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23 Jan 2008

Biofuels, Transition and Divergent Visions of the Future of Farming.

posterOn 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.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Lucy Skywalker
23 Jan 9:07am


Robert Morgan
23 Jan 10:11am

Hi Rob,

I presume you will have read (if you had time – it’s about 9,000 words!) an article by Dr. Stuart Staniford on biofuels, called “Fermenting the Food Supply”. It’s at:

I’d recommend any supporter of large-scale biofuels to read it. Basically the conclusion is that unrestrained biofuel production on a global basis has the potential to starve not millions, but billions of the world’s poor and that if the industry is left open to pure free-market forces, this is exactly what will happen within a period of just a few years. Americans and Europeans can afford to pay more for food to be turned into motor fuel, than the world’s poorest can afford to pay for same food to actually eat.

You have I think shown some slides in your talks which show that all the arable land in Britain could only produce about a quarter of the motor fuel we use at present. Staniford looks at this on a global basis and finds that if all the food produced by the world were digested, fermented and turned into oil substitutes, it would produce about 15% as much oil as we use at the moment.

Sharon Astyk, an environmental campaigner and smallholder has written an article on “Ethics of Biofuels”: This suggests 12 ethical principles for biofuel production which seem to me essential considerations for any biofuel policy.

James Samuel
23 Jan 10:27am

Well, well. The speed at which the people are waking up to the multi dimensional, inter-related realities is encouraging.

While it’s not time to kick back just yet, it seems that the wave is building, and wisdom is standing up to and surpassing the rhetoric.

I have a feeling ’08 is going to see a lot of change, and ’09 . . . hold onto your hats. :)

Tom Atkins
23 Jan 10:54am

Excellent Rob – congratulations on going down well with the farmers. Fully agree with the info on carbon and soils – spot on.

One thing about nitrogen fertiliser manufacture: N based fertilisers do not require gas and oil to make them. They do need quite a bit of energy – but it doesn’t have to come from gas / oil. This article is a good place to start. I think it’s important not to perpetuate the myth that N based fertilisers require fossil fuels and be accurate with the science (especially when talking to farmers).

I recently visited a fantastic farmer here in West Cork who is doing wonderful things for wildlife and local food. He is currently using 25% of the nitrogen fertiliser he used in the 1980′s. However he thinks it’s about as low as he can go without having to give up farming all together on the poor soils that he as. In some situations, I believe that the careful application of minimal amounts of nitrogen fertilisers can be very helpful – at least during the transition to a fully organic future. The use of the energy to make the fertiliser can be quite a good use of energy if it turns into food production. (Of course, in my view, the most important thing is to reduce population, get most people to be near vegetarian and then go fully organic – but that’s a few steps down the line!)

Meanwhile – let’s hope the NFU becomes more like the Soil Association in it’s views towards organic farming and local food!

Mark Forskitt
23 Jan 5:37pm

I suspect your reception may have something to do with the structure of farming in Cornwall. As far as I am aware it is traditionally smaller mixed farms which have stayed within families. There is history and a collective memory of farming before the agri-business impacts. If ever there was a farming region in england ripe for grasping the localisation, small is beatiful message of transition culture it would be the far south west.

23 Jan 11:34pm

I think Mr Atkins is missing the point, obviously there are alternatives to the Haber-Bosch process for creating Ammonia but when will they be economical? I’d agree it takes “quite a bit of energy” to heat the gases to 300-550 degrees C at 100-250 atmospheres then cool and heat three more times to get 15% conversion to Ammonia.

Where do we get the power for electrolysis to make Hydrogen and what about producing all that pressue and heat. That’s a lot of solar panels and wind turbines – or a nuclear power station :-)

Interestingly the Haber process took off in Germany during World War I just like the Fischer-Tropsch process for making liquid fuel from coal in World War II. In both cases they didn’t have an alternative to nitrates from Chile for explosive and oil for fuel – which makes economics a secondary consideration.

So in broad terms the point stands, you can’t PRACTICALLY make Nitrogen fertiliser without Fossil fuels.

Where did I put those Clover, Phacelia, Hungarian Grazing Rye and Winter Vetch seeds…

Tom Atkins
24 Jan 6:12am

@Gareth: fair point! But the Haber-Bosch process only uses 0.75% of total world energy supply. Some would argue that that’s a small percentage given the importance of the product produced (as opposed to, say, cheap air travel). Policy makers who deem it important to feed large populations are likely to allocate energy to making N fertilisers as they have such a large impact on yield. I think it’s likely that some sort of infrastructure for making N fertilisers will be developed (although probably not at today’s levels).

