1 Feb 2008
“Realism Needed on Biofuel Future”: Anthony Gibson of the NFU Responds.
I wrote recently about the event in Wadebridge I spoke at with Anthony Gibson of the National Farmers Union which explored, among other things, biofuels, organics and localisation. In the interests of balance and on throwing more light onto the different perspectives that were aired that night, and offering a different perspective, here is Mr. Gibson’s regular column in the Western Morning News.
**Realism Needed on Biofuel Future.** Anthony Gibson. Western Morning News
23 January 2008.
“Not a week seems to go by these days without some report or other being issued branding biofuels as the very spawn of the devil or their ineffectiveness in reducing carbon emissions, or their impact on food prices, or the environmental destruction that is supposed to follow in their wake.So when I was asked to speak at a public meeting in Wadebridge last week on the subject of how agriculture can successfully adapt to the decline in oil production, I approached the biofuel situation with some trepidation.
It had occurred to me long before I got to my feet that this was an audience which was unlikely to warm to an enthusiasm shared by George W Bush.
But I was still taken aback by the sheer hostility of the response, when I broached the subject. Not even a tentative endorsement of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) attracted quite the onslaught of critical comment as did my heavily qualified defence of biofuels. Whatever the opposite to flavour of the month may be, biofuels are it.
I find this slightly odd, given that biofuels are virtually the only renewable alternative to oil in transport fuels, that they do (so far as I can see) yield genuine savings in CO2 emissions when compared to petrol and diesel, that environmental safeguards can and are being applied to how they are grown, and that higher food prices may not be such a bad thing. Besides, if you are looking for ways in which agriculture can successfully adapt to a decline in oil production, they can hardly be ignored.
One would have expected the general response to have been something along the lines of: “Well, they won’t make a huge difference, but they are a step in the right direction; any environmental damage can be prevented; and if we don’t invest in first-generation biofuel technology we shan’t be in a position to reap the much greater benefits of second and third generation biofuels when the time comes.”
But not a bit of it. The received wisdom seems to be that biofuels are worse than useless, not only because they fail to deliver any real benefits, but because they are seen as an attempt by big business and big government to subvert the climate-change agenda.
The true green believers are not interested in technological solutions. They want to use climate change to drive a whole series of fundamental changes in human behaviour, taking us back to a world in which economies have been relocalised, personal travel has been severely restricted and farming operations are small-scale and organic.
This dawned on me when I attempted to use the argument that biofuels are the only way of reducing the 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions produced by road transport.
It rapidly became apparent that to a significant proportion of the audience, the only sensible way to cut the emissions is to cut the transport. People should learn not to drive, still less to fly. I received the strongest possible impression that if a vast new oil reserve were to be discovered somewhere in the world that would guarantee our energy security long into the future, many of those in Wadebridge Town Hall last week would be dismayed to the point of desolation. They hate biofuels with such a passion, not because of the inherent shortcomings of the technology but because it offers the prospect of at least some people continuing with a way of life with which the eco-true believers are in profound disagreement.
However, I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that all of the arguments were on one side. I shared the platform with a formidably well-informed gentleman called Rob Hopkins, who is heavily involved at Totnes in something called the Transition Towns initiative. I have to confess that, until last Wednesday, I had never heard of this, which my opponents would say just goes to show how thoroughly ignorant I am on the subject, but it turns out to be an idea, first developed in Kinsale in Eire, whereby communities come together to prepare themselves for a transition to a “carbon-constricted, energy-lean world”. You can find out more on its excellent website www.transitiontowns.org .
It almost goes without saying that Totnes was the first transition town in Britain, but it is by no means on its own. Other transition communities in the South West include Penwith, Ivybridge, Falmouth, Ashburton, Ottery St Mary, Lostwithiel, Glastonbury and, would you believe it, Bristol, which has possibly the worst traffic problems of any major city in Britain.
If the transition to a low-carbon economy really has begun on the banks of the River Avon, I have yet to see any evidence of it. This isn’t, in any sense, to disparage what strikes me as an imaginative and well-intentioned concept. It’s just that it doesn’t appear to have much connection with the real world; the world in which people want to eat cheaply but well, drive their cars, go on holidays to sunny places and generally carry on doing what people have grown accustomed in western society to doing for the past 40 years or so. We all need to be doing our bit to reduce carbon emissions, but the savings that will make the crucial difference will be achieved, not by the rejection of science, but by the embracing of it, and farmers will be at the very heart of the process.
From the farming perspective, there are opportunities here for all. A combination of oil depletion and carbon consciousness will make the long-distance transport of food less economic and less acceptable. We are already enjoying the fruits of that in the enormous success of the local food movement, and long may it thrive. But organic food sold at farmers’ markets is no more going to be the mainstay of our future food supplies than wind turbines will be of our energy supplies. Big problems require big solutions. The sooner we all realise that and start developing technologies like biofuels and GMOs, rather than demonising them, the sooner we’ll start making serious inroads into carbon emissions and climate change.
I am absolutely convinced that broad-acre, science-based solutions will have a big role to play.
**Anthony Gibson is Communications Director of the NFU.**