Wasting good food to produce bad energy
The Anaerobic Digestion (AD) industry is threatening our food, farming communities and soils. We need to stop recklessly squandering good food to generate environmentally inefficient energy.
What's the problem?
The idea of converting farm and food waste into energy through Anaerobic Digestion (breaking down organic matter to make biogas) has been widely hailed as a potential source of “green” energy. With the UK producing more than 7 million tonnes of food waste every year, AD has the potential to play an important role in the UK’s energy supply mix. However, this promise is being undermined by the use of AD as a disposal method for edible surplus food – a truly shocking squandering of the soil fertility and other resources that went into growing it.
What's the solution?
We urgently need to change the existing regulations and incentives to encourage the AD industry to use waste responsibly to produce energy, rather than drawing on energy crops such as maize or surplus edible food. Food production exists to feed people, not digesters.
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The AD industry as it currently operates is causing serious harm to food, farming communities and soils.
AD eats up good food that could be given to those in need
AD diverts food that is perfectly edible away from human consumption at a time when food bank usage is at an all-time high. Quite simply, for many food businesses, AD is a cheaper and easier option for surplus food disposal than redistribution to charities. We know this shocking waste is happening on a massive scale at supermarkets, in food manufacturers and in wholesalers. Tesco’s data alone shows that they send 20,000 tonnes of edible food to AD in 2016/17.
AD eats up good land and soils with direct threats to our food security
Instead of converting farm and food waste into energy, greater yields can be gained from feeding intensively grown crops, especially maize, directly into digestors. This is still currently subsidised with public money. Very quickly this has led to a situation where growing “energy crops” has started to threaten food production. In 2016, nearly 30% of all maize grown in England was grown for the production of biogas. The National Farmers Union’s target for AD would mean that by 2020, more than 1,200 square kilometres of prime arable land in the UK would be used just to grow crops for AD – a land mass that could be used to instead grow 5.5 million tonnes of potatoes.
Moreover, maize requires heavy pesticide and tractor use which leaves the soil much more vulnerable to compaction and erosion than other crops. This is highly worrying in a context where Environment Minister Michael Gove recently suggested some parts of the UK may only have ’30 to 40 harvests left’. Digestors are destroying soils and land abroad too; digestors are being ‘fed’ food waste that could have been fed to livestock. This forces farmers to import their feed from abroad rather than use locally produced feed. For example, in Scotland the AD industry’s widespread use of distillery grain waste (traditionally fed by local farmers to livestock) has raised prices to the point where many farmers now import protein feed from South America – with devastating consequences on one of the world’s most sensitive ecosystem, the Amazon.