Grab biofuel chances, farmers are urged

Farmers are looking at huge opportunities arising from biofuels, a conference near York was told.

Richard Whitlock, a grain business consultant, said Yorkshire and Lincolnshire were at the heart of an "oval of opportunity" taking in plants making ethanol (petrol substitute) on Teesside, the Humber and the Wash, and others in the pipeline. They all wanted feed-grade wheat; and they could take it with minimum drying.

He added that a by-product of the refineries, a low-carb high-protein feed made from spent wheat, was "a fantastic opportunity if you are running cattle or pigs".

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The conference at Aldwark Manor, organised by the Home Grown Cereals Authority, was packed with 150 delegates, including a sprinkling of farmers and Ian Backhouse of Goole, chairman of the NFU's combinable crops board.

They heard about uncertainty and risk in the market, while it shakes down and new products find their ways around out-of-date import controls. In biodiesel, cheap raw materials like Argentinian soya oil, tallow (from animal fats) and used cooking oils, have substituted for a lot of the rapeseed oil UK farmers originally expected to sell to the processing plants – which again include some on Humber and Tees.

Bioethanol made from British wheat and sugarbeet also faces tough competition – from Brazilian sugarcane and American maize, for example. But the conference heard there were good reasons to bet on the British product, as governments move towards weighting taxes and subsidies in favour of environmentally friendly products. European growers can expect an advantage because they can produce more without destroying natural land and because the networks are in place to produce reliable certification for environmental costs.

One message was that growers had to plan for the low-carbon guarantees buyers would want. There are huge complications to overcome before the EU has an agreed way of measuring sustainability, but meanwhile buyers will be looking for suppliers who are likely to comply.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

However, Mr Backhouse said the NFU-supported Red Tractor scheme already offered a simple sustainability certificate and it would keep pace with political developments. The main thing farmers had to worry about was proving they were growing on land which was in agricultural use before 2008.

Another theme was the opportunity in by-products of the refineries. CO2 is one – used by British Sugar, in Norfolk, to assist tomato growing. But in this part of the world, the big one is used wheat. It is already in beef cattle feed and looks like being good for pigs too. A dairy farmer at the conference said producers could sell him some without even bothering to dry it. Its potential to replace imported soya is an important part of the energy equation which should give the wheat processors an edge in the battle for 10 per cent of the European petrol market – the minimum target for biofuels use by 2020.

Richard Safford, for the cereals authority, suggested ways farmers could reduce their carbon footprints as required – using nitrogen suppliers who were cutting theirs; optimising N use; using organic manures and digester by-product; precision cultivation; minimal tilling; and better yields from new seeds.

Conference compere John Reynolds said if farmers could find the right formula, alternative plastics could be a bigger opportunity than biofuels in the long run. Eventually, he said, all food and chemicals would be subject to the same kind of sustainability audits which were being put together for biofuels.

CW 20/11/10