Farmer Giles and the elephant grass

By Clive Alset, editor at large of Country Live (THE TIMES, 06/01/07):

Brian Aldridge in The Archers is apt to miss the Oxford farming conference, using it as a cover for dalliance with Siobhan. He would have done well to have attended on Thursday. Much of the day was devoted to an alarmingly matter-of-fact discussion about what the countryside of the future — the near future perhaps — will be like as farmers adapt to new conditions.

Last year was reportedly the hottest since records began. This year, with the El Niño effect, is set to be hotter still. Only nine years ago, at the Kyoto summit, the predictions about climate change seemed weird and remote. A few cold winters in the 1960s had caused some scientists to speculate about a coming Ice Age; perhaps science would be wrong again. It seems not.

What the 2,000 scientists who made up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted is happening just as they said it would — only quicker. Ice caps are melting; peculiarly named snails are creeping along the Scottish coast; birds are forgetting to migrate. The climate is changing so rapidly that we can watch the process unfold.

Short-term, the prospects for Britain seem reasonably benign. It will be wetter, but water will be precious for farmers globally: many areas that now grow grain will become desert. Let’s not be smug about it. Over time — centuries rather than generations — ocean currents could be disrupted by a combination of warming sea temperatures and melting ice, and that might be very unpleasant indeed. But until then our biggest problem could be the relative attractiveness of the climate, on which literally hungry glances will be cast by refugees from flooded coastal regions and the new deserts.

Water will still be a factor, though. Farmers will be expected to use their land to harvest rainfall, so that it doesn’t disappear straight into irrigation pipes and get shot out to sea. And droughts in other countries will affect world markets. A couple of years ago, the price of wheat spiked sharply because of the failure of the Australian harvest. Prices are strong now. A growing world population and booming economies in China and India can only increase demand just when supply is wobbling.

Meanwhile, as Europe endeavours to set an example to the developing world by adjusting to an economy not dependent on fossil fuels, land will be increasingly used to grow energy. Fields of waving, 8ft-high miscanthus plants (ie, elephant grass) and even taller willow coppice will fuel new biomass power stations. Two are already under construction, at Lockerbie and on the Tees. (Though unlike Swedish examples they will generate only electricity, not heat nearby towns.) Maize, grass silage and straw will be used to produce biogas. There are already 3,000 biogas plants in Germany. With incentives stacked in favour of inefficient wind farms, the UK has been slow to catch on to the farm-based alternatives. At present, bioethanol, made from sugar fermentation, meets 0.24 per cent of the UK’s fuel needs; in Brazil the figure is 70 per cent.

Now, this is where it gets difficult. Jolly good for Brazil, is one’s first response. But the market for bioethanol is causing speculators to cut down the rainforest to grow sugar cane. Britain will face its own choices about land use, as industries that have a claim on it multiply.

Oil is not just used to fuel cars, but to make plastics, fertilisers, cloth and pharmaceuticals. But we shall have to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, created by ancient sunlight, and devise sustainable alternatives, using the sunlight of today. That will not only mean biofuels but what Professor Dianna Bowles, a biologist at the University of York, calls a whole “bio economy”. If we can’t use fossilised reserves, plants and creatures are the only things left.

Now imagine. Farmland is being used to grow exotic grasses for biomass. Where does a farmer grow the maize to feed his cattle? Not on the fields where crops are being grown for their medicinal value. Nor those that have been earmarked for the production of plastics. That area there has been returned to marsh, as a soakaway. And don’t think of touching the hectares providing food for human consumption.

The farm animals will just have to go hungry. They produce too much methane anyway (although the conference was abuzz with stories of how this damaging greenhouse gas is captured by “a bag at both ends” in New Zealand).

Yet there is a glimmer of hope. Professor Bowles and her team are working on ways to extract more uses from plants. If a means can be found of more easily breaking down ligneous cellulose — which protects the shape of plant cells — different parts of the same plant may be used to supply food, animal feed, fuel and chemicals.

Meanwhile, according to the estate agents Strutt & Parker, half of the land sold across Britain is going to City buyers. It may be that they like the idea of being squires, or bringing up their children in the country. But they are not usually sentimental about money. Perhaps they have spotted something that, in an age of set-aside, the rest of us have missed. Farmland is going cheap. It will be much more expensive in the bio economy.