Maize in the news again

I found this article on FG Insights – a farming website – called ‘Is it possible to crow maize responsibly?‘ You can read if here. It is a very fair summary of the issues involved – what was surprising to me was the implied acceptance that most maize wasn’t being grown responsibly.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 22.56.59
This was my response on Twitter to the article

Toby Willison Exec Dir Ops EAThis is a tweet from Toby Willison – he is the Environment Agency’s Executive Director of Operations – good to see the EA taking a stand but I would like to see them getting more proactively involved locally and publicly.

I also came across this piece on the BBC website about a farmer in Somerset “Powered by poo: Somerset farmer enjoys biogas boom” – see here. This is very encouraging – there is a huge growth currently of biogas or anaerobic digestion (AD) plants at the moment – the Government is actively and financially supporting this process under the banner of ‘Energy from Waste’. However most of the new AD plants in my part of the world rely on the contract growing of maize to fuel the plants as there doesn’t appear to be enough waste available. This Somerset farmer shows it can be done and he specifically states that he isn’t going to use maize in his plant as he has enough waste via his dairy herd. Good for him – solving the problem of the disposal of animal waste by producing green power.

The other AD plant I know that runs on waste only is the Langage plant near Plymouth. They recently submitted a planning application to expand the site so I emailed them asking if this meant there would be an expansion to maize growing in the area to supply the enlarged plant. They came back to me immediately and told me they didn’t use maize in their system and only used waste. Good for them too.

The Soil Association have also just published a new report entitled “Seven Ways to Save our Soils” which you can download here. This report isn’t just about maize, it is about soil management generally but is of course very relevant to maize cultivation. Here are the 7 ways:-

  1. Increase the amount of plant and animal matter going back onto fields
  2. Improve soil health monitoring across the UK
  3. Encourage soil organisms – both those that build up soil and those that release nutrients
  4. Cover up bare soil with continuous plant cover
  5. Bring more trees onto farmland
  6. Reduce soil compaction from machinery and livestock
  7. Design crop rotations to improve soil health

If you have published a report like this 40 years ago farmers would have looked at you as if you were mad – it was what they all did routinely – how times have changed.

Maize field mudFinally as a result of the winter storms and their impact on my village – Exton in East Devon I wrote to my local MP Hugo Swire about flooding and the issue of the increased cultivation of maize. My letter to him is below.

27th Jan 16

Dear Mr Swire MP,

I  live in the village of Exton which is in your constituency where I have been a resident for around 3 years. Over that period of time I have been alarmed at the flooding in the village from the Exton brook.
I write a blog and have written a number of pieces where I make the link between the flooding and the proliferation of maize growing in the catchment.
I have also been contacted by some local residents in the Village who have been flooded in Station Road and by a local District Council (Geoff Jung) who had seen my work and was trying to sort out problems for some of his electorate who had recently been flooded for the first time ever in Woodbury Salterton/Raleigh.
I also saw a piece about the flooding of the School in Tipton St John where you were asking for answers. 
I am convinced that the flooding that has taken place recently in East Devon has been in a large part caused by the increase in maize growing  which is tied in with the opening of the 2 Anaerobic Digester biofuel plants on the Sidmouth Road near to the Show Ground.
This is the link to the blog I wrote today regarding the growth of maize growing in Devon
along with a couple of other links to earlier posts.
I think  a consensus is forming now that to tackle flooding we need to work at a catchment level which must include carefully scrutinising land use and land management practices. Maize fields are heavily compacted and are harvested late in the year so they are left bare and vulnerable to runoff in periods of wet weather during the winter.
Maize cultivation in your Constituency is a part of the problem and needs to be carefully looked into to determine whether the location and scale of the activity are compatible with a flood-free existence for the people who live in the villages downstream.
Much of the research into the damaging effects of maize were conducted by the Environment Agency see here
I am wondering whether the Environment Agency discussed this with you when you met them regarding the flooding in Tipton St John  as the photograph I saw showed the bright brown flood water which is so characteristic of the problem?
I find it rather a sobering thought that the flooding problems experienced in East Devon occurred as a result of ‘Yellow Warnings of Rain’, let’s hope we don’t get Amber or Red Rain Warnings.
Yours sincerely,
 Adrian Colston
When he replies I will let you know what he says.
If you are worried about the possibility of flooding where you live as a result of maize you could write to your MP too.

UK maize stats and the implications

I have been taking a further look at the maize statistics published by DEFRA in December 2015 – see here for the full dataset.

Maize date UK 2010-13
In the three years up to 2013 the amount of maize grown in England increased by just over 36,000 ha – a 24% increase since 2010. This data only goes up to 2013 and it is anecdotally clear to me that since 2013  growth has continued. I would suspect that as of today around 200,000 hectares of land is being cultivated for maize in the UK.

Maize top 10 counties
Devon, Somerset and Dorset are the top three counties in England when it comes to maize cultivation

Maize - largest increase
Dorset, Shropshire and Somerset saw the biggest rises in maize cultivation between 2010 and 2013

Much of the maize grown in England is used as winter feed for cattle but I suspect (although the DEFRA data doesn’t specify) that the majority of the growth is being used to fuel anaerobic digester biogas plants.

That is a lot of land no longer growing food and a lot more land likely to produce rapid run-off during heavy rain.

The growth of maize cultivation seems to inextricably linked to the development and creation of new biogas plants. The industry is heavily subsidised via the tax payer from ‘Feed in Tariff’ (FIT) and ‘Rewewable Heat Incentive’ (RHI) payments which is why we are seeing so much growth in maize production. It would appear that the Government might be aware of this now and are proposing to undertake a review of the RHI scheme.

I’m not sure of the details or the economics of all of this but it would appear to have rattled the proponents of Combined Heat and Power plants as these written parliamentary questions from the Devon MP Neil Parish  (who also chair of the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee) perhaps shows.

Biofuels: Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme
To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, what support her Department plans to provide to ensure that proposed biomass combined heat and power schemes are not affected by changes to the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.
To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, what criteria her Department plans to use to determine which biomass combined heat and power schemes receive support under the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.
To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, when her Department plans to publish the terms of reference for its Renewable Heat Incentive consultation.
Here is the answer from Andrea Leadsom MP who is the Minister of State for Energy at the Department of Energy and Climate Change

To be eligible for Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) support, all biomass combined heat and power (CHP) must be certified by the Combined Heat and Power Quality Assurance (CHPQA) scheme, and must demonstrate that they have a valid CHPQA certificate. Any installation claiming the CHP Renewable Obligation Certificate uplift will not be eligible for receiving support under the RHI scheme.

We intend to reform the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) to improve value for money and reduce costs; improve cost control and budget management; and ensure the scheme focuses more on our long-term needs, while contributing to both our carbon and renewable energy targets. We plan to consult on the changes shortly. Therefore, I am unable to make specific commitments as to the future shape of the scheme at this point.

This exchange relates to CHP plants which burn wood and not AD plants using maize but nevertheless the RHI scheme is to be reviewed and this might make it less attractive to build new AD plants……