Runaway maize: subsidised soil destruction

by UK Soil Association | 22 Jul 2015

The Soil Association released a new report:  "Runaway maize: subsidised soil destruction", exposing shocking evidence that this crop is threatening the future of farming and food security in the UK. Maize is responsible for environmental damage to soils and water, and a rapid change in land use away from food production across the UK – all of which is made possible through double subsidies paid for by the UK taxpayer. The report is part of the Soil Association’s national soils campaign.  

Maize is one of the most rapidly expanding crops in the UK – up from just 8,000 hectares in England in 1973 to 183,000 hectares in 2014. Most maize is used as silage for animal feed but increasingly maize is being grown as an energy crop for anaerobic digesters (AD) subsidised from public money to produce gas for fuel.

The National Farmers Union wants to see an additional 125,000 hectares of maize grown for AD in England by 2020, land which should be used for feeding people. This area of land could produce over 1 million tonnes of wheat, or over 5.5 million tonnes of potatoes, producing 2 billion loaves of wholemeal bread or 6 billion bags of chips.

While described as ‘renewable energy’, biogas produced from maize does not provide any net benefit to the environment and actually increases environmental degradation. Maize crops leave soil exposed during much of the growing season and is usually harvested late in the year when soils are wet. With heavy rain, water can run off the surface of compacted and damaged fields, polluting waterways with pesticides and nutrients, and causing floods. Researchers estimate that during the storms in the winter of 2013/14, every 10 hectare block of damaged land under maize stubble produced the equivalent of 15 Olympic swimming pools (375 million litres) of additional runoff. Recent research [2] also concluded that ‘using agricultural crops for biogas production is not environmentally sustainable and policy should not encourage this practice’.

And it is a scandal that UK taxpayers are actually paying twice for this as maize for AD receives a double subsidy from public money. Maize is subsidised, as other crops are, through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and then AD plants using maize also receive the Feed-in Tariff and the Renewable Heat Incentive subsidies. In 2015, the total amount that will be paid to farmers growing maize amounts to almost £33 million. In addition, ‘renewable’ energy subsidies for maize used in AD plants are costing British energy consumers up to £50 million per year. 

Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, said; “Maize crops damage soils and fresh water. 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.”

The rapid expansion of maize for AD is starting to hit many farmers hard too, threatening livelihoods and our ability to produce our own food in the UK. If this continues the UK could follow Germany, where a boom in AD has changed the economics of agriculture, with 800,000 hectares of land put aside for AD maize (more than four times the current area of maize in the UK). The resulting land grab for maize has driven farmland rents up by 140% in just four years. This is already happening in the UK too .Rising rents hit all farmers producing food, especially struggling dairy farmers needing to rent land to feed their cows.

The Soil Association is calling for:

  • the removal of all subsidies available for AD digesters fuelled in whole or partly by maize; 
  • the removal of maize as a qualifying crop under the greening requirements for 30% of the new Common    Agriculture Policy’s Basic Farm Payment; 
  • the EU to remove the Basic Farm Payment for fields growing maize for AD, and
  • the introduction of strict measures for management of maize crops under cross-compliance (requirements for farmers to be eligible for the Basic Farm Payment) – mandating compliance with officially recognised best practice. 

This would remove the double subsidy, reduce the pressure on farm rents and encourage farmers who grow maize for silage to minimise soil losses.

You can download the full report here

Author: UK Soil Association
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