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Biofuels, transition and divergent visions of the future of farming

On the 16th January I attended a great event in Wadebridge in Cornwall called The Decline in Oil: are you worried by the rising price of oil?, which had been organised by Duchy College Rural Business School, the NFU, Climate Friendly Endillion, Transition Penwith and the Soil Association Organic South West. Held in Wadebridge Town Hall, the evening was attended by a crowd of about 140, of whom about 40 were farmers and the rest of whom came from Wadebridge and further afield, from some of Cornwall’s other Transition Initiatives.

I was the first speaker, and talked about peak oil and climate change, about the Transition response, the 12 Steps of the Transition process and some ideas as to what Transition farming might look like. After me, Anthony Gibson, Communications Director of the National Farmers Union spoke. He began by saying that he did not share “the previous speaker’s apocalyptic vision of the future” (the vision I had presented was one of local food being grown for local markets, vibrant local economies and enhanced resilience).

He said that climate change was now a fundamental underpinning of the NFU’s thinking and that within the challenge of climate change was the potential for a rediscovery of the farmer’s role in society. However, the bulk of his talk consisted of promoting biomass production from woodlands and from farm waste, and, mostly, biofuels, which he argued, market forces would make irresistible, and which farmers should embrace as a way of providing low carbon fuels.

He showed slides which showed how biofuels are a far lower emitter of CO2 than petrol and diesel, and argued that for developing nations to move into growing biofuels for export to the UK would provide stable incomes to allow them to grow their economies and to develop further. He concluded by saying that he thought higher food prices would be a good thing, and that biofuels (including the use of GM biofuels which he thought we should be open minded about) could form a central plank of a resurgence in UK farming.

I sat next to Mr Gibson while he gave his talk intrigued as to how this was going down with the farmers in the audience. When it came to the end of Mr Gibson’s talk, the floor was opened to the audience for questions. The first questioner questioned Mr Gibson’s statement that I had offered an “apocalyptic vision of the future”, stating that at least I had actually offered a positive vision of the future, whereas his talk had offered something akin to a nightmare, a picture of wall-to-wall GM biofuels.

Another questioner attacked Mr Gibson’s view that we have to allow ‘market forces’ to dictate our actions. Incensed, he said that market forces had in fact ravaged food and farming in the UK and driven thousands of farmers off the land, and that the time had come to actually find ways to resist or to moderate market forces.

There was a question about organic farming and its role in the future. Mr Gibson said that it would always remain a niche, whereas I said that farming in the future would at least be organic, as artificial fertilizer production would become impossible in a high price gas environment. I also argued that a significant contributor to climate change has been the loss of carbon from soils due to the lack of organic material being returned to them. A central part of any comprehensive carbon strategy for farming should focus on building healthy soils, something difficult to do when nitrogen fertilisers substitute organic fertilisers.

I was amazed at the extent to which the farmers present, with the exception of about 5, voiced their opposition to the NFU’s vision of a biofuels-led future.

At the end of the event some of them came up to speak to me, and talked about the difficulties of surviving in farming, and how the rising costs of nitrogen fertilisers were affecting their businesses. There was a lot of people saying “I’m from Bude/ Endillion/Wadebridge/wherever, anyone want to do a Transition initiative?” and people swapping phone numbers.

I usually avoid events which seek to create an adversarial dynamic, but this one was very worthwhile. It was fascinating to see the enthusiasm among the farmers present for a more localised approach to farming, perhaps the NFU should be figuring out how it can best support their wish to create and sustain local markets rather than continuing to focus on an approach whose benefits to the climate are questionable at best, and which at worst, would continue the erosion of soil, resilience and the local economies we will become increasingly dependent upon.

Editorial Notes: A similar debate is raging at The Oil Drum. The Fallacy of Reversibility: Why Peak Oil Actually Helps Industrial Agriculture by Stuart Staniford (Jan 22) Is Relocalization Doomed?: A Response to Staniford’s "Fallacy of Reversibility" by Sharon Astyk (Jan 23) -BA

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