Most country dwellers will have noticed the almost exponential growth in the amount of oil seed rape that is being planted in recent years. Whether you like the bright yellow flowers or feel that they are too dominating, many people will have also noted that there is an increase in health complaints such as allergies, hayfever, eye irritation, asthmatic symptoms, etc. Officially, there is no adverse effect from oil seed rape, but there are many in the medical profession who are increasingly aware of a correlation between these symptoms and the amount of oil seed rape in the area.
One wonders why there is this sudden upsurge in planting oil seed rape in fields that have traditionally been used for grain and other food crops. The simple answer is European Union regulations that have been brought in to assuage the green movement. The UK signed up in 2009 to a binding EU agreement to have 10% of its transport fuels derived from renewable sources by 2020.
The EU directs that a proportion of all diesel fuel must be from renewable sources and rapeseed oil is the most common of these, being blended with conventional diesel at 2% to 20%. Oil seed rape is more productive than other oils such as soybeans and the financial return for the farmer is about three times that of wheat. Approximately 66% of rapeseed oil in Europe is used for biodiesel fuel with the balance going mainly for edible oils and lubricants.
So far, so good, but there are some downsides apart from health problems. For example, cultivation of rapeseed requires high levels of nitrogenous fertilizers and about 3% to 5% of the nitrogen in the fertiliser is converted to N2O, which is almost 300 times more powerful as a global warming agent than CO2. So, whilst we are all feeling good about using nice, green, renewables in our fuel, we should also be aware that we are helping to produce lots of N2O which may well outdo the savings in CO2. And that does not include the fuel use and CO2 generation caused by all the usual farming activities like ploughing, harvesting and transport and refining and blending into the finished bio diesel fuel.
Of course, all this can not be done at no cost and oilseed is more expensive than conventional diesel, which is why our diesel fuel now costs us more than petrol. Not that this worries the government because they make money from the taxes at a higher price.
Additionally, we find that large amounts of land are being taken out of food use to produce oilseed and this reduces the food available and therefore drives up food prices. Wheat in 2000 sold at around US$200 per bushel and rose gently to around US$ 400 per bushel by 2007. Since that time, wheat prices have shot up to around US$ 800 per bushel, with peaks up to US$1,200. A similar effect is seen in many other mass food crops, with the result that huge numbers of people go short of food; witness the food riots in Mozambique and elsewhere in 2010.
Oilseed is not useful for petrol so there are moves to replace it with bio ethanol, as is being done in Brazil with sugar cane. In UK there are plants operating or under construction to refine wheat and other crops into bio ethanol for petrol augmentation and it is expected that by 2014 the demand will be around 3 million tons, which is approximately 20% of the UK wheat production. One shudders to think what all this will mean for our food prices, both domestically and overseas, especially if there are bad harvests.
All this has been forced by the green movement but now, faced with uncomfortable facts rather than woolly thinking, even the greens are getting worried. Kenneth Richter, head of bio fuel at Friends of the Earth said in 2010 “In a time of rising food prices and global shortages, it is cynical to burn wheat in our cars”. Also in 2010, the Word Bank, OECD and the UK Gallagher Report all identified bio fuels as a significant factor in recent food price rises. There is increasing concern about where all the feedstocks are to come from for the production of bio fuels because the main effect will be to take land for production of food out of the equation; there will be less food to go around.
Going green is not all that it is cracked up to be and it is time to do some joined-up thinking
John Curtis (engineer)
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