Using land to grow crops to burn as fuels is in direct competition with using land to grow food crops. If the world were much bigger, and the human population much smaller, this need not worry us too much perhaps. But that isn't the world we live in.
I guess that the same could be said of nature conservation too - but the difference is of scale. In the UK, if we are to produce biofuel crops (which are of highly dubious benefit at the very best of times) then enormous areas would be needed to make any difference (if any) to greenhouse gas emissions from the UK, whereas tiny increases in the area of land given over to nature conservation would make huge differences to our wildlife populations.
The RSPB, many other NGOs and academic researchers across the world have been pointing out this essential conflict for years. And it applies just as much to biofuel crops grown in this country which replace food crops as it does to biofuels grown directly on land which grew rainforests until recently. A UK or US farmer who switches from food production to biofuel production is creating the need for some other farmer, maybe in Indonesia, maybe in South America, but somewhere, to grow more food and that leads to rainforest destruction, wetland loss and species extinctions.
Policy makers now, partly thanks to our lobbying, accept this problem but have not found any solution to it. A leaked European Commission report highlights the problem and we await its official publication and the response of the EC to its findings.
The Times has been running a series of letters on this subject recently and a letter from the RSPB appeared today making the points made here in this blog.
But yesterday The Times published a letter from the NFU in favour of biofuels but which missed almost all of the points of the argument. The next time you hear an NFU spokesperson promoting the role of British agriculture in feeding the world do remember that the NFU wants to have its cake and eat it twice - supporting UK biofuel production and supporting UK food production and neglecting the obvious conflict.
I'd love to see the NFU's vision for the future of British agriculture which tackles the difficult issues of balance: food production, food safety, biofuels, wildlife, greenhouse gas emissions, diffuse pollution of waterbodies, jobs, landscape, access, animal welfare, cheap food etc etc. What would the future of farming look like to tackle those and all the other issues?
NGOs are sometimes accused of being against everything - I don't think that applies to the RSPB - but as a trade union the NFU sometimes appears to want to be in favour of everything. And that position is just as untenable.
Sooty and Nightjar - very useful and thoughtful posts. Thank you.
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