Maize is in the news again, especially Maize specifically grown to power Anaerobic Digesters to produce biogas.
In response to at least two years of calls for reform to the biogas subsidy regime, last week the Government finally launched a consultation on reducing or removing the subsidy paid to grow Maize for biogas production.
Through the consultation, the Government recognises, for the first time (I believe) that biogas from Maize has a higher carbon footprint than other sources, though it is typically underplayed:
AD installations that use crops tend instead to be at the more expensive end of the carbon cost effectiveness range.
DECC is proposing that the subsidy paid to biogas producers that use maize is either halved or stopped altogether. But their proposal is that this change will only apply to new plants, not existing ones.
The consultation also fails to mention the enormous environmental cost of growing Maize.
Phil Brewin, Somerset Levels hydrologist, posted this photo on twitter earlier this week, showing the ditches running through Currymoor SSSI running red with sediment. This is due to the ground being prepared to grow Maize – and Maize is being grown on the peaty soils of the Levels as well as the surrounding hills. The Carbon Footprint of Maize grown on peat soils would probably break the Carbon Footprint meter.
Soil erosion, causing downstream flooding is a critical issue. As is the loss of soil for growing food, storing carbon and generally supporting life on the planet. Today, the Environmental Audit Committee published its report into soil health .
I’m delighted that they covered the biogas Maize issue. Here are some excerpts:
Subsidies for maize for anaerobic digestion
1. In addition to concerns about the effectiveness of CAP subsidy monitoring, we have also heard evidence that some public subsidies encourage practices which damage soil health. Chief among these is the growth of maize for anaerobic digestion. The Soil Association said that maize is “probably the most rapidly expending crop in the UK”, with an increase in area from 8,000 hectares in 1973 to 186,000 at present. Between 2008 and 2014 the area increased by 20%.137 Around 20% of maize is used as an energy crop for anaerobic digestors (AD) that are used to produce energy. Maize can be grown to meet ‘greening’ requirements, and is subsidised under the Common Agricultural Policy.138 It then receives a second subsidy through renewable energy initiatives. The Soil Association estimates that AD plants receive £50m in subsidies each year.139
2. Maize production can increase soil erosion. David Powlson (Rothamsted Research) told us:
Any time that you have soil that is bare with nothing growing on it between crops, or big spaces between the plants, like in the situation of maize, all of those factors are likely to increase the likelihood of erosion, particularly under climate change where it is expected that there are likely to be rather more extreme events, such as rainfall.
David Thompson (Committee on Climate Change) noted that not all of the growth in maize production is accounted for by AD. He also offered further evidence of the effects of maize:
There was a study in the south-west of England that showed that in three-quarters of fields under maize, the soil was so damaged that the rain is unable to penetrate, so the water just runs straight off into rivers, into water courses.141
1. CLA told us that while “maize production can lead to soil and nutrient losses at harvest and during winter,” there are strategies for mitigating this:
Using early maturing varieties, sowing as early as possible, and planting under plastic can reduce the risk of harvesting in poor conditions later in the year.
Certain management practices can also significantly reduce water, nutrient and sediment runoff during winter. Chisel ploughing, under-sowing and cover-cropping can reduce runoff compared with leaving maize stubble untouched.142
1. The National Trust suggested that we need to move to a “situation where crops that present a high risk of damage to soils are not grown in places where soils are vulnerable (e.g. maize should only be grown in low risk locations)”.143
2. The Soil Association described maize for AD as a threat to food production, saying that the area of farmland projected for new maize crops for AD in the UK “would be sufficient to produce 2 billion loaves of wholemeal bread.”144 Peter Melchett (Soil Association) told the Committee that while AD production makes sense if (for example) slurry is used, it does not make sense to subsidise maize for this purpose:
[T]he subsidies that are given to AD production, do not, up until now, distinguish between the source of the fuel that is put into the AD unit. An AD unit taking slurry from cattle or pig waste or chicken waste and turning it into gas and a fertiliser is a sensible use of the technology. Growing hundreds of acres of maize or sugar beet with huge inputs of fertiliser and pesticides, which is then subsidised from the public purse to the farmer putting it into an AD unit, which is subsidised from the public purse to the AD operator, makes no sense.”
