Muckspreader for Private Eye, 28 AugustThanks to its environmental correspondent Sarah Mukherjee, the BBC has lately been getting its knickers in a twist over 'set aside'. This is the system originally introduced by Brussels in the 1990s to cut down the EU's notorious 'grain mountain', by paying farmers not to grow crops on part of their land.
Since grain prices have doubled in the past two years, due to the soaring world demand for grain, Brussels is now proposing to end set-aside altogether. This has prompted conservationists such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to sound the alarm over the disastrous effect such a move could have on wildlife, notably ground-nesting birds, which they claim have flourished on the land set-aside has released from the plough.
It is true that set-aside has had some beneficial effect on wildlife, although in its early years the EU's requirement that set-aside land had to be cut before the end of the nesting season had a devastating effecf on species such as skylarks, fooled into nesting on apparently abandoned fields which were then laid waste by June mowing. But in falling for the latest RSPB propaganda, Ms Mukherjee has missed various rather important points.
First she seems to have confused set-aside proper with the 'buffer strips' which farmers have recently been required by Brussels to leave unploughed round the edges of their fields to encourage wildlife. Environmentally welcome as these are, they will not be affected by ending set-aside.
Rather more seriously, Ms Mukherjee seems not to have realised that although compulsory set-aside means that a farmer is not allowed to grow food-crops on set-aside land, he can still use it to grow industrial crops, such as the oilseed rape which turns much of our countryside a livid yellow in May before being turned into cattle food or fuel. This has become such an increasingly lucrative source of income that the amount of 'set-aside' land left for skylarks to nest on has already been dramatically reduced.
The real environmental story with which Ms Mukherjee might have regaled the BBC audience is the alarming new pressure now being brought to bear on farmland by Brussels's decision that by 2020 10 percent of all transport fuel in the EU must be sourced from carbon-friendly biofuels, such as wheat.
For the UK to meet its share of this target would require 14 million tons of wheat a year, 3 million tons more than we grow now. We would thus have to import 10 million tons a year to meet our food needs, at a time when soaring world demand will have pushed prices through the roof.
Even if we derive our biofuel from other crops, this would still take up more farmland than we have currently in production.
The only alternative will be to import biofuel from abroad, from countries such as Indonesia, already destroying its rainforest on a colossal scale to make palm oil, leading inter alia to a massacre of orang-outans.
One can of course understand why BBC journalists, as keen supporters of measures to fight global warming, might be reluctant to draw the connection between EU biofuel targets and killing orang-outans. But the price to be paid by wildlife in Britain's countryside is likely to be just as high. Much better just to concentrate attention on the ending of set-aside, and hope the listeners don't realise how much of the real story they are not being told.
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