Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


The Political and Strategic Case for Transport Fuels from British Agriculture



  1.  Biodiesel and bioethanol have been independently assessed technically by numerous different authorities and found to:

    —  offer a range of environmental benefits, being biodegradable, renewable, and producing less local air pollutants than fossil fuels;

    —  be usable blended or straight in modern engines without modification (except that vehicles require engine modification to run on high proportions of bioethanol as do gas-powered vehicles);

    —  generate substantially lower life cycle emissions of greenhouse gases (especially CO2) than fossil fuels;

    —  reduce tailpipe emissions of many pollutants including particulates, SO and VOC;

    —  have lower toxicity and higher flash points than fossil fuels;

    —  emit marginally more NO2 than ultra low sulphur fossil fuel but that advanced injection timing can cut this pollution.

  2.  Bioethanol is broadly similar but tailpipe emissions are better, greenhouse gas emissions lower but energy balances less good.

  3.  There are no technical barriers to growing oilseed crops on (potentially) c.500,000ha in the UK. Nor are there technical barriers to growing similar areas of wheat and root crops for bioethanol.

  4.  But technical and (more so) economic assessment rapidly become out-dated and may be totally irrelevant in the (quite unpredictable) future.

  5.  The over-riding reasons for developing biodiesel and bioethanol, once the technical possibilities are established, have nothing to do with such assessments, which serve mainly to define the conditions under which production could begin now.

  6.  The most compelling reason is that our current dependence on fossil fuels is dangerous, not mainly because supplies will eventually run out, but because they could be abruptly interrupted by:

    —  terrorism

    —  war

    —  political action

    —  economic action (price rises).

  Oil exporters do not have to export to the UK; in the long term demand is likely to expand in developing countries.

  7.  If standards of living in developing countries do not rise, instability may itself threaten supplies.

  8.  There is also a major benefit from supporting alternative uses of land. There can be no guarantee that a particular size of food sector can be economically justified and there can be no guarantee that it may not, at some time, have to be suddenly and dramatically expanded.

  9.  Such an expansion would require that UK land continue to be farmed (for non-food crops) in order to preserve the necessary farming capacity, in the form of cultivated land, a skilled labour force and the necessary up-to-date knowledge (pests and diseases do not stand still).

  10  There are thus two powerful reasons for developing liquid biofuel production:

    (a)  insurance against catastrophic interruption of imported or even home produced fossil derived oil supplies;

    (b)  the wisdom of developing a large-scale farming land use to buffer changes in the economically justified size of the food sector.

  11.  Finally, it has to be recognised that further R&D will almost certainly change markedly all existing significant technical parameters and thus the economic outlook.


  The most important consideration in an assessment of the potential for a technology is to relate it to the future not the present and, even less, the past.


  The fact that we cannot predict the future does not mean that we cannot think about it. Indeed, we all recognise in our daily lives that it is essential to plan for the future even though we know we cannot predict it, even in relation to us personally.

  We take out fire insurance, not in any expectation that we will have a fire but because, however hard we try to avoid it, there remains a serious possibility that one will occur.

  For very serious situations, we do not have to predict an event, only a real possibility of it happening. Because we cannot predict the future, there is a danger that we will use data that are available to make projections, which may be defended as the best we can do, but that may be totally irrelevant to future conditions. (As has been said, it is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.) This is especially so for long-term thinking.

  This is well illustrated by economic assessment of major developments made at their outset.


  Some of the most important developments in technology have been damned by premature economic assessment: many, like the light bulb and electricity generally, were dismissed as of no use at all. Others, like the railways, were developed only because of the sheer energetic drive of the few, many of whom went bankrupt in the process.

  Such economic assessments depend upon costs and prices, none of which are predictable for any appreciable distance into the future.

  But economics is not just about money, it is about the sensible use of resources.

  Fuel energy is one of the most vital resources and likely to remain so in any future scenario we can visualise. Only in a vastly depopulated world could it be otherwise.


  The world is awash with energy (as it is with water, which is also likely to be scarce in usable form), geothermal, wind, wave, bound up in physical particles and solar radiation.

  But fuel energy is available, on a large useable scale, only from fossil sources, representing past solar radiation. It is thus non-renewable. This does not mean that it should not be used. The only legitimate objection to the use of non-renewable resources (such as solar radiation—the sun is running down) is if their use gives rise to unacceptable levels of pollution. Preserving them for future generations, should they take the same view, means that they will never be used and cannot really count as resources at all.

  So, at some point, the current supply of fossil fuels will become unavailable, because they run out, become inaccessible (eg politically), become too expensive or cause too much pollution (note that one cannot predict exactly what components may be recognised in the future as damaging).

  As soon as demand rises or supply falls (for whatever reasons), the price will rise, of course.


  There are foreseeable possibilities that could accelerate such shortages, both short and long-term.

  Probably the most likely, but perhaps in the long term, is increasing demand in the currently poor and populous countries. It can be argued that world peace and stability will ultimately depend upon a vast rise in the standard of living of all these people.

