Skip to content

Soil Association warns against use of maize for biofuel production

November 22, 2018

By Paul Homewood


h/t Philip Bratby


While we’re on the subject of biofuels, Philip found this report on the damage done to topsoil by growing maize in the UK.

This story was run in 2015:



The UK campaigning charity pushing for sustainable food production, The Soil Association, is warning against the use of maize for biofuel production on the basis of its tendency to erode valuable topsoil but the industry disagrees.

Soil Association warns against use of maize for biofuel production

Maize cultivation in the UK is becoming more widespread, and it’s damaging the soil according to The Soil Association in a new report. In 1973, just 8,000 hectares of maize was grown in England, but over the period 1990 to 2000 the total acreage trebled and has continued to increase ever since. In 2014, 183,000 hectares of maize was grown in the UK. The reason for the massive growth of maize cultivation is the introduction of more resilient varieties enabling the crop to be grown in northern England.

Maize is best suited to warmer environments, but more resilient varieties means that more farmers in the UK can now grow the crop. It can be used as a relatively low-cost, reliable source of silage for cattle and in fact the majority of maize grown in the UK is for that exact purpose. Increasingly, maize farming is targeting the anaerobic digestion (AD) sector and that in turn has increased the demand.

The Soil Association says that because maize is a tall crop that has to be widely spaced, it leaves large areas of soil exposed during the growing season. Maize is harvested late in the year when the soil is often wet and this is carried out using tractors with trailors that have to be frequently rotated. These vehicles compact the soil which in turn enables heavy rain to simply run off the surface of fields rather than soaking into them. This then contaminates water courses with pesticides and nutrients in addition to causing floods. The Soil Association cites in its argument, research published in 2014 which found that 75 percent of late-harvested maize fields showed high or severe levels of soil degradation. One of the co-authors of that report, Robert Palmer, estimated that during the storms and heavy rainfall of the winter of 2013-14, every 10-hectare block of damaged land under maize stubble produced the equivalent of 15 Olympic swimming pools (more than 375 million litres) of enhanced runoff.

“Maize crops damage soils and fresh water” said Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association. “Many farmers are being paid to cause significant harm to the vital resources we rely on for survival -this is a national scandal. The UK government must take action by ending subsidies for maize grown for energy and by introducing strict measures for management of maize crops. It is possible to grow maize to better practice standards that reduce the risks to soils and the environment -some farmers are following good practice, but not enough of them.”

However, the Soil Association’s argument has been criticised by the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Assocation (ADBA).

“As the Committee on Climate Change has recognised, we need bioenergy to meet our climate change targets as well as to keep the lights on, and biogas is one of the most efficient forms available” said ABDA’s Chief Executive, Charlotte Morton. “The AD industry has the potential to reduce climate change emissions, including from farming, by as much as 4 percent and generate around 30 percent of the UK’s domestic gas demand. Whilst the AD industry has a huge contribution to make, in the context of farming the 30,000 hectares of maize grown for AD accounts for just 0.6 per cent of England’s total arable land, and less than a fifth of the total maize crop, most of which is used for forage.”

Ms Morton added that the AD industry takes its responsibility to the local environment seriously. By recycling the nutrients and organic matter in the digestate biofertiliser back to the land, the AD industry is helping to restore the UK’s soils thereby reducing the need for carbon-intensive commercial fertilisers. AD crops can also form a crucial component of a sustainable agricultural rotation, making break and cover crops a viable option for reducing fertiliser and pesticide use, while maintaining and enhancing biodiversity. ADBA members operating 34 plants have already signed up to use the Association’s Best Practice guidelines for Crop Feedstocks in AD, which was compiled with the support of Defra to demonstrate how crop AD can generate vital renewable energy while supporting the environment.

These guidelines acknowledge the risk to soils from maize and the requirement for a greater amount of post-harvest soil management to reduce the incidence of soil erosion, run-off, drainflow and run-through to ground water. They also make  a number of recommendations to ensure these problems are minimised.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) wants to see an additional 125,000 hectares of maize grown in England by 2020 in order to grow crops for biofuel. The land used for this could instead be used to grow over 1 million tonnes of wheat or over 5.5 million tonnes of potatoes. Furthermore, a boom in maize production for anaerobic digestion could drive farmland rents up as is currently happening in Germany where rents have risen by 140 percent in just four years. This is now starting to happen in the UK.

However, The Soil Association is calling on the government to end the subsidies available to farmers growing maize for biofuel, replacing them with increased support for biogas produced from waste. The group is also calling for the removal of maize as a qualifying crop under the greening requirements for 30 percent of the new Common Agriculture Policy’s Basic Farm Payment and removal of the Basic Farm Payment for farmers growing maize for AD.

Charlotte Morton says this doesn’t make much sense since the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) doesn’t allow for differentiation on the basis of how a crop is used, and farmers may not have control over this anyway. Amending the scheme would therefore be costly and virtually impossible – and models for renewable incentives use a crop price which assumes the BPS is in place so there is no double-counting.


To be fair, it seems that most maize is used for cattle feed, and that the real problem stems from the availability of hardy varieties, which has allowed maize to be grown here.


