraft in the world to fly without a petroleum blend. 

“This is aviation history and it happened here at the Ottawa airport.”

The biojet fuel came from a carinata variety developed in Saskatoon that grows on poor land “that might otherwise be fallow” and not used to produce food crops, he said.


Szumski said he expects a growing demand by airlines for biofuel as greenhouse gas emission standards toughen. It led Manitoba Conservative senator Don Plett to worry about the effect of using food crops for fuel in a hungry world.

Komorowski said it is why the federally funded NRC has avoided funding biofuel research into potential food crops.

Manitoba Conservative senator JoAnne Buth said she found the NRC argument about the separation between food and fuel weak because the NRC officials argued that up to 10 percent of Canada’s canola acreage could be dedicated to biodiesel without hurting the food supply.

“I do not think that the argument that it is completely separate from food is a very solid one.”

NRC officials also faced questions about the emphasis on agricultural research. In an era of criticism about federal funding of agricultural research, Szumski told senators it remains an NRC priority.

“From the NRC’s perspective with the increasing focus that we are having on industry-relevant research, we actually look at agriculture as an important place because it has the characteristic of sticking to Canada when you invest in that space,“ he said. “You will not pick up and move the land anywhere. Using the latest technologies that we have to bring value to agriculture has a strong business case for us. We see our investment continuing in this space.”