09:00 - 12 March 2003

Anthony Gibson

I have always been something of a sceptic when it comes to growing crops for fuel and other non-food uses. To use some of the most expensive land in the world to produce industrial raw materials never seemed to make much sense. It smacked of desperation, of clutching, if not at straws, then certainly at elephant grass.

That was until I listened to a man called Melvyn Askew talking on the subject last Thursday evening. You may not have heard of Melvyn, but he is a man to be reckoned with. Arguably, no-one has had a greater influence on the English landscape in the last 30 years. For Melvyn it was who popularised the growing of oilseed rape in the 1970s, and who therefore gave us those vivid splodges of bright yellow which, love them or hate them, have become such a feature of the countryside in spring. The prospect now is that he will bequeath us coast-to-coast willow coppice; which might not be to everyone's taste but would at least be preferable to those hideous wind turbines!

Anyway, as head of the alternative crops and biotechnology group at the Central Science Laboratory, Melvyn knows his subject, and he brings to it a refreshing mix of enthusiasm and realism. He dealt first of all with what you might call solid fuel - miscanthus, short rotation coppice and other so-called biomass crops grown for the energy they produce when burnt. The potential market for this sort of stuff is huge. If the EU is to hit its renewable energy target of 130 million tonnes of oil equivalent, an additional 20 million hectares of solid fuel crops will be needed, which is more than the entire agricultural area of the UK.

But as farmers know better than most, having a market is not the same thing as making a profit. And as with food, so with fuel, making a profit means adding value - selling kilowatts of power, rather than kilograms of fuel.

That is not so far-fetched as it might sound. A farmer called Rupert Burr from Swindon has just been given a £960,000 grant by the DTI to set up what he intends will be the first of a network of community willow-fuelled power stations, owned and operated by farmers' co-operatives.

In Cornwall, the Sustainable Energy Partnership is thinking along similar lines, although geared particularly to some of the more remote communities and maybe including energy generated from slurry digestion, as per the Holsworthy Biogas project. I hear that an even bigger project, based in mid-Devon, will also shortly be given the green light. This is slightly different, in that farmers will be growing miscanthus and willow under contract to the operators of the plant, rather than having a stake in it themselves. But the potential is still considerable, especially so long as the alternative land uses are as relatively unprofitable as they are at present. In Northern Ireland, they've made biomass work by using the willow beds to extract phosphate from sewage. The value of the phosphate extraction covers the cost of growing the crop, leaving the value of the woodchips into which the willow is eventually converted as net profit.

Then there are biofuels and bio-lubricants, which appear to have become the broad acre arable farmer's Holy Grail. And the prospect of growing millions of gallons of petrol and diesel from an infinitely renewable resource like the land is indeed alluring.

But Melvyn has a word of caution. "Bio-oils, like rapeseed oil, are better produced for the food market than the energy market," he stressed, quoting a £10 per tonne price differential in his support. But what if the Chancellor could be persuaded to reduce the duty on biofuels so as to make them competitive with fossil fuels? Simply this: biodiesel produced in countries like Germany and Spain from German and Spanish wheat and rape would flood onto our newly-viable market. It could hardly be otherwise, given that at present we do not have any processing plants capable of producing bio-diesel.