NFU column: Food versus fuel
- Credit: Picture: Nick Butcher
In this month’s National Farmers’ Union column, Henstead farmer Rob Raven looks at the competing demands placed on our countryside
Until recently, the majority of farmland has been used to grow food, but the landscape is changing,, writes Rob Raven.
With fossil fuels becoming scarcer, more expensive, and with the spotlight now on their poor environmental credentials, renewable alternatives are needed.
Many of these can be produced on farms. Indeed a host of renewable energy sources can already be found growing in our area in Suffolk.
Rapeseed oil is blended with diesel, sugar beet is turned into bioethanol, straw and other biomass products fuel power stations instead of coal, and fields of solar panels feed clean electricity directly into the national grid.
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A variety of crops can be fed into anaerobic digesters (AD), to produce a renewable source of gas.
The idea of producing reliable, renewable energy in our own country sounds great. But there has been much controversy about the knock-on effects.
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As more land is used for energy production, less land is therefore available to produce food.
Will this reduction in food acres lead to shortages? Will more acres be ploughed up abroad to make up the shortfall, negating the green credentials of domestically produced renewable energy?
The truth is that, prior to mechanisation in the mid-20th century, horses provided the power for virtually all farm work and road transport, and they needed feeding.
As such, around a third of all our farmland was already being used to produce renewable energy, in the form of hay and oats.
The rise of fossil fuel and the combustion engine has allowed us a brief deviation from this arrangement, but the fuel is now running out and land is needed to meet our (now much greater) appetite for energy.
Food versus fuel is a good debate to have.
With the destruction wrought in the Indonesian rainforests by new palm oil plantations,
it surely makes sense to grow as much as we can, food and fuel, on the land already under cultivation, rather than destroy priceless and unique habitats such as these to make way for more farms.
It is the responsibility of farmers around the world to do this, but in a way that does not reduce the ability of future generations to do the same.
‘Sustainable intensification’ is the buzzword in agricultural circles.
But can we do it? New technologies offer great promise in improving yields whilst reducing inputs, but there is no silver bullet.
Concepts such as laser guided weed targeting, and using bacteria to allow plants to produce their own fertiliser look promising and are being encouraged by the government.
However, we need all the ‘tools in the box’, and the truth is that we are falling behind the rest of the world.
Of the total global investment in agricultural research, only 7.7% of it is in Europe.
Thirty years ago, it was 33%.
This decline in investment can be blamed on the ultra-strict regulatory burdens the EU places on companies wishing to invest in crop protection and production.
One company describes it as “like forcing all cars to drive at least a mile apart”.
No accidents, but not much productivity either.
As such, investment is fleeing Europe to parts of the world more committed to progress.
In the UK, the government is keen to talk up its support for agriculture, which is a welcome change, but if ministers are really serious, as well as investing in new ideas, they need to dismantle the barriers that prevent us exploring technologies that already exist.
n NFU member Robert Raven farms 650 acres on a family farm at Henstead, Suffolk