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We’re Wasting our Land and Energy… on Energy

14 November 2017

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Growing energy crops on poor or marginal land is acceptable as a practice, but using land fit for food production should not be sacrificed.  Ryan O'Loan discusses whether or not energy crops are doing more harm than good?

‘Energy crops’ could be doing more harm than good

As our awareness into the need for renewable energy increases, anaerobic digestion Studies have found that removal of residue from crops can have negative effects on the soil and the environment. These adverse effects include breakdown in soil structure, increased water erosion, and reduced nutrient cycling.  The Guardian published the downside of energy derived from plants.  In this article, the newspaper detailed the United Nations’ opinion that the “global rush to switch from oil to energy derived from plants will drive deforestation, push small farmers off the land and lead to serious food shortages and increased poverty unless carefully managed”.

A waste of our land

Although these crops can be effective sources of fuel, we cannot sacrifice our land for the sole purpose of generating this kind of energy.  Our priority should always be to avoid waste but if we become over reliant on energy crops, we may doing exactly what we set out to avoid- creating more waste.  Our land should primarily be used for food production and animal grazing- processes which result in surplus organic resources that can be used to create energy. 

Waste-biogas is at least ten times more effective than crop-biogas at reducing greenhouse gas emissions

In 2015, Bangor University, based in Wales along with Thünen Institute in Germany published findings in the Global Change Biology Bioenergy which indicated that crop-biogas and liquid biofuels are “at best inefficient options” for greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation. Waste-biogas is the alternative, which serves not only as an energy source but also as a waste management strategy for food waste. It is more effective in terms of gas yield and diverts food and other organics from landfill, therefore avoiding further release of methane and other greenhouse gases.

We have plenty of food waste, so let’s put it to good use

Three major WRAP studies published in 2013 and 2016 estimated that annual food waste in the UK accounted to 10 million tonnes, 60% of which could, and should have been avoided.  WRAP quantify this as a cost of £17 billion a year, and estimate that this large amount of food waste accounts for 20 million tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The best way to reduce these figures, is to waste less food.  Education and careful planning is key to do this- both at an individual level and a national level.  However, when food waste remains, we should be carrying out anaerobic digestion to create Energy from Waste.  This 10 million tonnes of food waste could be used to create renewable heat and renewable energy.  Companies such as Granville Ecopark in Northern Ireland are doing this effectively and efficiently. 

 Everything in moderation, except efficiency

We do more harm than good if the energy crops are grown in the wrong place, and in the wrong quantity.  When needed and handled in the correct manner, these crops can be excellent energy sources and should be utilised effectively however efficiency shouldn’t suffer.  Existing organic sources that are considered 'waste' products should be use primarily to make energy from waste processes as efficient, and environmentally friendly as possible. This is where our efforts should be placed in terms of bioenergy.  There is no room for moderation when it comes to creating efficiency.