The British countryside will be transformed through the planting of tall energy crops, the BA Festival of Science in York heard yesterday. Fields planted with miscanthus (or elephant) grass, 3-4 metres high, will look like Caribbean sugar-cane plantations.
The Rural and Economy Land Use programme (RELU) estimates that 15-20 per cent of Britain's agricultural land may have to be devoted to growing biofuels to meet international obligations to reduce carbon emissions and improve energy security. [The writer is a grant holder in the RELU programme].
The two main candidate crops are willow coppice, harvested every three years, and miscanthus, a fast-growing Asian grass harvested annually in late winter or spring. Farmers would grow those on poor quality arable land, said Anglea Karp of Rothamsted Research, RELU energy crops coordinator. 'The impact on agricultural land and food production is a big concern,' she said. 'Because the energy crops recycle their own nutrients and do not need fertilisers, they will not need to be planted on the best agricultural land.'
RELU has attempted to assess the public acceptability of a landscape dominated by giant energy crops. They conducted a survey using photographs of existing miscanthus and willow plantations. Surprisingly, two-thirds said they would not mind the triffids growing within sight of their home, although this figure fell when participants were told that more local power stations would be needed to produce energy from their crops.
Environmental surveys are particularly suspect because people feel a need to give the 'correct' green answer. When it comes to behaviour, NIMBY attitudes come to the surface.
Nevertheless, RELU supremo Philip Lowe seized the occasion to urge the government to 'take a more strategic approach to land use in rural areas.' The well connected Newcastle University professor said the government needed a strategic vision for balancing the growing pressures on home-grown food supplies with the need to grow energy crops.
The good professor turned words into action when he bought bananas as a healthy energy boost for the participants waiting for my panel at York.