Wasting good food to produce bad energy
The Anaerobic Digestion (AD) industry – which produces “biogas” from organic wastes and crops – at best provides a sticking plaster to problems like food waste and the intensive livestock industry, and at worst it is actively expands polluting industries. We need to redirect the millions in public subsidies currently spent on AD to better causes like preventing food waste, planting trees, solar and wind energy and dietary shifts to plant-based diets.
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 presented as a silver bullet solution to everything from green gas supply to waste disposal. But through its immense appetite for growth fueled by vast public subsidies, the AD industry risks getting in the way of greener alternatives. Millions of tonnes of edible food are wasted in the UK every year – but if we simply send this to AD plants, we would miss out on the chance of preventing this food being wasted in the first place, which could free up huge areas of land to plant trees and grow enough food to feed millions of people. Huge volume of maize and grass are sent to AD plants every year, depleting soils and grown on land that could be used to grow food for people to eat. Huge volumes of manure are produced by the polluting intensive livestock industry every year – but AD plants can actually help the industrial livestock industry grow, propping up a polluting industry rather than helping a just green transition to more plant-based diets.
What's the solution?
We urgently need to step up support for greener alternatives to AD, by redirecting the millions in public subsidies demanded by the AD industry. Halving UK food waste, and planting trees on the millions of hectares of grassland spared by this, could save and offset more emissions than are caused by the entire UK domestic agriculture sector. It would also free up cropland to grow enough potatoes and peas to feed 28% of the UK population. Halving the UK’s consumption of beef, lamb and dairy, and planting trees on the grassland spared by this, would again save more emissions than the whole UK agriculture sector. And the land the AD industry wants to grow maize and grass for AD could instead be used to grow enough peas to feed 1 million people per year, or generate roughly 12-18 times more energy through solar energy. Electrification of everything from transport to heating needs to be fast-tracked as quickly as possible. AD will have some role to play in a sustainable future, but it must be kept within its “sustainable niche”.
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It is clear that only the highest ambition will save us from the climate crisis. To avoid climate disaster, we need to imagine the most ambitious path we can to a better future and throw everything we have at making this a reality, using the best available evidence as our guide. And we do not have the luxury of settling for second best – even when it would suit some investors’ profit margins. In many cases, Feedback’s research has found AD to be the second best option by a wide margin – and can even actively help polluting industries grow.
Feedback’s research found that preventing food waste results in direct emissions savings over 9 times higher than sending food waste to AD – and about 40 times higher when trees are planted on the spared grassland. And 3 times more emissions are saved by sending food waste to animal feed than to AD. Yet currently millions in public money is poured into subsidising AD plants, while addressing food waste are neglected and left to voluntary action by businesses. This risks perfectly edible food being diverted to AD from these better options.
Stunningly, we found that halving UK food waste through ambitious regulation, and planting trees on the 3 million hectares of grassland that would be spared by this, would save and offset the equivalent of 11% of the UK’s total emissions. That is more than the emissions of the UK’s entire domestic agriculture sector – a sector usually considered difficult to decarbonise.
In addition, halving UK food waste would save 800,000 hectares of cropland, enough to grow potatoes and peas to feed 28% of the UK population. At a time when UK food security will be tested by a pandemic and potential no deal Brexit, it is vital to cultivate local sustainable production
These are historic opportunities to reduce the UK’s emissions and ensure everyone in the UK has enough to eat. We must prioritize achieving this aim over AD.
Manure and slurries
The UK livestock sector currently pumps out vast quantities of manure and slurry, which are extremely environmentally damaging, causing large volumes of methane to belch into the atmosphere. Sending these manures to AD can help prevent some of those emissions into the air. However, Feedback have found significant evidence that AD plants can actively help the intensive livestock industry expand. In Northern Ireland, very high subsidies to AD were explicitly designed in order to help intensive livestock farms lower their waste disposal costs, gain planning permission and bypass environmental regulations. This resulted in an explosion in intensive livestock in Northern Ireland. Now the AD industry in the UK wants to set subsidies to AD at similar high levels to Northern Ireland, there is a considerable risk that AD could expand the very polluting industry it is supposed to be making more sustainable. The UK livestock industry have also used the AD industry as a sticking plaster solution to their emissions, as a means to argue against the need for dietary shifts to more plant-based diets. Yet halving UK beef, lamb and dairy consumption, and planting trees on the spared grassland, could reduce the UK’s domestic agricultural emissions by 156% – in comparison, if almost all of the UK’s manure was sent to AD, it would only mitigate UK agriculture emissions by a maximum of 27%. We cannot allow AD to divert us from the real opportunity – which is to stop the polluting livestock industry from producing manure and slurry in the first place.
As well as wastes, the AD industry uses purpose-grown crops like maize and grass to produce energy. The Soil Association estimate that 75% of late harvested maize sites showed high or severe levels of soil erosion, describing maize as having a “singularly harmful impact”. Whether you want to produce energy, reduce emissions or produce food, there are far better uses of land than growing bioenergy crops for AD. Feedback’s research found that solar PV generates 12–18 times more energy per hectare than maize or grass grown for AD. Alternatively, the land the AD industry wants to grow maize and grass for AD could instead be used to grow enough peas to feed 1 million people per year. And planting trees saves 2.6 times (maize) and 11.5 times (grass) more emissions per hectare than growing bioenergy crops for AD. In a future context where more of the UK’s energy is generated by renewables, crop-based AD feedstocks become almost completely ineffective in emissions mitigation.
The sustainable niche for AD
AD undoubtedly has a role to play in a sustainable future, but it needs to be kept in its sustainable niche. AD is better than landfill and incineration – so we need to increase taxes on these to ensure that where waste does arise it goes to AD as a last-resort option. But public funding should be focused on preventing waste happening in the first place – whether that be food waste or manure. We need to unlock the amazing potential of food waste reduction, dietary change, tree planting and renewable energy like wind and solar as a first priority – anything less will put us on a course for climate chaos.
Want to find out more about our vision for the future of AD? See our new report: Bad Energy.