The Political and Strategic Case for Transport
Fuels from British Agriculture
BIOFUELS AND THE FUTURE
1. Biodiesel and bioethanol have been independently
assessed technically by numerous different authorities and found
offer a range of environmental benefits,
being biodegradable, renewable, and producing less local air pollutants
than fossil fuels;
be usable blended or straight in
modern engines without modification (except that vehicles require
engine modification to run on high proportions of bioethanol as
do gas-powered vehicles);
generate substantially lower life
cycle emissions of greenhouse gases (especially CO2) than fossil
reduce tailpipe emissions of many
pollutants including particulates, SO and VOC;
have lower toxicity and higher flash
points than fossil fuels;
emit marginally more NO2 than ultra
low sulphur fossil fuel but that advanced injection timing can
cut this pollution.
2. Bioethanol is broadly similar but tailpipe
emissions are better, greenhouse gas emissions lower but energy
balances less good.
3. There are no technical barriers to growing
oilseed crops on (potentially) c.500,000ha in the UK. Nor are
there technical barriers to growing similar areas of wheat and
root crops for bioethanol.
4. But technical and (more so) economic
assessment rapidly become out-dated and may be totally irrelevant
in the (quite unpredictable) future.
5. The over-riding reasons for developing
biodiesel and bioethanol, once the technical possibilities are
established, have nothing to do with such assessments, which serve
mainly to define the conditions under which production could begin
6. The most compelling reason is that our
current dependence on fossil fuels is dangerous, not mainly because
supplies will eventually run out, but because they could be abruptly
economic action (price rises).
Oil exporters do not have to export to the UK;
in the long term demand is likely to expand in developing countries.
7. If standards of living in developing
countries do not rise, instability may itself threaten supplies.
8. There is also a major benefit from supporting
alternative uses of land. There can be no guarantee that a particular
size of food sector can be economically justified and there can
be no guarantee that it may not, at some time, have to be suddenly
and dramatically expanded.
9. Such an expansion would require that
UK land continue to be farmed (for non-food crops) in order to
preserve the necessary farming capacity, in the form of cultivated
land, a skilled labour force and the necessary up-to-date knowledge
(pests and diseases do not stand still).
10 There are thus two powerful reasons for
developing liquid biofuel production:
(a) insurance against catastrophic interruption
of imported or even home produced fossil derived oil supplies;
(b) the wisdom of developing a large-scale
farming land use to buffer changes in the economically justified
size of the food sector.
11. Finally, it has to be recognised that
further R&D will almost certainly change markedly all existing
significant technical parameters and thus the economic outlook.
The most important consideration in an assessment
of the potential for a technology is to relate it to the future
not the present and, even less, the past.
The fact that we cannot predict the future does
not mean that we cannot think about it. Indeed, we all recognise
in our daily lives that it is essential to plan for the future
even though we know we cannot predict it, even in relation to
We take out fire insurance, not in any expectation
that we will have a fire but because, however hard we try to avoid
it, there remains a serious possibility that one will occur.
For very serious situations, we do not have
to predict an event, only a real possibility of it happening.
Because we cannot predict the future, there is a danger that we
will use data that are available to make projections, which may
be defended as the best we can do, but that may be totally irrelevant
to future conditions. (As has been said, it is better to be roughly
right than precisely wrong.) This is especially so for long-term
This is well illustrated by economic assessment
of major developments made at their outset.
Some of the most important developments in technology
have been damned by premature economic assessment: many, like
the light bulb and electricity generally, were dismissed as of
no use at all. Others, like the railways, were developed only
because of the sheer energetic drive of the few, many of whom
went bankrupt in the process.
Such economic assessments depend upon costs
and prices, none of which are predictable for any appreciable
distance into the future.
But economics is not just about money, it is
about the sensible use of resources.
Fuel energy is one of the most vital resources
and likely to remain so in any future scenario we can visualise.
Only in a vastly depopulated world could it be otherwise.
The world is awash with energy (as it is with
water, which is also likely to be scarce in usable form), geothermal,
wind, wave, bound up in physical particles and solar radiation.
But fuel energy is available, on a large useable
scale, only from fossil sources, representing past solar radiation.
It is thus non-renewable. This does not mean that it should not
be used. The only legitimate objection to the use of non-renewable
resources (such as solar radiationthe sun is running down)
is if their use gives rise to unacceptable levels of pollution.
Preserving them for future generations, should they take the same
view, means that they will never be used and cannot really count
as resources at all.
So, at some point, the current supply of fossil
fuels will become unavailable, because they run out, become inaccessible
(eg politically), become too expensive or cause too much pollution
(note that one cannot predict exactly what components may be recognised
in the future as damaging).
As soon as demand rises or supply falls (for
whatever reasons), the price will rise, of course.
There are foreseeable possibilities that could
accelerate such shortages, both short and long-term.
Probably the most likely, but perhaps in the
long term, is increasing demand in the currently poor and populous
countries. It can be argued that world peace and stability will
ultimately depend upon a vast rise in the standard of living of
all these people.
