Have we reached ‘peak’ maize?

Long time readers of this blog will know that I have written a lot in the past about maize and its potential and real environmental impacts e.g. exaserbates flooding and soil erosion – see here for previous blogs.

The past few years have seen a dramatic increase in the area of countryside devoted to maize. In 1985, 25,000 hectares grew maize, today it is over 180,000 hectares. The majority of maize is grow as cattle fodder and as a result the south west of England has extensive areas devoted to it. Additionally around 10 years ago maize was also specifically grown so that it could used in anaerobic digestion (AD) plants to produce electricity. The growing of this maize is subsidised and it is therefore an attractive crop for farmers.

Between 2015 and 2016 the area of maize grown for AD plants increased by 55%. Last year the government reduced the subsidy for AD maize by 50%. Defra have just published their annual cropping figures.

2015 2016 2017 % change 2016-2017
All Maize 173 182 183 0.8
of which grain maize 8 8 8 2.2
of which fodder maize 132 122 118 -3.1
of which maize for anaerobic digestion 35 52 57 9.8

As can be seen the overall area of maize is the same in 2017 when compared to 2016. The area of maize grown for fodder has decreased by by 3.1% and the area of for AD has increased by 9.8%.

The reduction in maize for fodder is occurring as cattle are being returned to pastures to feed on grass and perhaps because there is a concern that cattle areas where there is a high incidence of maize cultivation have higher outbreaks of bovine TB than areas with little maize (see here).

Whilst the area of AD maize has increased the rate of increase has declined dramatically (9.8% cf 55%). I welcome this and I suspect that this is a direct result of the subsidy decrease.

Nevertheless there are still over 180k hectares of maize in England. It is a plant which is harvested late in the year (October) and requires a lot of heavy machinery to achieve this which compacts the soil. Due to the lateness of the season and the wet soil conditions maize fields are usually left bare for the winter. Bare and compacted soils can lead to high incidences of runoff during storms which can flood nearby villages and result in high levels of soil erosion.

This can be a common sight in Devon during the winter months

 

This was next to my garden in Exton when I lived there in January 2016 – muddy flood water from the maize fields upstream

Which led to flooding in the village

Attempts are being made by maize growers to grow varieties which can be cultivated earlier in the year so a cover crop can then be sown but maize grown in the wrong place e.g. on slopes next to watercourses (a common field arrangement in Devon!) is still a big problem.

The Defra figures may indicate that we have reached ‘peak’ maize thanks to more cattle eating grass and a cut in the subsidy regime. Let’s hope so.

Already looking forward to next years’ figures!

 

 

Maize RHI payments restricted to 50%

Last week I wrote a piece about the 55% growth in maize specifically grown for AD power plants (see here). In that blog I also wondered what had happened to the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) consultation on the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme which provides subsidy for those investing in this renewable technology. Last June I wrote about this very complex topic (see here).

As if by magic, the Government has now published its response (thanks to Dr. Chris Short at the Countryside and Community Research Institute at the University of Gloucester for bringing it to my attention). I warn you the report is a tricky read but you can download it here if you wish.

Maize

The document is all about funding for renewable energy plants but the earlier consultation had suggested that the subsidy paid on crops grown specifically for the power plants (they are meant to run 100% on waste products) would be cut either completely or by 50%. This had caught my attention as the main crop grown to fuel these plants is of course maize.

The Government’s response is as follows “The reforms will introduce changes in line with Option 2, which limit the RHI payments for biogas and biomethane not derived from wastes and residues to 50% of the total biogas yield…

The report and its recommendations are all about providing value for money for the tax payer whilst providing enough incentive for industry to provide renewable energy. It is not about the environmental impact of maize cultivation. In fact maize is only mentioned once in the document.

There has been report after report over the past 18 months or so on how damaging maize can be when grown in the wrong place and how this can lead to an increased flood risk.

This decision by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (they were formed after DECC was done away with in the summer) will have an impact on the area of maize grown in the England as the subsidy for its growing has halved. But they make no mention of this at all.

The Government could have made much of  this especially as Defra is currently launching Countryside Stewardship options to control flooding via natural flood management schemes.

