Let Them Drink Vodka – biofuels, intensification and global food needs

I blogged about the new Nature Improvement Areas on tuesday and how important it is, if they are going to work, to resolve competing land-uses in our crowded little islands. One new competing land-use which has arrived on the scene in the last few years is biofuel production. Now of course biofuel has been around since humans discovered fire a few million years ago – I’m not talking about wood fuel. These are crops like wheat and oil seed rape which are grown for either food or fuel.

BP Biofuels organised a conference on tuesday called Balancing Food and Fuel Needs. Here there was a great clamour for more land to be used to grow biofuels, with NFU’s Peter Kendall naturally in the vanguard (as an arable farmer he clearly has an interest in new markets for his product).

Biofuel production is driven in part by the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, which has set up a subsidy system to support biofuel production – ie you and I are paying for farmers to produce crops to make biofuel. The argument goes that biofuels are a lower carbon fuel and therefore help to reduce overall carbon emissions thus helping to reduce future climate change. The science suggests this is just a lot of hot air and there is no carbon benefit, partly because growing biofuel crops drives indirect land use change (ILUC) which in turn leads to more carbon being emitted. For instance if grassland is converted to arable production much carbon is lost from the soil, permanently.

Anyway back to BP. They are set to open a brand new plant called Vivergo (sounds very green doesn’t it – or is it some mythical monster?) in Hull which will process 1.1 Million Tonnes of feed wheat and turn it into ethanol (pure alcohol) every year. Once the ethanol has been removed, the rest of the wheat will be turned into high energy animal food, although obviously nowhere near as high energy as it was before the ethanol was removed. Otherwise BP would have invented an perpetual energy machine!

Quoted in Farmers Guardian yesterday BP managing Director Dave Richards said “We are hugely dependent on food and fuel and we need both as we go forward. I think we have to understand how to intensify farming to make the maximum yields from the land.”

So we’re back to the Sustainable Intensification debate except, oh wait a minute, no just Intensification – no mention of the S word here. As if we weren’t already the most intensively farmed country in Europe, with all the attendant results for our wildlife and the ecosystem services land provides us.

Recently re-elected NFU President Peter Kendall agreed – “We have genetic potential to have even higher yields in wheat and we believe we can increase yields especially in places like Hull.”Genetics or not, higher yields overall means less land for anything else.

Of course the article didn’t state how much BP would be paying for a Tonne of feed wheat, but it’s probably going to be pretty competitive, and that price will certainly be inflated by the subsidies available.

Apart from the very big question marks hanging over biofuel’s real climate footprint, this whole issue raises another question for me. Where does this leave the farming industry’s argument that we need to increase production intensity so we can feed the world. If the UK has to step up to the mark and significantly increase food production to meet the projected 70% increase in global food needs by 2050, what on earth are we doing using our precious land to produce biofuels? Or are we planning to export vodka for the starving to drown their sorrows.

At current yields of 10 Tonnes per hectare, 1.1Million Tonnes (just for this one plant – could there be others in the pipeline?) is produced from 110,oooha of arable land.To put that in context, that is more than the entire amount of lowland semi-natural grassland left in England.

Under these conditions, any significant increase in the amount of land which is capable of supporting biodiversity, or the ecosystem services on which we depend, is just a pipe dream. And that is true in or outside Nature Improvement Areas.

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About grasslandstrust

The Grasslands Trust is the only national UK charity that focuses entirely on saving grasslands that are valuable because they are rich in wildlife, history, or for other reasons.
This entry was posted in agriculture, biodiversity, climate change, Ecosystem services, farming, grasslands, Miles King and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Let Them Drink Vodka – biofuels, intensification and global food needs

  1. Pingback: 3G biofuels – hype or hope? | Moos, News and Views – The Grasslands Trust Blog

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