Food vs Fuel – Do us a favour

By working in the energy crops sector we are all the time coming up against the food versus fuel argument. People will say – “Shouldn’t we be growing food rather than planting crops to burn?” My argument is that we need to get the best possible return from our meagre land resources. We should be striving for agricultural practices that integrate food and fuel rather than a system that excludes one or the other.

As a nation we are very wasteful – every year we throw away 7.2 million tonnes of food and drink. 4.4 million tonnes of food is chucked from households whilst 300,000 is skipped by supermarkets. In many cases the food is still fit for consumption but the used by or display date has expired. Of all the foodstuffs we bin, bread is Britain’s most wasted food. Each year 680,000 tonnes or 32% of the total produced is thrown away. This is nothing short of a crime.

Let’s say that each 800 gram loaf of bread requires 450 grams of wheat flour to produce. If we assume that the average wheat yield on UK farms is 8 tonnes per hectare then each hectare of land produces around 17,800 loaves per annum. 680,000 tonnes of bread waste is equal to 850,000,000 of loaves. Hence, we are needlessly squandering the production from almost 48,000 hectares per year.

For the sake of argument, if we assume the same land:yield:waste ratio for other foodstuffs (e.g. other cereals, meat, vegetables etc) then this wastage equates to the food production of 500,000 hectares of land or 3% of the UK’s 17.1 million hectares of farmland. In reality the % is likely to be much higher than this.

Currently, there are around 15,000 hectares of energy crops in the ground. Government reports have often suggested the need for 350,000 hectares of energy crops to help meet our renewable energy and climate change targets. In the south west of England, Crops for Energy have previously suggested that growing 66,000 hectares of energy crops could help us achieve 37.5% of our renewable heat target by 2020. This could all be achieved without any loss of food production. We just need to utilise our land resources to their full potential and eat more of what we produce.

There is a lot of land that does very little and this usually is the target for trees and woody bioenergy crops. However, for people growing fuel for their own use we often suggest they go for reasonable land and this way they need less of their holding to produce their annual requirements and do it efficiently and at less cost. Where land resource is in short supply – this makes sense.

There needs to be a more strategic approach to pulling agriculture and forestry together – i.e. the concept of agroforestry. Growing trees or energy crops together with food crops or animals has numerous benefits including:

  • The provision of beneficial insects which help keep pests at bay
  • The provision of shelter from the elements for both crops and livestock
  • The provision of nourishing forage for animals
  • The prevention of soil erosion
  • The reduction of nitrates, pesticides and other pollutants leaching into water courses
  • The interception of sediment prevents run off from the land which assists in flood prevention (which would be especially useful in wet years like 2012)
  • The improvement of local air quality around pig farms and other odorous farm or industrial activities
  • The creation of biosecurity corridors between farms to reduce the spread of livestock diseases
  • The increase in farm biodiversity – more birds and butterflies live in and around energy crops.

Unfortunately, growing trees and growing food has for a long time been kept apart in western agriculture. Policy makers and the general public need to realise that you get more out of farm land when you use it for food and fuel.