It is a classic example of non-joined up thinking in Government but nevertheless the decision is welcomed. I will be interested to hear what others have to say on this and I will be interested to see the maize figures in 2 years time.

 

 

 

 

Maize grown for AD plants increase by 55% in a year

Figures just release by Defra (see here) show that the area of land in England used to grow maize for use in Anaerobic Digestion plants to produce electricity rose to 52,280 ha – a 55% increase on 2105.

29% of all maize grown in England now is for AD plants. This accounts for 1% of all arable land in England.

screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-13-22-41

As I, and many others, have repeatedly said maize can be implicated with increased flood risk (see here and  here for my collection of blogs on the topic).  Maize is harvested late in the year and the heavily compacted soils are left bare all winter. During periods of high rainfall these soils do not absorb the water to any great extent – instead the water rushes off the fields, particularly when they are on slopes and quickly overwhelms stream and river systems. When this happens extensive soil erosion can also occur.

screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-13-40-11
Here is an example of the phenomenon from Herefordshire  last month following Storm Angus as reported by the Environment Agency

Prior to its abolition earlier this summer, following Theresa May’s appointment as Prime Minister, the Department for Energy and Climate Change had issued a consultation paper which included two options to reduce the incentives for farmers to grow maize for AD – see here.

I haven’t heard the outcome of that consultation and I’m not sure which government Department is now responsible for it – Defra maybe? Does anyone else know?

The 55% increase in maize grown for AD announced today would not have been influenced by the DECC consultation as the seeds would have been already sown. It would however be helpful if an announcement is made soon as it would potentially influence sowing intentions next spring and I don’t think anyone (other than the maize farmers concerned) want to see a further increase in the area of maize grown in England with its attendant increased flood risk and heightened soil erosion potential.

 

No trains to and from Exeter for 48 hours

Storm Angus and yesterday’s ‘Amber’ rain have taken their toll, flooding is widespread and disruption is extensive.

sw-flooding
This graphic from the website FloodAlerts from yesterday afternoon sums up the problems in Devon and Somerset

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-07-54-24This is the gauging station data from the Exe in Exwick where I live – the first peak (20/11) shows the water levels caused by Storm Angus, the second peak (yesterday) is as a result of the ‘amber’ rain – note this is a new record high.

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-08-21-43As a result this has just been issued by the BBC – no trains in and out of Exeter for 48 hours – we’ve been here before ……. (see here)

We have undoubtedly had a lot of rain but many of us think the problems have been exacerbated by certain land management practices – I have written extensively about this in the past with particular reference to maize cultivation (see here for all my writing on that topic) and today my Twitter feed is full of other people saying pretty much the same thing.

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-08-39-55Here is a tweet from an Environment Agency Manager in Herefordshire – look familiar?

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-08-39-32And here is the Chief Executive of the West Country River’s Trust making the same point by commenting on flood management expert Phil Brewin’s tweet and photos from Somerset

Understanding management practices on land are essential in the fight against flooding and maize in inappropriate places really makes things worse. Many of us have also been arguing  for ‘natural flood management’ solutions such as those implemented at Holnicote (see here)

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-09-05-12Here is a tweet (yesterday evening at 5pm) from Nigel Hester of the National Trust who project managed the Holnicote Natural Flood Management Project

Ironically yesterday the Guardian published a piece which featured Holnicote and stated that the Government is not funding any Natural Flood Management Schemes at present – see here.

Lets hope some of these things change soon.

Another Parliamentary Report – Agroecology Group lay into maize

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology for Sustainable Food and Farming has published its conclusions on their Inquiry into soil health.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 09.14.59

These are direct quotes from their web page on their findings:

“The reports raise serious concerns about the state of UK soil, concluding with policy recommendations in the following key areas:

  • Climate change: soil can act as both a carbon sink and emitter, but government policy does not go far enough to preserve soil quality and current incremental plans to improve agricultural performance are far from sufficient. Soils must be incorporated into the Government’s climate change strategy.
  • Knowledge: it is not possible to study soil science below postgraduate level, often making soil the most neglected component of land use. Policymakers, farm businesses and advisers are less likely to consider soil as the cause or solution to a problem.
  • Testing and data collection: the national picture on soil health is deplorably lacking, and there are currently no assessment plans, despite the Government commitment to ensure that all soils are managed sustainably by 2030.
  • Farming methods: maize crops for energy use are often proving to be implicated in soil compaction and flooding. Policy must also encourage extensive farming over intensive farming, and business and political infrastructure surrounding our diverse farm sector must work harder to safeguard soil.”