What is notable though is the stock defence we often get from the renewable industry, regardless of the problems caused or costs involved – “Ah, but we are reducing CO2”.

According to the latest DEFRA numbers, maize cultivation has now increased to 224,000 hectares, from the figure of 183,000 quoted in the report.

  1. November 22, 2018 7:41 pm

    “However, the Soil Association’s argument has been criticised by the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Assocation (ADBA).”

    What a hoot, I love the smell of green-on-green contact in the morning, though it doesn’t yet smell of victory. Sustainability vs Carbon targets, which side should a woke green support, many sleepless nights for the poor lambs. No such problem for normal people, who probably should regard the use of food for energy production as scandalous.

  2. November 22, 2018 8:19 pm

    Until anaerobic digesters appeared in Devon about 3 years ago I never saw any maize grown around here (I know maize silage has been grown for animal feed for a long time, but not down here), it is traditionally all pasture for sheep and cows. The soil is mostly heavy, wet clay and maize harvesting occurs in October and November when the weather is usually wet and the ground is saturated. The damage that is done to the land is unbelievable and the lanes are not fit to drive on for weeks because of the mud (I’ve seen it up to 3 inches deep). The soil is then left bare until the following spring. But farmers can get more money growing maize for biofuel than they can get growing the only crop that is suitable, namely grass.

    However, the greens love anaerobic digesters because they are defines as renewable, even though it would be more energy efficient to burn the diesel in a generator than to use it in tractors to grow, harvest and transport the crops and digestate.

  3. Immune to propaganda permalink
    November 22, 2018 8:24 pm

    I was hopeful some anti climate change movement would arise and slay the bogus hoax and it’s disciples. Alas, as we saw with Climategate, you catch them cheating and you think they’d admit it and say sorry, but it’s like cutting the head off a Medusa , another one grows to take its place whilst the msm fail the people.

    • Saighdear permalink
      November 22, 2018 11:26 pm

      You’re so darn right ! What are we missing? – the elephant in the room seems to carry an echo-chamber with it.
      I work literally at ground level Post teaching, and in the current (Polit)-eco-(nomic?) climate, have little time nor inclination to write to useless Politicians and would-bes. Even the FNU Leader agrees with this tripe – last week about the Reduction in livestock etc. . Is he a properly educated Agriculturalist? Hull’s bells, WE were taught how to PRODUCE food for the world … now THEY are taught how to MILK the SYSTEM – Money farming ?
      Just too much of Blaming Climate change – not INCOMPETENCE. …. most of the time – ALL the time, even.

      • Gerry, England permalink
        November 23, 2018 1:37 pm

        NFU is generally known to stand for ‘No F*cking Use’.

      • Saighdear permalink
        November 23, 2018 3:49 pm

        Hi @Gerry!
        I KNOW that….. but since years, I’ve called them the FNU – don’t know if the ladies in the Office reception EVER listened to me when I greeted them like that – ( not in a nasty, but in a humorous way). I just go there for the cheaper Inshuranz ! YOu godda smile at them tho’ !

  4. john cooknell permalink
    November 22, 2018 9:16 pm

    The problem with running old stories, that are based on opposing opinions, is they lose their relevance. Peter Melchett has passed away.

    • Saighdear permalink
      November 22, 2018 11:27 pm

      Maybe, aye, But there’s always a new crop of igno runts who m a y be stirred into something by reading and researching as a result of these comments !

  5. RAH permalink
    November 23, 2018 8:05 am

    It’s just another mode of government control. Once the farmers are latched on to a government subsidized tit they will fight not to let go. Same thing with ethanol here in the states. We don’t need it but even Trump is not going to piss off the farmers in the corn belt to try and pry them away from that tit. It would be political suicide to do so.

    That said, on an individual basis corn stoves are pretty darn efficient and cost effective for those situated where the corn is grown. Prices are far less volatile than NG and oil and one

    • Saighdear permalink
      November 23, 2018 3:55 pm

      Oh ! you mean TEAT ? Aye man, and those grain stoves are a simpler way than pelletizing Wood or straw or whatever – seen the “KRONE Premos 5000” As much Diesel poured into making & Handling ( Total processing) the pellets as the Heat output of the raw material ….. where’s the Logic in that? I ‘ll tell you – in the Greenblob’s congregational echo chamber!
      Just such a pity that respectable manufacturers follow that train ….. but of course they are ALL at it .. from cars to tractors n trucks – seeing who’ll be the first to make the impossible NEARLY possible.

  6. Gerry, England permalink
    November 23, 2018 1:39 pm

    How sad that there is a Renewable Energy Magazine other than for ‘off the grid’ fans and that ADBA exists.

  7. Rudolph Hucker permalink
    November 23, 2018 5:01 pm

    Living in East Anglia where 1000s of acres of maize are grown I am sure this is a very expensive energy. The harvest involves the use of scores of tractors and trailers that do not pay road tax or fuel duty. Roads are damaged and muddy. If the politians and experts think this is saving the planet, and of course the crop enjoys a Goverment subsidy also.
    I think this is probably the most expensive way to produce energy ever devised,let’s get Fracking!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: