22 October 2005

Keep the bio-fires burning this Hollow'een

By Marguerite Finn

All weekend the hand-carts have been trundling past the window. I'm not reporting the flight of a population from an invading army or natural disaster. My village's annual bonfire night approaches and everyone is using it to dispose of their green and other burnable rubbish. I like to see this annual procession of men, women and children dragging or carrying sundry bits of greenery towards an enormous mound in the middle of a field - like an altar to the Green Man of ancient times! Perhaps something of that pre-Christian era lingers on in our collective subconscious.

Last year there was a scare that the EU was about to ban such bonfires, but it turned out to apply only to certain types of agricultural burning, so this year the trundling continues and it looks as though the pile will be bigger than ever; it seems indeed to be the year of the Leylandii cull. Yet, if the EU is really worried about global warming, it should realise that the rush of CO2 released in one evening from the bonfires of countless villages, will add considerably to global harmful emissions.

Would it not be better if all that greenery which faithfully absorbed CO2 for so long, was encouraged to return it slowly over many years while adding useful organic matter to the soil, via shredders and compost heaps? Better still, if villages invested in shredders and sold the resulting compost and mulches so that people could protect their soils from extreme weather, giving the proceeds to local charities.

I can already hear the cries of "Spoil Sport!" Yet paradoxes and incongruities such as these abound in EU affairs, particularly where agriculture is concerned.

Norfolk farmers are unhappy at the reductions in sugar beet growing that are being enforced in the current reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy. The argument rages over whether this will hurt more third world countries than it helps. Yet CAP reform was not principally directed at helping poor countries. It was supposed to reduce the pressures for intensive industrial agricultural production which have been contributing to declining soil organic matter (soil carbon), pollution of surface water, ground and coastal waters and terrible destruction of wildlife over the last thirty years. Intensive beet growing is harmful in all those ways - a fact rarely acknowledged .

Going in the opposite direction, the EU has proposed optional biofuel targets, to which many European countries are responding by developing their biofuel agriculture. Norfolk is berating our own government because it won't create the favourable financial terms under which our own biofuel industry might take off. Again, no one mentions that it would take about a quarter of all UK arable land to meet those optional EU biofuel targets. It wouldn't simply be a matter of growing biofuels on what is presently set-aside. It would mean massive food imports to replace the food that is no longer grown here. Long distance transportation of food across the world is incompatible with the requirement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent by 2050. Statistically, a typical UK family of four emits per year 4 tonnes of CO2 from the house, 4 tonnes from the car but 8 tonnes from production, processing, packaging and distribution of the food they eat.

That 16 tonnes of CO2 per year is about six times our global ration - were everyone on the planet given an equal ration of the total CO2 emissions for a sustainable climate.

A recent European Conference on Climate Change and Biodiversity organised by English Nature, concluded that far more gains for the environment would be made by reducing the size of car engines than by producing fuel from crops. "You can either feed humans or cars but not both", it said.

But there is a type of biofuel that can be developed locally from organic wastes, used cooking oil and damaged crops, using simple equipment that can be erected on a farm or community basis. This would enable farms to generate their own heat and drive their own vehicles and machinery. Villages could build similar plant and profit from the sales while helping to reduce waste recycling and other substances harmful to the environment.

This cannot happen while governments impose swinging restrictions on the development of such systems. We need clear, positive leadership from government down to local council level. Sustainable food and transport systems should be at the heart of national and local policy. In East Anglia we have already started and a Zero-Waste Centre is planned for Lowestoft. Further information can be had on 01502 584061 or email anna@zwc.org.uk.

Thanks to Peter Lanyon and Maxine Narburgh (Chair - SIREN).