 You can download the four Briefing Papers here. This report backs up and goes further than the Environmental Audit Commitee’s report on Flooding: co-operation across Government which I wrote about last week – see here. It also backs up the consultation document issued by the Department for Energy and Climate Change on the use of maize for anaerobic digestion – see here.

Exton maize2

The Soil and Farming Methods report contains the following:-

One concern expressed by both the Soil Association and Committee on Climate Change is the practice of growing crops for the production of energy (it must also be noted that the benefits of biomass as a carbon neutral energy source are disputed). The key concerns are not only that land used for energy biomass ought to be used for food production, but that the most common energy crop – maize – causes significant damage to soils when inappropriately managed. In the absence of any effective regulation on the growing of maize, and in light of the public subsidies available for renewable energy which incentivises its cultivation, significant concern has been expressed that this is a practice which urgently needs to be reviewed.

The basic concerns associated with maize cultivation – that the current regulatory and advisory model is inadequate to ensure proper soil management and protection – can be extended to many other aspects of farming and land management. Inappropriate irrigation, short rotations, disruption of the nitrogen cycle, poor planning, overuse of heavy machinery, selecting the wrong land for certain crops. All of these practices have been identified by witnesses as contributing to the problem of soil erosion and compaction, and to loss of organic matter.

The report also includes this Policy Recommendation.

  • Improve cross-compliance regulations so that the minimum requirements for Pillar 1 payments (single farm payment) include greater protections for soil.

These 4 briefing papers are important and are worth reading. It is however depressing to note that the Group considers that modern agriculture tends to undervalue soil health and management and knowledge about it is at an all time low.

The Soil and Farming Methods report I think is another nail in the maize – biofuel coffin but as I have said before maize grown for biofuels only accounts for 20% of the maize grown in the UK. The other 80% is grown for livestock feed. The recommendation above however if implemented would cover that as well.

All Party Parliamentary Groups meet together, relatively informally, to discuss a particular issue of concern. APPGs have no formal place in the legislature, but are an effective way of bringing together parliamentarians and interested parties.

Some progress on the maize front

Avid readers of my blog will know I have been campaigning about the detrimental impacts of maize cultivation in Devon, in particular its implication in local flooding – see here for blogs on that topic. Well, some progress appears to have been made. Last week the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published a consultation document entitled “Review of support for Anaerobic Digestion (AD) and micro-Combined Heat and Power under the Feed-in Tariffs scheme” – you can download it and read it here. Be warned – it is mighty hard work …. Much of the document relates to proposals to reduce the ‘Feed in tariff’ payments but part of it relates to maize.

Maize

The document states “It is also Government policy that the primary purpose of agricultural land should be for growing food. Data published at the end of 2015 suggests maize is increasingly being grown for AD installations.”. This conclusion mirrors exactly what I have been saying!

As a result the following two options have been put forward:-

  • Option 1 – Restrict FITs payments to electricity generated from biogas derived only from wastes and residues
    If implemented, only electricity generated from biogas derived from wastes and residues will be eligible for generation and export tariff payments.
  • Option 2 – Limit FITs payments in relation to electricity generated from biogas not derived from wastes and residues to 50% of the total biogas yield
    If implemented, electricity generated from biogas derived from wastes and residues will be eligible for generation and export tariff payments. Electricity generated from biogas derived from other feedstocks will be eligible for generation and export tariff payments but only up to a maximum proportion of 50% of the total biogas yield produced in that quarter.
    The maximum is set at 50% because crops such as maize tend to have a higher biogas yield compared to typical farm waste feedstocks such as manures, resulting in a relatively low ratio of crop to waste per tonne of feedstock.

Option 2 is currently the preferred option because it provides for payments for electricity generated from biogas with high carbon abatement costs, but offsets some of the risks associated with investments and feedstock support from only using waste and residues.

