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.
There is so much in this its almost impossible to unravel - but if we're to go on living reasonable lives - and improve the lives for the world's poorer people we must.
We don't have enough space in England to do everything we might want to - but there's more space than we think, and we can expand it - and one way to do that is actually to do less, to have more less intensively managed land. How can that work ? Well, first, food (and biofuels) aren't the only products of the land - they only dominate now as a hangover of WWII when thye country came close to starvation - and there wren't all the other pressures on land. We need to think much more about protection - eg from flooding & water shortages - and about people - the space to relax, especially around our towns and cities. All our biggest cities could have huge (20,000 hectare/ 50,000 acre) natural parks for an amount of land equivalent to the annual differences in food production from the weather.
Second, and crucially, we are totally focussed on single purpose land use - conservationists follow farmers in that at the moment - but we can get more by each bit of land doing more than one thing - RSPB's Wallasea is a great example, driven by coastal protection, providing a superb new habitat for birds - and from that attracting birdwatchers and country lovers who'll put far more into the local economy than has been lost in farm produce. Similarly, new woodlands and reedbeds have the potential to produce energy at the same time as the land is supporting wildlife, reducing flood risk, pollution and soil erosion.
Third, we need to test all renewable energy sources on their carbon balance - energy from woodland in the UK uses less than 5% of its inherent carbon to produce - biofuel from oilseed rape 80% ! - mainly through the fertiliser & pesticides used. And what about palm oil produced on land taken from rainforest ?
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