Quite apart from judgements as to what is right
or just, turbulence of many kinds may be inevitable if such a
rise does not happen. An orderly approach to gradual improvement
would be the best way forward and, if it happens this way, the
demand for oil will increase even in the short term.
The lid cannot be kept on indefinitely by force.
in any case, the current economic and military strength of eg
the USA, depends upon oiland still relatively cheap oil
Against this, perhaps long-term background,
there are two other possibilities: terrorism (immediate) and global
warming (long term).
We should not have needed the recent demonstration
in the USA to foresee the consequences of terrorist attacks on
the Middle East oil wells. Probably no-one had contemplated a
hijacked aircraft aimed at an oil field but there are any number
of other ways of achieving the same end.
Setting fire or exploding the wells themselves
is only one point of attack: the refining capacity is another.
Rendering the area toxic or infectious could be achieved less
But it should not be necessary to spell out
the possibilities, much less to try and attach probabilities to
The fact is that such possibilities exist and
would be very hard to eliminate totally.
It is not the probability of it happening that
matters, it is the seriousness of the consequences if it did.
Ordinary people recognise this in their fear of BSE and their
enthusiasm for the lottery.
The same principles apply. We do not know what
the consequences of enhanced global warming will be: enhanced
is the critical wordwithout global warming, we are all
It is expected that the consequences will include
extreme weather conditions, floods, gale-force winds, drought
and rising sea-levels.
It is not known whether it could exacerbate
existing hazards, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
The latter, of course, could generate such clouds of ash and dust
as to cool the earth catastrophically. What has to be recognized
is our vulnerability to uncontrollable forces, and the need to
reduce our vulnerability, if possible.
The conclusion seems clear, we should seek to
reduce our vulnerability to a serious shortage of fossil-derived
fuels, both oil and gas. Production of biofuels would achieve
thissupplies coming from the earth's current energy account
rather than its capital account.
One way is to reduce the use of oil for non-vehicular
purposes, such as the use of wind, tides and solar radiation for
heating and cooling. Government policy currently recognises this.
However, there remains a demand for fuels for
road transport. Currently this is about 55 million tonnes of oil
equivalent (34 per cent of the total energy use in the UK and
83 per cent of oil use.) This is not an irreducible minimum, of
course, as more efficient transport systems are developed and,
possibly, an absolute reduction in the volume of transport is
All these options are worth pursuing, for a
variety of reasons, but the UK will still increasingly depend
upon imported fuels. Current policy of substituting gas for oilone
fossil fuel for anothermeets some but by no means all of
the criteria for a wise fuel policy. It should not need a "James
Bond" film to illustrate the potential for blowing up gas
Although UK oil production is not immune to
the threats already outlined, it is our dependence on imports
concentrated in limited locations that represents the greatest
weakness. The question is to what extent could home-produced fuel
crops reduce this dependence.
Two most promising candidates are biodiesel
and bioethanol and the current situation has been assessed in
detail by studies commissioned by the British Association for
Biofuels and Oils (BABFO).
Their conclusions are clear:
1. Both fuels can be produced in the UK
on a significant scale, primarily from oilseeds (OSR)/canola and
wheat. I note also that root crops such as fodder beet may well
be developed for bioethanol production.
2. Both have significant advantages over
fossil fuels, in terms of reducing atmospheric pollution.
3. Biodiesel can be used in place of fossil
diesel (straight or blended) without modification to modern diesel
engines. Bioethanol can be used in blends up to some 15 per cent
without engine modifications and can be used to produce ethyl
tertiary butyl ether as a petrol additive.
4. Efficiency of support energy use is also
far better than the crops they would displace on cultivated land,
especially if the straw is burned as a fuel and oilseed rapemeal
is used as a fertiliser. If grown on set-aside land, there is
the net gain to gross domestic product of the financial and physical
value of the crops.
5. Between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of
the UK area of crops and temporary grass could be available for
liquid fuel cropping.
However, it is noticeable that current reviews
point out that data used in earlier reviews have generally been
out-dated and this progression should be borne in mind in any
A qualitative analysis could be based on the
fact that the practical potential for liquid biofuels depends
upon the following considerations:
This depends on the relative priority given
to the relevant crop. Clearly most of the cultivable land could
The area needed for food and other crops cannot
be predicted with any accuracy: it could be that the likelihood
of being able to import food will be greater than that for oil.
The land released as a result of over-production (set-aside) and
the land released in the immediate aftermath of Foot and Mouth
disease would not have been predicted in the past (in the latter
case, even a year ago).
The only inevitable limitation on land area
would be the land unsuitable for growing the crop. The area required
for any given level of oil production also depends on the yield
Most crop yields vary very widely from farm
to farm, so if the best could be achieved more widely the average
would go up, without much other change of inputs.
But genetic improvement is also possible, including
the use of genetically modified crops or even entirely different
species. An expectation of increased yields would seem entirely
reasonable if agricultural science is put to work on the subject.
Technically, there are no problems. Economically,
Farms are businesses and products will be produced
only if (a) there is a demand for them (already considered) and
(b) if a profit can be made from growing them.