  Quite apart from judgements as to what is right or just, turbulence of many kinds may be inevitable if such a rise does not happen. An orderly approach to gradual improvement would be the best way forward and, if it happens this way, the demand for oil will increase even in the short term.

  The lid cannot be kept on indefinitely by force. in any case, the current economic and military strength of eg the USA, depends upon oil—and still relatively cheap oil at that.

  Against this, perhaps long-term background, there are two other possibilities: terrorism (immediate) and global warming (long term).


  We should not have needed the recent demonstration in the USA to foresee the consequences of terrorist attacks on the Middle East oil wells. Probably no-one had contemplated a hijacked aircraft aimed at an oil field but there are any number of other ways of achieving the same end.

  Setting fire or exploding the wells themselves is only one point of attack: the refining capacity is another. Rendering the area toxic or infectious could be achieved less obviously.

  But it should not be necessary to spell out the possibilities, much less to try and attach probabilities to them.

  The fact is that such possibilities exist and would be very hard to eliminate totally.

  It is not the probability of it happening that matters, it is the seriousness of the consequences if it did. Ordinary people recognise this in their fear of BSE and their enthusiasm for the lottery.


  The same principles apply. We do not know what the consequences of enhanced global warming will be: enhanced is the critical word—without global warming, we are all dead.

  It is expected that the consequences will include extreme weather conditions, floods, gale-force winds, drought and rising sea-levels.

  It is not known whether it could exacerbate existing hazards, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The latter, of course, could generate such clouds of ash and dust as to cool the earth catastrophically. What has to be recognized is our vulnerability to uncontrollable forces, and the need to reduce our vulnerability, if possible.


  The conclusion seems clear, we should seek to reduce our vulnerability to a serious shortage of fossil-derived fuels, both oil and gas. Production of biofuels would achieve this—supplies coming from the earth's current energy account rather than its capital account.

  One way is to reduce the use of oil for non-vehicular purposes, such as the use of wind, tides and solar radiation for heating and cooling. Government policy currently recognises this.

  However, there remains a demand for fuels for road transport. Currently this is about 55 million tonnes of oil equivalent (34 per cent of the total energy use in the UK and 83 per cent of oil use.) This is not an irreducible minimum, of course, as more efficient transport systems are developed and, possibly, an absolute reduction in the volume of transport is achieved.

  All these options are worth pursuing, for a variety of reasons, but the UK will still increasingly depend upon imported fuels. Current policy of substituting gas for oil—one fossil fuel for another—meets some but by no means all of the criteria for a wise fuel policy. It should not need a "James Bond" film to illustrate the potential for blowing up gas installations.

  Although UK oil production is not immune to the threats already outlined, it is our dependence on imports concentrated in limited locations that represents the greatest weakness. The question is to what extent could home-produced fuel crops reduce this dependence.

  Two most promising candidates are biodiesel and bioethanol and the current situation has been assessed in detail by studies commissioned by the British Association for Biofuels and Oils (BABFO).

  Their conclusions are clear:

  1.  Both fuels can be produced in the UK on a significant scale, primarily from oilseeds (OSR)/canola and wheat. I note also that root crops such as fodder beet may well be developed for bioethanol production.

  2.  Both have significant advantages over fossil fuels, in terms of reducing atmospheric pollution.

  3.  Biodiesel can be used in place of fossil diesel (straight or blended) without modification to modern diesel engines. Bioethanol can be used in blends up to some 15 per cent without engine modifications and can be used to produce ethyl tertiary butyl ether as a petrol additive.

  4.  Efficiency of support energy use is also far better than the crops they would displace on cultivated land, especially if the straw is burned as a fuel and oilseed rapemeal is used as a fertiliser. If grown on set-aside land, there is the net gain to gross domestic product of the financial and physical value of the crops.

  5.  Between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of the UK area of crops and temporary grass could be available for liquid fuel cropping.

  However, it is noticeable that current reviews point out that data used in earlier reviews have generally been out-dated and this progression should be borne in mind in any quantitative assessment.

  A qualitative analysis could be based on the fact that the practical potential for liquid biofuels depends upon the following considerations:


  This depends on the relative priority given to the relevant crop. Clearly most of the cultivable land could be used.

  The area needed for food and other crops cannot be predicted with any accuracy: it could be that the likelihood of being able to import food will be greater than that for oil. The land released as a result of over-production (set-aside) and the land released in the immediate aftermath of Foot and Mouth disease would not have been predicted in the past (in the latter case, even a year ago).

  The only inevitable limitation on land area would be the land unsuitable for growing the crop. The area required for any given level of oil production also depends on the yield per ha.


  Most crop yields vary very widely from farm to farm, so if the best could be achieved more widely the average would go up, without much other change of inputs.

  But genetic improvement is also possible, including the use of genetically modified crops or even entirely different species. An expectation of increased yields would seem entirely reasonable if agricultural science is put to work on the subject.


  Technically, there are no problems. Economically, there are.

  Farms are businesses and products will be produced only if (a) there is a demand for them (already considered) and (b) if a profit can be made from growing them.

