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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 21:45 GMT 22:45 UK
Biofuels 'will not lead to hunger'
Peter Kendall
Peter Kendall

British farmers can meet the nation's demand for both food and fuel crops, argues Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers' Union. In this week's Green Room, he says UK agriculture already has enough capacity to fill fuel tanks and dining tables.

Barley (Image: National Non-Food Crops Centre)
Fields of gold: Farmers can grow food and fuel crops, Mr Kendall says

Farmers in the UK see the opportunity to provide the feedstock to biofuel producers as a way to deliver secure, low-carbon fuel to the nation's motorists.

But we also understand that the development of biofuels should also be part of an overall strategy that includes energy conservation, a diversity of sustainable energy sources, greater efficiency in production and transport, and careful management of bioethanol production.

Some commentators raise objections to the development of biofuels because, they argue, it would increase pressure on valuable arable land that is needed to meet the growing demand for food crops. This is not a problem in the UK.

The area of land required to produce sufficient bio-diesel and bio-ethanol to meet the targets set out in the UK's Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), which requires 5% of all petrol and diesel sold on forecourts to be biofuel by 2010, can be found without prejudicing food production capacity.

The 3.5 million tonnes of feed wheat that is currently surplus to requirements and has to be exported will account for the bio-ethanol.

And using the UK's 750,000 hectares of set-aside to grow oilseed rape will comfortably take care of the bio-diesel requirement.

What is more, it is a pre-condition of the RTFO - entirely supported by the NFU - that biofuel crops are produced sustainably.

Developed in a sustainable way, in the context of a wide-ranging strategy for alternative crops, biofuels offer society a win, win, win solution

British farmers are uniquely well placed to deliver this, thanks to the widespread adoption of farm assurance schemes. We intend to use these frameworks to ensure that fuel crops are produced without damage to the environment, just as food crops are.

Home grown

That is something that cannot, of course, be said of imported sources of biofuels, such as sugar cane from Brazil or palm oil from South East Asia.

This makes it even more important that as much as possible of our biofuel crop requirements are home-grown.

We agree with the World Conservation Union's chief scientist Jeffrey A McNeely (Green Room - Biofuels: Green or grim energy?) that the demand for biofuels will tend to lift prices for cereals and oilseeds.

But is that a bad thing? What has been holding back agriculture in the developing world is not a shortage of land, but the rock-bottom prices caused by the fact that world markets have been swamped by surplus grain, from both the EU and US.

If the demand for biofuels helps to change that, directly by lifting prices and indirectly by mopping up the surpluses, then it will give Third World farming the biggest single boost it has ever had.

That, in turn, will do more to alleviate starvation in Africa and elsewhere than all the food aid programmes put together.

A refinery (Image: EyeWire)

Developed in a sustainable way, in the context of a wide-ranging strategy for alternative crops, biofuels offer society a win, win, win solution.

Achieving the UK RTFO target will reduce CO2 emissions by two million tonnes (the equivalent to taking one million cars off the road), even after allowing for the carbon burnt in growing, transporting and processing the crop.

It will also create a greater equilibrium in grain and oilseed markets, benefiting not only food producers but food production, too.

And provided the raw materials for the biofuels are grown sustainably in the UK, their production will mean a better managed, more attractive countryside; and contribute significantly to the viability of the rural economy.

Peter Kendall is the president of the UK's National Farmers' Union (NFU)

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Peter Kendall? Do biofuels offer a win, win, win situation? Would you use biofuel?

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