Personally, I’m with you though – I’m enjoying watching the Phacelia grow on our winter green-manured veg. garden and promote clover based swards as one of the best ways to build long term fertility here in Ireland :-)

Leanne Veitch
24 Jan 11:00am

The wisdom of the farmers in your audience heartens me, in their wish for a more local, organic farming culture and healthy food and soils.

Now if only we can get some of them to run for parliament the world over!

Jane Michell
24 Jan 11:34am

Dear Rob

This is a brilliant blog and many thanks for coming.

I just have one small correction to make.

This event was organised by the Organic Studies Centre, and the Rural Business School, at Duchy College as well as Transition Penwith and Organic South West from the Soil Associaltion. It was not organised by the NFU but we are very grateful to Antony Gibson for givng us his time to come and speak. His presence was invaluble and attracted many people from the agricultural community who might not otherwise have turned up and so not been able to hear your talk.

Many thanks.

With best wishes

Jane Michell
Organic Studies Centre and Transition Penwith Food and Farming coordinator.

24 Jan 1:23pm

I was very interested in this response. I have been ‘listening-in’ on farming fora in my neck of the woods (SW Australia). My perception is that (broadacre) farmers there are fully aware of the implications of climate change/peak oil, but all their farming experience/knowledge has been gained under the international marketing/govmt scientist umbrella, requiring massive infrastructure costs for fuel, fertiliser, seed,chemical risk, distribution chains. The farmers are not happy – they’re concerned for the quality of the land, the increasing challenges of climate change, the marketing/distribution networks and the pincer-grip that govt and multinationals hold them in. Many farmers are experimenting (for better or worse, and at their own substantial costs) with their own theories of water management, soil improvement, fertilising strategies – but all are looking for more comprehensive research, field trials, and reassurance. But most are still adhering strongly to BIG and MONOCULTURE. Those farmers who have moved out of wheat to local plants (i.e. Sandlewood,) still think in monoculture terms. They seem to be trying to think local and think global at the same time (responding to the global demand for their produce, and the fact that the local market is just too small). The responsibility to meet some of that global demand for food is deeply felt in this geoegraphical region where, so far, it has been very easy to respond to).
The small farms (dairy, vegetables, fruit) with smaller markets, seem to be able to adjust easier. Overall, the requirements of change (reducing food miles etc) just don’t fit the big farm/small local market picture, not do the economics .

BYW, re the discussion on fertiliser – what do people think of the seemingly magical properties of charcoal (google Terra Preta), apropos soil improvement AND carbon sequestration?

Claire Hewlett
24 Jan 8:07pm

I attended this talk, and as a newbee to this whole transition idea came away feeling very positive. I have two children, one of which is very concerned & depressed about the whole global warming/climate change issue (he’s only 10). The children in our local primary school are at present studying this topic but its all doom & gloom with just a bit about renewable energy. It is helpful to be able to offer a more positive response which puts individuals back in control. So thanks Rob and hopefully North Cornwall can get itself organised.

24 Jan 9:39pm

I was also disappointed with the NFU line, especially on biofuel, but in response to the comment earlier referring to small and beautiful farms in cornwall – we are justly proud of the traditional 100 acre farm but its no pushover and lots of folk here appreciate and continue to be amazed at the determination of the families who farm them. Having just spent 3 years delivering the nationally award winning Farm Environment Link Project (see dont forget that Cornwall also has some very big farming enterprises – vis milking 1000 cows 3 x a day, or swathes of the county under potato and veg crops for the national supermarkets. These farmers are making massive efforts in soil water and nutrient and waste management, generating energy on farm AND keeping our population fed. I love transition, (proof at Wadebridge so do many of our farmers!) but if millions ditched tesco this weekend in favour of the local farmshop, we’d have a bit of a logistical problem on our hands… farmers now have the opportunity to get together with the local community and start planning for their very own local community (owned?) green energy scheme – its a win win win for the farmer, the community and the environment. ps I dont work for FWAG anymore so don’t e mail me there!

Lucy Skywalker
26 Jan 11:21am

Thanks Dodo for mentioning the magical properties of charcoal in revitalizing soil. I was going to flag it up here otherwise. Now there are other magical things that could maybe help us cope far more effectively with growing enough for sustainability, planet-wise. Years ago an utterly amazing, precious book was published on “unusual” research worldwide, Secrets of the Soil. Do you know this book, Rob? It’s a classic, really important IMHO. And I’m sure there’s lots more. Like the old practice of growing Hay Rattle in unploughed meadows. My own pet wonder plant Aronia

Have Schumacher College taken on Transition enough to get key recommendations for such work publicised, and such work developed and researched further?