1. Rory Stewart, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Defra, accepted that “maize planted incorrectly, harvested at the wrong time of year or in the wrong climatic conditions can contribute to soil erosion.” He also emphasised that some consequences of poor land management related to maize can trigger breaches of cross compliance:
“If your maize processes are contributing to soil erosion, that is in breach of your cross-compliance regulations and the RPA can then fine you for doing that.”
However he claimed that the subsidy policy was outside his responsibility:
“That is really an issue for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. It is predominantly about energy policy, renewable energy policy and the different types of renewable energy policy, but we certainly within the Department are looking closely from our point of view at the costs and benefits of that kind of activity.”
In relation to this apparent clash of policy priorities between Government departments, we heard evidence that the Welsh devolved administration is making efforts to ‘join-up’ soils policy between Government departments. As part of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, soil quality is included as a key indicator alongside healthy life expectancy, water quality and air quality.
Prof Dave Chadwick explained the benefits of this:
“[T]here is more integration of the mainstream of soil within the different departments, so you are not just thinking of soil as just one thing in isolation. It is the realisation that soil is pivotal in the delivery of multiple ecosystem services. [ … ] That multipurpose approach obviously gives good cost benefit, cost effectiveness. It brings the different departments together and—really importantly—it allows you to start to see where any win/wins might be or where any undesirable consequences might be.”
Maize production can damage soil health when managed incorrectly, and incentives for anaerobic digestion should be structured to reflect this. The double subsidy for maize produced for anaerobic digestion is counterproductive and has contributed to the increase in land used for maize production (my emphasis). This subsidy regime represents a clear case in which better joined-up thinking across Government is required in order to ensure that soils are managed sustainably. The Government’s ambition to manage all soils sustainably by 2030 cannot be met if Defra does not achieve buy-in from other departments to achieve the ambition.
Renewable energy subsidies for anaerobic digestion should be restructured to avoid harmful unintended consequences. Revisions should either exclude maize from the subsidy altogether or impose strict conditions on subsidised maize production
to avoid practices in high-risk locations which lead to soil damage. The broader cross-compliance regime has not proved sufficient to prevent such damage. Defra and DECC should work together to evaluate the impact of energy policy on soil health across the board. The upcoming 25-year environment plan should include specific plans for inter-departmental working and structures of accountability with the goal that soil protection is not simply the responsibility of Defra, but rather is a factor against which any policy can be measured.
1. The cross-compliance rules which regulate agricultural soil health must be revised with greater scope, force and ambition. Currently the rules do not cover some important aspects of soil health, are accompanied by a minimal inspection regime, and focus only on preventing further damage to soil rather than restoring and improving soil health. The double subsidy for maize for anaerobic digestion is counterproductive to managing soil sustainably and should be withdrawn (my emphasis)
(thanks to Dave Dunlop at Lancashire Wildlife Trust for pointing me to these particular paragraphs).
This is absolutely right – Cross Compliance rules governing what sort of activities farm subsidies are paid to support, are widely flouted, and rarely enforced.
Meanwhile, Maize for biogas continues to spread across the countryside.
This year, Maize growers around the Poundbury Biogas plant have already been busy.
The fashion is now to grow it under plastic.
This is a view of the South Dorset Ridgeway, a nationally important landscape (in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) so important that it is currently receiving support through HLF’s Landscape Partnership Scheme. In the distance is Hardy Monument, sitting on the South Dorset Ridgeway. This maize field is sited on the top of the next ridge north, on the chalk. It can be seen from miles around. Nearby Maiden Castle also now sits within a lansdscape partly clothed in plastic.
If this is something you are concerned about, please write in and respond to the Government’s consultation on changing the subsidy regime for AD plants.
Anaerobic Digestion to produce biogas from food waste, manures and especially from road verge cuttings, is a good idea. Taking land out of food production to grow maize to feed AD plants is crazy. Please help stop this madness.