  Currently (b) cannot be satisfied at current rates of excise duty imposed on the product. In a market economy, this is often the end of the argument but given the necessity (argued earlier) for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, the case for the practical development of an alternative on a significant scale appears overwhelming, unless the cost is judged excessive. The question is therefore how much would this cost be.

  The evidence is that the cost would be small in relation to the benefit: furthermore, both costs and benefits accrue to the same body ie the whole nation (this is not often the case in new developments as demonstrated by public perceptions of GMOs). This is the justification for duty relief, which already happens in many other countries and is permitted under EU legislation.

  If the financial reward for growing the crop was adequate, it is likely that it would be grown, but the scale on which this would happen can only be assessed by creating the conditions first.

  If the scale proved to be small, then the cost would be negligible and no proper supply chain would develop.

  The cost could only be significant if the venture was highly successful. The argument for exploring this possibility is therefore strong. But even if it was only taken up on a small scale it would demonstrate whether the theoretical potential could be realised (as it already has in several other European countries). There is enormous value, in an uncertain future, for adding an alternative fuel option in case of need.

  This kind of insurance against future possibilities also applies to food policy.


  The idea that we could import all our food requirements is extremely dangerous and, in my view, misguided (see Spedding, 2001).

  But it is quite impossible to predict precisely what our home-produced food needs will be. There may well be periods when only a smaller UK food production sector can be economically justified.

  The danger is that no-one can tell when such periods may come to an end and that, when it becomes vital to expand our food sector again, we will not have the resources to do so.

  These resources are:

    (a)  suitable land in cultivation (and not reverted to the natural scrub/forest climax vegetation characteristic of most of our arable land);

    (b)  skilled labour (farmers and farm workers);

    (c)  the necessary up-to-date knowledge.

  The first two can only be preserved by continuing to farm the land not currently (at any one time) required for food production. The third requires relevant Research and Development.

What kind of farming could be justified?

  There are four foreseeable candidates.

  1.  Extensive systems, including organic farming, which (by definition) require more land. Expansion will be limited by demand which, at current prices, is also likely to be limited.

  If prices could be greatly reduced, demand would probably increase markedly, but it is unlikely that prices will ever come down to that of conventional farming or imported products.

  2.  Raw materials for industry

  This category includes oilseed and carbohydrate crops but also wood and other fibres (eg flax, hemp), industrial chemicals, plastics, paints and inks, cosmetics, paper, starches, dyes, detergents and even nylon. Many of these possibilities have been around for some years but there has been little large-scale development.

  3.  Medicinal crops

  Crops producing pharmaceuticals and vaccines. These are all high value products and likely to be in high demand but they are unlikely to be high in volume or to require substantial areas of land.

  4.  Fuel crops, on the other hand, could be grown on a very large scale. This also applies to biomass for energy, whether directly burnt or digested to produce methane, which could reduce the need for fossil fuels. Cash flow delays and low overall energy outputs are likely to limit the attraction of specific biomass crops.

  But the urgent need is to develop the capacity to produce, in the UK, a direct supply of transport fuel (electricity is fairly well taken care of). Currently, biodiesel and bioethanol are the front runners.


  Oilseed rape has been the main crop examined but there are other possibilities, including fodder beet and Jerusalem artichoke. However, in the long term, quite new crops may be developed, given the incentive of a major potential market, with higher yields and requiring fewer inputs.

  Such developments would render current calculations obsolete. So premature technical assessment can be as misleading as premature economic assessment.

  What can be said of future technical developments, however, is that they can only improve performance. The risks that also need to be assessed are the possibilities of uncontrollable pests or disease attacks resulting from large-scale production or global warming.

  On all the technical matters discussed, there is a continuing need for Research and Development (R&D).


  The most obvious R&D needs are in the following categories.


  There are enormous possibilities for selecting and breeding, including genetic modification, crops with higher yields of suitable oil or alcohol potential. It is also possible that such crops could have other properties, including valuable components in the non-oil parts of the plant. This could greatly affect the economics of production.

  It is also possible to develop fuel crops that can be grown on polluted land or that can absorb eg treated human sewage sludge. Both of these features are unlikely to be acceptable for food crops.


  Machinery development will mostly be needed for new crops. For example, crops that have oil-bearing roots or tubers may pose special problems.


  All these processes, and the machinery, need to be energy efficient and to generate low emissions.


  The same applies to engines.


  The main point is not to try and identify specific R&D needs, much less probable R&D potential achievements, but to recognise that, once an industry is in place, R&D is likely to change all the significant parameters. The results cannot be predicted. Economic and technical assessments of the first car and the first aeroplane illustrate the impossibility of foreseeing the outcomes of R&D. The early stages of anything give few clues to future potential. As a famous scientist once said, when asked about the usefulness of his research, "What use is a baby?"


  ECOTEC Reports for British Association for Biofuels and Oils (2001). BABFO submission for the Green Fuels Challenge—Submission for Biodiesel and Bioethanol (Budget, 2001).

  Spedding, Colin (2001) Why the farming industry is vital to us all. Country Illustrated, August 2001, pp 72-77.

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