What this means is that DECC intend to cut the subsidy paid to maize farmers by probably 50% (i.e. option 2) in an attempt to discourage them from growing maize as a source of biogas in Anaerobic Digestion (AD) plants. The question is therefore, will a 50% cut be enough to change land use? Will this mean that the amount of maize grown in Devon will reduce and therefore will the amount of flooding experienced by local communities reduce?

This is undoubtedly progress and is to be welcomed.

Maize field mud

DECC must have been privy to the report of the Environmental Audit Committee on Soil Health which was published today because there is much mention in that report of this very topic. You can download that report from here. The problems caused by maize are mentioned on pages 26-28 and pages 34 and 37. The recommendation of the EAC is that subsidies should be removed from maize cultivation when it is grown for AD biogas production.

The EAC took evidence from a number of specialists in the field (who are quoted in the report) including the Soil Association, Rothamstead Research, the Committee on Climate Change and the National Trust, all spoke about the problems related to maize cultivation, soil health and flooding.

However this single recommendation relating to maize and AD plants will not be enough on its own to safeguard soils and reduce flooding risk. Maize cultivation has grown from 8000 hectares in the UK in 1973 to 183,000 hectares in 2014. In Devon maize cultivation has rocketed 89% between 2000 and 2013. The vast majority (80%+) of maize is grown as feed stock for cattle and not for AD plants. The DECC proposals will therefore only apply to 20% of the maize grown in the UK.

Rory Stewart, the DEFRA minister responsible for the other 80% of maize grown in the UK also gave evidence to the EAC Committee and said “maize planted incorrectly, harvested at the wrong time of year or in the wrong climatic conditions can contribute to soil erosion” and “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.

He then went on to say this “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 effect Rory Stewart said that controlling soil degradation and flooding as a result of maize cultivation needed action from DECC regarding subsidy levels. The problem is that 80% of the maize in the UK is regulated via his Department’s cross compliance rules which are clearly not working effectively.

To be generous to Rory Stewart one might say that Government works in a highly choreographed fashion. We are awaiting the publication of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee Report on the recent winter floods (where maize again was much discussed) along with the Government’s report on flooding and DEFRA’s 25 year Environment Plan – all expected this summer. Let’s hope that the impact of the ‘80%’ of maize is covered in those reports and changes are made as a result.

Exton maize

My friend and co-maize campaigner Miles King has also blogged on this topic today – see here. He also kindly alerted me to the DECC consultation which I otherwise would have missed.

A reply to my maize letter to Hugo Swire MP

Over the past six months I have written a lot about maize and it possible role in flooding incidents around Exton and Woodbury in East Devon – see here for all my recent blogs. In one of those blogs I said I written to my MP Hugo Swire to raise my concerns over the matter and I said I would report back when he replied. Not one reply but three including one from Li Truss, the Secretary of State for the Environment! Thank you Mr Swire. Here they are.

Swire 1-2

 

Swire 2Swire 3

Swire 4

There is clearly a great sense of concern within DEFRA and the Environment Agency concerning maize around pollution issues and localised flooding. Again it clearly shows that land use practices have a big effect on flooding in East Devon. This all must be costing the EA and DEFRA a fortune! I wonder how many farmers in the local area have had their Basic Farm Payments cut as a result of cross compliance breaches? I also wonder whether the ‘significant efforts’ put in by the EA will actually improve things. The problem is that on soils which are vulnerable to soil erosion the growing of maize is completely incompatible and no end of initiatives and effort will change that. DEFRA could make the EA’s life much more easy by providing much tougher / clearer guidelines about where maize should and should not be grown and then beefing up their cross compliance rules so that there was a real deterrent to farmers growing maize in inappropriate places.

Interesting the Commons Environmental Audit Committee are currently carrying out an inquiry into Soil Health and on Wednesday 9 March 2016 they took oral evidence from Lord Krebs, Chair of the Adaptation Sub-Committee, Committee on Climate Change, David Thompson, Senior Policy Analyst supporting the Adaptation Sub- Committee, Committee on Climate Change, Peter Melchett, Policy Director, Soil Association and  Professor David Powlson, Rothamsted Research. You can download a full transcript of that session here. Maize featured during that inquiry – see Q43, 44, 45, 55, 77, 78 and 87.

Surely something is going to change soon? Otherwise it is just all talk.