Currently (b) cannot be satisfied at current
rates of excise duty imposed on the product. In a market economy,
this is often the end of the argument but given the necessity
(argued earlier) for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels,
the case for the practical development of an alternative on a
significant scale appears overwhelming, unless the cost is judged
excessive. The question is therefore how much would this cost
The evidence is that the cost would be small
in relation to the benefit: furthermore, both costs and benefits
accrue to the same body ie the whole nation (this is not often
the case in new developments as demonstrated by public perceptions
of GMOs). This is the justification for duty relief, which already
happens in many other countries and is permitted under EU legislation.
If the financial reward for growing the crop
was adequate, it is likely that it would be grown, but the scale
on which this would happen can only be assessed by creating the
If the scale proved to be small, then the cost
would be negligible and no proper supply chain would develop.
The cost could only be significant if the venture
was highly successful. The argument for exploring this possibility
is therefore strong. But even if it was only taken up on a small
scale it would demonstrate whether the theoretical potential could
be realised (as it already has in several other European countries).
There is enormous value, in an uncertain future, for adding an
alternative fuel option in case of need.
This kind of insurance against future possibilities
also applies to food policy.
The idea that we could import all our food requirements
is extremely dangerous and, in my view, misguided (see Spedding,
But it is quite impossible to predict precisely
what our home-produced food needs will be. There may well be periods
when only a smaller UK food production sector can be economically
The danger is that no-one can tell when such
periods may come to an end and that, when it becomes vital to
expand our food sector again, we will not have the resources to
These resources are:
(a) suitable land in cultivation (and not
reverted to the natural scrub/forest climax vegetation characteristic
of most of our arable land);
(b) skilled labour (farmers and farm workers);
(c) the necessary up-to-date knowledge.
The first two can only be preserved by continuing
to farm the land not currently (at any one time) required for
food production. The third requires relevant Research and Development.
What kind of farming could be justified?
There are four foreseeable candidates.
1. Extensive systems, including organic
farming, which (by definition) require more land. Expansion will
be limited by demand which, at current prices, is also likely
to be limited.
If prices could be greatly reduced, demand would
probably increase markedly, but it is unlikely that prices will
ever come down to that of conventional farming or imported products.
2. Raw materials for industry
This category includes oilseed and carbohydrate
crops but also wood and other fibres (eg flax, hemp), industrial
chemicals, plastics, paints and inks, cosmetics, paper, starches,
dyes, detergents and even nylon. Many of these possibilities have
been around for some years but there has been little large-scale
3. Medicinal crops
Crops producing pharmaceuticals and vaccines.
These are all high value products and likely to be in high demand
but they are unlikely to be high in volume or to require substantial
areas of land.
4. Fuel crops, on the other hand, could
be grown on a very large scale. This also applies to biomass for
energy, whether directly burnt or digested to produce methane,
which could reduce the need for fossil fuels. Cash flow delays
and low overall energy outputs are likely to limit the attraction
of specific biomass crops.
But the urgent need is to develop the capacity
to produce, in the UK, a direct supply of transport fuel (electricity
is fairly well taken care of). Currently, biodiesel and bioethanol
are the front runners.
Oilseed rape has been the main crop examined
but there are other possibilities, including fodder beet and Jerusalem
artichoke. However, in the long term, quite new crops may be developed,
given the incentive of a major potential market, with higher yields
and requiring fewer inputs.
Such developments would render current calculations
obsolete. So premature technical assessment can be as misleading
as premature economic assessment.
What can be said of future technical developments,
however, is that they can only improve performance. The risks
that also need to be assessed are the possibilities of uncontrollable
pests or disease attacks resulting from large-scale production
or global warming.
On all the technical matters discussed, there
is a continuing need for Research and Development (R&D).
The most obvious R&D needs are in the following
1. PLANT BREEEDING
There are enormous possibilities for selecting
and breeding, including genetic modification, crops with higher
yields of suitable oil or alcohol potential. It is also possible
that such crops could have other properties, including valuable
components in the non-oil parts of the plant. This could greatly
affect the economics of production.
It is also possible to develop fuel crops that
can be grown on polluted land or that can absorb eg treated human
sewage sludge. Both of these features are unlikely to be acceptable
for food crops.
Machinery development will mostly be needed
for new crops. For example, crops that have oil-bearing roots
or tubers may pose special problems.
All these processes, and the machinery, need
to be energy efficient and to generate low emissions.
The same applies to engines.
The main point is not to try and identify specific
R&D needs, much less probable R&D potential achievements,
but to recognise that, once an industry is in place, R&D is
likely to change all the significant parameters. The results cannot
be predicted. Economic and technical assessments of the first
car and the first aeroplane illustrate the impossibility of foreseeing
the outcomes of R&D. The early stages of anything give few
clues to future potential. As a famous scientist once said, when
asked about the usefulness of his research, "What use is
ECOTEC Reports for British Association for Biofuels
and Oils (2001). BABFO submission for the Green Fuels ChallengeSubmission
for Biodiesel and Bioethanol (Budget, 2001).
Spedding, Colin (2001) Why the farming industry
is vital to us all. Country Illustrated, August 2001, pp 72-77.