In the tradition of our Church, Lent is a period for penitence, self-examination, self-denial, study, almsgiving and preparation for Easter. According to an analysis of Tweets on Twitter, the most popular thing to give up in Lent 2012, apart from Twitter itself, was chocolate. No real surprise there then! What the analysis did not reveal, though, was whether or not this act of self-denial was accompanied by some related act of benefit to others. Simply giving up chocolate is only of benefit to the penitent. Giving up chocolate and giving the money saved to charity, however, is of much greater value to society and therefore, I would suggest, more pleasing to God.
Giving up chocolate, or smoking or alcohol can certainly be a hard thing to do, but there is something else that most of us find more difficult still – giving up long-held, cherished ideas and opinions, particularly when they appear to be supported by popular public opinion.
I was faced with this problem when I first read the details of the ‘Enough Food for Everyone, If’ campaign launched this year by 100 organisations, including The Church of England and Christian Aid. The campaign focuses on the continuing problem of global hunger and asserts:
“The world produces enough food for everyone, but more than two million children die every year because they can’t get enough to eat. The food system is broken. In 2013, we need our leaders to do four important things to fix it. IF they take these steps, it will change the future for millions of children.”
Those four issues are:
Aid: Give aid to stop children dying from hunger. Help the poorest have enough food to live.
Land: Stop poor farmers being forced off their land. Grow crops to provide food, not fuel.
Tax: Stop companies dodging taxes in poor countries so millions can be freed from hunger.
Transparency: Governments and companies must be honest about their role in the food system.
Most of these statements are self-evident, but the one about growing crops instead of fuel caught my attention, not least because of my background in Agriculture and Biology.
Using renewable energy sources has always seemed sensible to me as, whether we accept that burning fossil fuels is creating global warming or not, we are going to run out of them in the not too distant future. Using wind and water power are not new ideas, of course, and neither is using land to grow biofuels. For millennia, human populations have coppiced trees for firewood and grown grass and made hay to feed horses or other beasts of burden to provide motive power on their land. Why then, has the ‘Enough Food for Everyone, If’ campaign chosen to target using land to provide food, not fuel? A little history may help to explain.
Examination of a typical medieval village and its surrounding area would show areas of land set aside for coppicing wood for fuel, but it would generally be land that was not really suitable for growing crops for food.
Perhaps it was too steep or too stony, or perhaps it was in a position where it could double up its use by providing shelter from the prevailing winds. Similarly, fields used to grow hay were often meadows prone to flooding which grass can withstand better than any other crop. The best land was always reserved for growing food.
At this scale, using some of the land available to grow crops for fuel was sustainable and did not have any impact upon the supply of food. Sadly that is not the case in our modern global economy. Let us look at some examples.
When I was a boy growing up in Nassington the arable farms in this area grew mostly wheat and barley with break-crops of potatoes, sugar beet and occasionally peas. All of these ended up either directly for human consumption or for feeding animals which were eaten a year or so down the line. Today it is very different with many farms growing only wheat and oil-seed rape, a fact of which we shall be reminded in a few months’ time when huge swathes of our countryside once again turn yellow as the rape comes into flower.
So what’s wrong with growing rape? Up to a point, nothing. It makes a very good break crop and rape-seed oil is one of the highest quality vegetable oils. It is low in saturated fat and can be used in mayonnaise, salads, margarine and a multitude of other prepared or processed foods.
The problem we now have in the EU is that we have long-since passed the point of providing 100% of our need for oil-seed rape for human and animal food and we are continuing to grow more and more to satisfy the demand for bio-diesel.
In 2010/11 an estimated 66% of rape-seed oil produced in the European Union was used for biodiesel production. Why is that a problem? It’s simple economics. When we use good agricultural land to grow crops for energy we grow less for food. If we grow less food, the cost of that food goes up right across the world and guess who suffers? Not the comfortably well off for whom food is a relatively small proportion of their expenditure, but the poor, especially in the third world. The ‘Enough for everyone, If’ campaign has calculated that the land used for growing biofuels in the UK alone would be enough to feed 10 million people.
So, whose problem is this? Is it just down to the farmers? Absolutely not: they have problems enough dealing with the vagaries of the weather. This is a problem that has to be tackled at a global level through the agricultural policies of individual countries and, in our case, through the European Union. If the law of the market place is to be distorted for the benefit of the poor, which it needs to be, then the cost of doing that must be borne by the whole population, not just the farmers.
Moving away from the specific example of oil-seed rape, targets to boost biofuel production are creating other problems for the poor. Multinational companies have seen the opportunity to make money by buying up land in the developing world for bio-fuel production. Once again, removing land currently used for food production and turning it over to the production of biofuel is pushing up the local price for food and forcing some of the world’s poorest people yet further into poverty. An area the size of London is being bought up in the developing world every six days, depriving poor farmers of land to grow food.
So what about the arguments in favour of growing biofuels? The principal proposition used to support the use of biofuel is based upon the need to reduce our carbon emissions to mitigate the problem of global warming. Until I started to look into this proposition last month I accepted it without question. However, to my surprise, I discovered that the arguments for and against the proposition are not as simple as they first appear. Researchers from the University of Leeds have recently compared the amount of carbon that is removed from the atmosphere by forests with the amount that is saved by using biofuel instead of diesel. They found that forests remove between two and nine times as much carbon over 30 years than is saved by using the same area of land to produce biofuels.
They concluded that, if the point of biofuels policies is to limit global warming, “policy makers may be better advised in the short term to focus on increasing the efficiency of fossil fuel use, to conserve existing forests and savannahs, and to restore natural forest and grassland habitats on cropland that is not needed for food.”
I don’t pretend to have all the answers to this complex question but I would like to suggest that we should all spend some of our devotional time during this period of Lent giving some serious thought to these and similar issues with an open mind that is willing to give up long-held or cherished opinions. We may decide at the end of the period that our original conclusions were correct, but we may find that we need to revise them for the sake of others. Should that be the case, I pray that God will give us the strength and humility to do so.